The real journey begins now
The romance of Indian hockey continues. At the packed Kalinga Stadium in Bhubaneswar on Saturday, it was a Chak De moment as the men’s and women’s teams booked their tickets for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
For the die-hard Indian hockey fans at home and abroad, the last few days have been one of suspense and tension. Agreed, on paper, and as per the FIH (international hockey federation) rankings, both the Indian teams were supposed to coast through.
But then, playing at home is always a nervous proposition in front of raucous fans as the pressure of expectation rises. Watching lithe Rani Rampal slam the decisive winner against the United States of America for an aggregate win of 6-5 in the two matches was exciting on Saturday.
Indian skipper Rani turns 25 in December and already looks like a veteran having played over 150 internationals in her seemingly long career. Hailing from Shahbad, the cherubic lass has taken on the mantle of being a leader in every sense.
Her confidence level is sky high these days, though the way the Americans went on the rampage in their second match was scary. It was sheer pace and breathtaking runs down the middle as the Americans slammed three goals to make it look tough for Rani’s side.
Call it confidence, call it the fighting spirit or call it resilience, the way the Indian girls hit back with vengeance in the latter part of the match was captivating. Yes, the Americans flummoxed the Indian defence at start and goalkeeper Savita Punia looked distraught.
Perhaps, this is where, in between the breaks in each quarter, the role of coach Sjoerd Marijne would have come into play. The Dutchman has been with the girls long enough to communicate well. And for all those who were made to believe Marijne is not fluent in English, he certainly has been able to tell the girls what he expects from them and what they need to do.
To be sure, there is a big difference between this Indian women’s team led by Rani and the ones before. Physically, they are strong, sturdy and also have pace. Above all, it is the faith in their own abilities which marked them out as deserving winners in the high stakes two games played back to back in Bhubaneswar.
No essay on Indian hockey is complete without a mention of how coaches change, Hockey India gets riled and ridiculed and then players still continue to slog it out. This women’s team was given to Harendra Singh in between before Marijne rightly took charge again. The Dutchman needs to be complimented for making them real fighters.
From here till Tokyo, the journey can be planned well. The qualification worry is over and after a mandatory break, the girls team can plan ahead for the future.
As regards the men’s team, Manpreet Singh showed he is the leader on the field and coach Graham Reid knows what best he is doing. The wait for the men’s team to qualify has indeed been agonising.
Ideally, the team should have won gold at the Asian Games last year in Jakarta and qualified. That did not happen, after which the team bombed at the World Cup last December in Bhubaneswar.
Coach Harendra was rightly sacked and despite tons of criticism, Hockey India gambled and again went in for a foreign coach. Frankly speaking, Reid has not spent too many months with the boys but going by his coaching style what he has instilled in the team is fighting spirit. Reid has stayed away from the media glare and unlike his predecessor not indulged in rhetoric.
The Russians looked fast in patches in both the games and even languid. Yet, there is nothing called fear factor for the men’s team as well. They were in great form on Saturday, playing with freedom and creativity. This was definitely in sharp contrast to what the team dished out last year in Jakarta and the World Cup in Bhubaneswar.
Whatever be the merits and demerits of having a foreign coach, what it does is to ensure the team is disciplined and no player gets into that mode where he is trying to show off his own skills.
For those who run Indian hockey and those who support Indian hockey, it’s great news that both the teams have qualified. Hockey has an emotional connect with the fans and one can only hope the teams go about their preparations with zero stress from here onwards.
At a time when most athletes benefit from having mind trainers and sports psychologists, it would not be a bad idea to ensure the men’s and women’s teams have someone to help them out. At the highest level in world sport and preparing for the Olympics, every input should be factored.
For its part, the Indian government has been spending lavishly on coaches, training, camps, diet, supplements and exposure tours. They will continue to back both the hockey teams. It’s now time for the players to double efforts on the field as competition in 2020 Tokyo will be very fierce.