Indian Women's Hockey Team Stand Victorious in Defeat
The Indian women's hockey team may return home without a medal, but they come back as champions.
The Indian women’s hockey team will not bring any medal home. But they are not returning empty handed. They may have lost a few matches. But they have won millions of hearts in villages, towns, and cities across India.
After a colossal Olympics campaign saw them break fresh ground and scale a new peak, the women should return home to a rousing reception, normally reserved for champions. The team ought to be celebrated for producing one of the finest Olympic efforts in the annals of Indian sport, particularly by women.
The Indian women shot more than just a bird with an emphatic performance in the Olympics. On the one hand, they send aspirations soaring to the sky for many young boys and girls from similarly humble beginnings in a bustling middle-income country, on the other, they shatter a carefully held mirror that seeks to cage women, rooted in deep prejudice and patriarchy. After all, our national captain’s family, no less, was reminded during her formative years that, “she will run around the field wearing a short skirt and bring a bad name to the family".
Rani Rampal is still running in a skirt, leading an Indian team, that brings us nothing but raw pride. She is the leader of a formidable unit of hockey players that produce a fearless, committed brand of hockey that threatens to usurp the sport’s entrenched world order in the near future.
The performance of this team in Tokyo could finally open the floodgates for a golden era in women’s hockey. It is almost bizarre that in a country that excelled at hockey in the post independent era, medals and glory belonged only to the men. Strange as it may seem, Indian women have appeared at the Olympics only three times – Moscow 1980 (4th), Rio 2016 (12th) and fourth in Tokyo 2020.
Japan is called the Land of Rising Sun. After many false dawns in Indian women’s hockey Rani Rampal and her motley crew may have finally unlocked the key to consistent success. The sun could indeed be rising on women’s hockey in India.
“The team is mentally stronger. They play with a lot of confidence,” Sumrai Tete, the 2002 Commonwealth Games Gold medallist and a former captain of the national hockey team, told The Quint. She believes that women’s hockey may have finally turned a big corner as the transformation that began around six or seven years ago continues to take shape.
“I have seen how our team is playing a new style of hockey that is in tune with the modern trends of the sport,” added Tete. “Unlike our traditional style based on crafty stick work and individual brilliance, the present generation play together with speed, power and intensity. Foreign coaches have also focused on the skills needed to change flanks to penetrate the field.”
“The rolling substitutions also allow for a high level of intensity and the development of specialised skills, such as those of Gurjit Kaur in the set pieces or the defensive strength of Deep Grace Ekka,” said the former Indian captain.
“I am happy that the team has played so well. They will inspire a new generation to aspire for Gold.”
Even better than a Bronze, that might be the most significant contribution of this team of unheralded warriors. They showed great persistence and commitment, irrespective of how under matched they might be on paper. The incredible 1-0 victory over Australia when they went ahead early and packed the house to safety ought to go down as one of the greatest matches ever played by an Indian hockey team.
Even against the reigning Olympic Champions, in the Bronze medal match, India was staring at a lopsided defeat. The eves were 0-2 very quickly and it felt as though they were running out of ideas and legs. But in a stunning reversal, Rani inspired her team to a sensational stretch of hockey that threatened to take the British women in red to the cleaners. But as in the semi-finals against Argentina, the Indian eves endured another marginal loss to a far more fancied team.
The strength of this team lay in its roots. While Sjoerd Marijne is filling the national team with technical skills, effective plans and other slick tools for international competition, the foundations are being nourished at the grassroots of Indian hockey.
The fields of Jharkhand and Odisha have always been cradles of hockey, but over the past decade these cradles are getting furnished with the resources they need to develop young talent.
Pratima Barwa, who represented Jharkhand in inter-state hockey competitions during the early years of this millennium, received a thumping in 2008, when she and her team travelled to play Haryana in the final. They they struggled to adapt their game on the slick synthetic surface.
“We were playing on fields that barely had any grass. But after years of struggling, we got synthetic turf laid at Simdega in 2015. The girls are performing so much better now,” Barwa, who is now a coach in the district, told The Quint.
At least in parts of Jharkhand and even more so in Odisha, increasing investments at the grassroots level promise to keep Indian hockey healthy in the near future. The Odisha government has allocated resources to lay Astroturf in all seventeen blocks of Sundargarh district.
“There are two important reasons why hockey thrives in Jharkhand and Odisha,” explained Barwa. “We have many local competitions for schools and junior players. Also, many of our players come from simple families. It is normal for children to work in fields and climb hilly terrain from a very young age. This is helpful in their physical development and stamina.
“Nutrition remains a challenge,” she added. “But for the players that perform well, this is addressed quickly as they gain access to a better diet after getting selected to play representative hockey.”
Inspiration from the success of Rani and her team at the top and perspiration at the grassroots of Indian hockey should combine to propel Indian women’s hockey into an era of consistent success. Tokyo 2020 could after all be that lingering dawn at the start of a June solstice for Indian hockey.
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