On the right track

The bronze medal-winning Indian team at a felicitation function.-PTI

For a success-starved nation, the bronze medal from the under-21 junior women’s World Cup in Monchengladbach, Germany, was as good as the top honour. By Y. B. Sarangi.

The bronze medal had the glitter of pure gold. For a success-starved nation, the third place in the under-21 junior women’s World Cup (Monchengladbach, Germany, July 27 — August 4, 2013) was as good as the top honour.

The gulf between the eventual champion Holland and India was too big to bridge, but a third-place finish at least motivated the hockey fraternity of the country to visualise a rosy future. In women’s hockey, the closest India had come to a medal, at the highest level, was two fourth-place finishes — at the 1974 World Cup and the 1980 Olympics.

Interestingly, those were the inaugural years for women’s hockey in the two events. The Indian women had won the gold at the 1982 Asian Games in Delhi.

After that, women’s hockey lost direction, barring a brief spell of revival, when India bagged a gold medal in the 2002 Commonwealth Games, that led to the epoch-making movie, Chak De! India. The women’s team ended up second in the following edition.

Rani Rampal (centre), who scored twice in the shootout, celebrates with her team-mate after India wins the bronze medal.-PTI

But a change of guard at the helm of coaching due to a scandal, and retirement of many experienced players pushed women’s hockey into oblivion. The sense of disappointment prevailed well after the appointment of Australian Neil Hawgood as the chief coach almost a year ago.

The team, consisting of a lot of young players, who played for senior as well as junior teams, trudged along with a series of forgettable shows, before being aided by another Aussie, scientific advisor Matthew Tredrea, from April last.

That was a sort of turning point. The players were introduced to the modern and scientific way of training, where rest and recovery were as important as honing one’s skills. The result finally arrived at the under-21 World Cup in Monchengladbach.

“In the last two-and-a-half weeks (before the event), we focused on active recovery and tried to gain full energy. In order to play faster, the fitness needed to be a lot better,” said Tredrea.

Captain, Sushila Chanu, and Vandana Katariya, who emerged as the top Indian scorer with five goals, vouched for the benefits of scientific training. “I felt very light and relaxed and it helped me in my movement on the pitch,” said Vandana.

“We had more energy to run faster,” added Sushila.

In fact, the build-up had been planned to perfection. And everything fell into place. The team left for Europe 10 days in advance and played three matches (against Netherlands and Belgium) on faster pitches, to get acclimatised to local conditions.

“After training under hot and humid conditions in Patiala, we had suspected that the difference in temperature would be worse. But the heat-wave in Germany, at 31-degree centigrade, really helped us,” noted Tredrea.

Goalkeeper Bigan Soy was accorded a traditional welcome on arrival in Ranchi.-PTI

Chief coach Hawgood was delighted that the team got better and better through the event. “We have been trying to be consistent over the past 12 months. That was the biggest challenge. In the end, we were consistent in all the six games.”

Apart from the 6-1 loss to Australia in the opener, the team played really well. Be it the crucial 2-0 win over New Zealand, or the 10-1 mauling of Russia, or the well-orchestrated 4-2 victory over Spain in the quarter-finals, or the nail-biting triumph over England in the bronze medal match.

“In every team meeting we told the girls, ‘Pressure changes people, don’t let this change you’,” said Hawgood. “We now have the ability to change structures midway through the game. We played a totally different structure against the Netherlands in the semi-final and managed to create chances. After the match (which Netherlands won 3-0), the Dutch High Performance Manager came to us and said it was one of the best structures he had seen India play in years,” said the Aussie.

Player of the tournament, Rani Rampal, who scored twice in the penalty shootout against England, talked about the importance of exposure with the senior side. “It made us more confident. We were mentally tough.”

The bronze medal-winning Indian team at a felicitation function.-

But the star of the third-place thriller was the Jharkhand girl, Bigan Soy, who was never fielded throughout the tournament and had been preserved for the shootouts. “I believed in my abilities. I never had any fear,” said the goalkeeper, while admitting that her last save, which earned India the coveted medal, was the most challenging one.

“She was the best for the job,” asserted Hawgood, about his decision to hold back Soy for the crunch moment, which proved to be a masterstroke. However, the coach did not forget to look at the bigger picture — the onerous task of grooming these young women to compete against the best sides at the senior level. “The biggest lesson from this is that we have to be patient. We are far away from the level of the big teams.”

India’s next important assignment is the Asia Cup (the winner of which will qualify for next year’s World Cup) in September. Can the team carry on the good work to achieve another memorable feat? It will be worth following the story.