In a sense, it was a team’s re-making; without casting off the senior talent for younger legs. It’s not the men’s hockey team one is talking about. Rather, a team that plays in the shadows, like they were afraid of the spotlight – they win consistently, had a strong run last year, even made it to the World Cup quarter-finals, where they lost a close game, gave interviews late night at airport arrival terminals – and then slipped back into the shadows.
But Rani Rampal’s bunch of mercenaries, finally, got that spotlight, at The Kalinga.
Just when it seemed that the first-leg's scoreline of 5-1 was enough to deliver the Tokyo tickets, the second-leg on Saturday came with its own Bollywood finish. Within the space of first 30 minutes it was 4-0 to USA, but more importantly 5-5 on aggregate. The Americans were playing like it was the Last Stand and had pumped in four goals in the first half. Belief stood in their camp.
In walked Indian women hockey’s first lady, captain, Rani Rampal. Getting hold of Alyssa Parker’s clearance in the 48th minute, on the edge of the American circle, Rani sashayed to the right, uncorked a perfect back-lift, smacked it into the roof of USA goal and India led 6-5 in the final quarter.
The fans thundered. Rani, down on one knee, arms aloft, basked in the ecstasy. Her teammates swarmed around her. Belief swiftly switched sides. Indian coach, Sjoerd Marijne, the man who created this moment, ditched twice by the very federation that appointed him, stood in the dugout, vindicated.
“We have a dream and the dream is to go to the Olympics, and the most beautiful colour is gold,” said Marijne. “Preparation starts tomorrow morning. I am proud of the fighting spirit of the girls.”
“I think it was quite a good move,” explained Rani about her goal. “When I got that rebound, I was just thinking about shooting.”
The story about the women’s team is just not about qualifying for Tokyo 2020. That disappointment was like a raw wound when they lost to Japan in the 2018 Asian Games final. Marijne and his captain are good at masking emotions. Both admitted the deep, deep hurt in Jakarta last year. But within seconds, a steely resolve took over. They knew they were better as a team. It was back to the drawing board and after winning the FIH Series Women’s final beating Japan 3-1, the Jakarta loss had been forgotten. Olympic qualification was a must, a necessity. And when the team realised they would face USA at home, Rani Rampal without sounding over-confident said, “It is great playing at home. And we know what to do.”
Though that belief would have taken a beating after the USA had pounded the Indian defence with four goals in the second-leg, Marijne’s instincts came to the fore. Control became the theme and then patiently wait for a loose ball – a mistake to pounce on and close the door. Maybe, another player would have lashed at the ball; someone else would have tried to dribble past the American defenders; some may have gone further into the American circle. However as they say, there are no substitutes for experience, captain Rani had seemed to have calculated, not the distance, but the reaction time of a desperate American defence, and before they could pick themselves up, shot the ball high into the net, away from out-stretched sticks of the goalkeeper.
“When you play for so long, you wait for these moments, work towards it,” said Rani, “Last time also we qualified after 36 years, similarly, reaching the World Cup quarter-finals. Today also after conceding we did not give up.”
Deep down, Marijne knows there is plenty of work to be done. Last year, after coming back from the World Cup, he said what the team lacks is constant top-level competition. And not being in the Pro League has its disadvantages. Playing and testing yourself against some of the better sides in Europe gives a modicum of confidence that doesn’t and will never come from the confines of a training camp. Down 0-4 to the USA in the second-leg, Marijne explained after the match, “The first half, I was like what is going on here, and we really reacted. I was watching with the conditioning coach, like what is going on. There were so many things that were going wrong.”
The key point towards the Olympic Games would be the day the Pools are decided. Marijne would then plan on looking at the teams they would face. It’s always a conundrum of playing against the Pool sides in Tests or go elsewhere for match practice. Playing top sides gives the girls confidence, a loss is a learning experience. The Olympics usually dish out tight matches, a 60-minute experience of missed and converted chances.
It’s almost four years since 2016 Rio, when the team qualified but couldn’t win a single game. This team, though, promises to be different. It showed in that moment when the scores were tied 5-5. Even later, after the match-winner, the assurance was of a team on the rise. Marijne would already be looking at the next level.
On the same pitch, a score-line of 11-3 looks more than just generous. It looks positively smashing. When pitted against 6-5 of the women, it seems the men steamrolled the opposition. But nothing could be further from the truth. The difference between ranked World No. 5 (India) and World No. 22 (Russia) is a vast gap. That wasn’t seen on the pitch. In the game on Friday, India came off 4-2 winners.
Nobody really believed there would be an upset. However, Russia challenged and surprised everyone with the way they played in the gap and the pace in the midfield and even caught the Indian defence napping at the start of the game. Within 22 seconds, Russia was 1-0 up, India’s overall lead was cut to 4-3.
Alexey Sobolevskiy, picking up a pass early and putting it past the Indian defence. Time and again, in the match, despite India going up 3-1 after the second quarter, Russia pushed a shaky Indian defence that was seen getting beaten on pure pace. Russia used the middle to good effect. They were fast, turned with the ball while on the run, posing questions to the Indian defence; a definite pointer to Indian Men's coach Graham Reid and staff that needs to find answers rather quickly. After the match, Reid said, “I think for me what we need to get better in is finishing. We are creating a lot of opportunities, which is great. Need to get more return. Also, in deep defence, we have to get tighter. Still giving away too many opportunities.”
At 4-1, with an overall lead of 8-3, the contest was over. Russia, however, still pressed but there wasn't any heroics from the 22nd ranked hockey nation. At 5-1, the Indian coaching staff would have been relieved seeing Rupinder Pal Singh get his first penalty corner goal. It was also India’s first penalty corner conversion in the two-match series. Rupinder would get his second goal of the match and then Amit Rohidas earned his first goal off a penalty corner to round off the tally. Three converted of six penalty corners was a healthy 50 percent of success rate. Yet, the issues remain the same. And it has remained in a similar manner for over the last two decades with penalty corner conversion in big tournaments like the Olympic Games and World Cup’s being India achilles heel.
There would be a few worries on the goalkeeping. In matches like this, goals do go in, off deflections and sometimes a goalkeeper does get unsighted. But diagonal shots are normally within a goalkeeper’s range and the eye follows the trajectory of the ball. After the match, did the coach hint towards a change in the run-up to the Games?
“What I shared today was the confidence I have in Krishan (Pathak),” said Reid. “For me they both (PR Sreejesh and Krishan) can be interchangeable. That's how I want to keep it. Obviously the choice will need to be made for the Games. Also, Suraj (Karkera) is there. And he will also have the next three months.”
Qualifying business done, Reid would now look at the Pro League. India play on 18 January against Netherlands and play their last Pro League on 14 June against Spain. And in about two weeks time, will leave for Tokyo, with the Olympics beginning on 24 July. It’s a packed calendar and one that might come with a few injuries.
“It's great that we have a squad of 33,” said Reid. “Which may have to become 32. Pro League is a big opportunity, to work out for the Olympics and there are a lot of games during that period. If all of them play all those games, they won't be in the best shape to play for the Olympics.”
“Unfinished business (Olympics),” Reid said. “I don't care who you are. You always dream of an Olympics podium finish. I was lucky to win one as a player and those memories are things you hold on to. That's what we need to bring to this team and give it a big shot.”
Yes, Olympics is unfinished business for Reid, as coach having failed to take Australia to the podium in 2016 and also for an Indian team that hasn’t had a sniff of the podium since 1980.
There have been near misses. Talks of podium finishes, medals will gain momentum as the Games will near and if anything to go by then a quick look at what World Champion Belgium’s coach Shane McLeod said about the Indian team after their recent European victory, is a slight nudge to the conversation surrounding Olympic ‘podium momentum’ – “I think they (India) are not far away from a big result. If we play India in the final it would not surprise me.”
Updated Date: Nov 03, 2019 11:55:15 IST