In their last three matches in Pool B at the World Cup, the Indian women have traversed a myriad of emotions. It wouldn’t be out of the ordinary to assume that before they left their training base in Bengaluru to fly to London for the 2018 World Cup, a realistic target looking at rankings was finishing third in the pool; at best second if they could get past USA, who are seventh in the FIH rankings.
Hopes soared after the fighting 1-1 draw with the Olympic Champions England; but they crashed after the 0-1 defeat to the 16th-placed Ireland, which was followed by intense introspection; and the match against USA was an emotional roller-coaster of a ride where hearts stopped when the Americans had taken a referral with 1.2 seconds left on the clock. Eventually that gritty draw gave India third spot in Pool B and an opportunity that hasn’t come India’s way in the last two decades, or at least since India finished fourth in the inaugural 1974 World Cup.
The Indian women now stand on the very cusp of a semi-final spot. Forgive me, if I am jumping the gun. But which team in this World Cup wouldn’t fancy their chances against Italy (17th) and a possible Ireland (16th) in the quarter-finals. Not many in the team would really regret the way the pool played out.
But are Italy really pushovers? They were handed a 12-1 drubbing in their last pool match by the classy Dutch, coached by former Australian star Allyson Annan, who once dubbed the Diego Maradona of women’s hockey. MK Kaushik, member of the 1980 Moscow Olympics gold medal winning team and coach at the 2006 Women’s World Cup, said the thrashing that Italy received at the hands of the Dutch will play on their minds when they meet India. “It’s not easy to forget such matches,” explained Kaushik. “For India, it would be easy to analyse how the Dutch exploited the defence. And that is where most answers would lie.”
There is a fair bit of experience on the Italian side with four players having more than a hundred caps — Dalila Mirabella (105), Elisabetta Pacella (106), Chiara Tiddi, their captain and deep defender who plays for KHS Dragons in Belgium (147), and the 40-year-old Agata Wybieralska, who has played for both Poland and Italy (123). Six players have more than 50 caps.
In Pool A, clubbed with Korea, China and The Netherlands, the Italians did overreach beating China 3-0 and South Korea 1-0 before being steam-rolled by the Dutch. Yet, not all confidence would be punctured by that mauling in their last pool game. Six points and two wins are way above what India could manage. In fact, for many it may yet seem that the Italians have the edge as India don’t have a win to show in their last three matches.
“I don’t think that would be the worry for the Indians,” says Kaushik. “Pool matches are highly tactical. If India were playing to a plan, then draws are the outcome of that highly structured game. Don’t forget that India had seven PCs against Ireland and then six against the USA. It means that the forwards are capable of creating those opportunities.”
The Italians might not have the varied experience and skill set of the Indian team, but at London they have shown enough pace in their forward line which could unsettle India at times. Both Grace Ekka and Gurjit Kaur have been slow off the blocks. With the ball, they appear composed but when warding off three-women attacks, they have struggled to cope with the sudden pace and acceleration.
Italy also have in their captain Tiddi a very competent penalty corner flicker. However, she deploys a more traditional low slap-stick shot that gathers pace and finds the angles or shoots off sticks and the goalkeeper’s pads into goal.
Both the teams haven’t really played each other too many times. In their last four matches going back to 2012, India have won twice with Italy winning once and one match drawn. But this is a different Indian side. The Indian players are fit and know how to exploit loopholes, and the Italian defence will leave gaps at the back when they try to force their midfield to advance. It’s the right half position in Celina Traverso that seems to be the Achilles' heel for the Italians. At 32, she has left her best years behind and the fall back is not that swift. Monica, Namita Toppo, Lilima Minz can pry open that space and create some really threatening moves.
At the end of the second quarter, with USA leading 1-0, coach Sjoerd Marijne was asked how he thought the remaining 30 minutes would turn out for India. Marijne replied, “We will get the goal.” A day after the match with Marijne focused on Italy, he was asked if that reply was down to confidence or that eventually the team would get an equaliser? His reply: “Confidence.”
It’s this ‘confidence’ that Marijne will drill into the women before they get onto the pitch at Lee Valley Hockey Centre. “It’s about how good we defend ourselves and how fast we pass the ball,” said Marijne. “We need to keep thinking about our own progress after the last match. Keep improving ourselves.”
Kaushik believes the team needs to pass the ball faster. “At the moment, at times, we bring down the pace of the game when it is not needed. That gives the opposition time to reorganise their defence. Speed is essential in killing off the opponent.” At the same time, Kaushik seemed confident that Marijne and his support staff would have learnt vital lessons and would use that learning against the Italians.
Rajbir Kaur, 1982 Asian Games gold medal winner and former Indian captain, also pointed towards increasing the pace in the match. “They are holding the ball for too long. They have to play a fast match.”
It was understood that against speedier opponents, like England, possession gives India time to organise, but against slower defensive units like Italy, pace will kill or give penalty corners to India.
Marijne believes the goals will come. “I believe they will come,” he said. “They work hard for it and you also need that everything falls at the right place. Hopefully tomorrow (against Italy) is a day like that.”
The Indian coach is not one who would take criticism on any player and he outright rejected the notion that certain positions are working and a few others are operating at an average level. “We are one unit and it’s not about only midfielders or striker or defenders. Everybody needs to do their work as good as possible to make the team perform.”
From a historical perspective this World Cup match also has an emotional connect. Playing against India will be 31-year-old Jasbeer Singh, the daughter of Inder Singh, a member of that illustrious 1966 Asian Games gold medal winning team.
Inder had settled in Italy after the 1968 Olympic Games and played for the MDA Club. Later, he shifted to a small town Bra, near Torino and joined Hockey Lorenzonic Bra, one of the premier first division clubs in Italy. He got married to Gianna Fissore, an Italian who played for the women's squad in Bra. Later, Inder even became president of the club. The last time Inder was seen watching the Indian men’s play was at the 1998 World Cup in Utrecht. Inder passed away on 19 August, 2001 at the age 56 years.
Colonel Balbir Singh, member of the 1966 Asian Games and 1968 Olympic team said, “It’s wonderful that Inder’s daughter is playing a World Cup. Wish he was alive and would have been so proud watching her in London.”
Speaking about Inder, Balbir said, “He was a brilliant inside left and finished defenders with his pace. If he had not got jaundice just before the '68 Olympic Games, I believe we would have won the Olympic gold.”
Balbir Singh Randhawa, who also played with Inder in an invitational tournament in Madrid, compares him to the French football striker Kylian Mbappe. “He was like the young French striker Mbappe with long strides, and once he had the ball, the defence could only watch him. There was no point in wasting your energy, breath in trying to catch Inder.”
For most of the present Indian women’s team, the 60s are that part of hockey history, wool-wrapped in nostalgia, where gold and silver dotted the mantelpiece of most players; it was a period of riches, medal-wise. But on Tuesday, beyond winning against the Italians, nothing would enter their mind space.
Marijne was quizzed on what would be India’s gameplan? The reply: “We are determined to win.”
Updated Date: Jul 31, 2018 14:02 PM