Women's Hockey World Cup 2018: Despite quarters exit, India should be proud of what they achieved in showpiece event
When the anguish lessens, the pain dulls, new targets appear in sight, and like hardened pros they move on, someday they would be justifiably proud of what was achieved not only for themselves, but for women hockey players across India.
Shoot-outs scorch the soul. It’s like you become the burnt earth. After a tedious, nervy and fatigue-inducing four quarters of tactical malevolence with intrigue being the central figure, the Indian women standing on the very cusp of creating history were reduced to tears, some sobbing while trying to come to terms with the cruellest word in sport — defeat.
It’s like running a marathon neck and neck and then being beaten on the line; it’s akin to sharing points in a heavyweight bout and in the end getting knocked out by an upper-cut. It will take weeks for Rani Rampal’s team to recover from this energy-sapping setback when victory was not just a possibility, but only five shots away.
Quarter by quarter, like prized fighters, both India and Ireland sized each other up. They sparred, threw a few punches, but didn’t draw blood or bring the other down to their knees for a count. In the end, when legs ran out, hearts felt like an automobile air filter driven through the desert, the minds felt unable to decipher the angle of the shots or whether to pass or take a hit, the hooter went with the inevitable shoot-out, the only mechanism to decide who won the cliff-hanger to enter the semi-final.
India knew the quality of Ireland’s Ayeisha McFerran. Flexible yes, but her best trait is clarity under pressure. McFerran never swipes at the ball. Instead, she waits, hovering behind the player, arms outstretched, dancing on her feet, the player being harassed when it should be the other way around. Till, pressure reaches such a point that the players either shoot out or desperately swipe at the ball.
India’s Monica would remember her miss; the ball rolling away a good three-four feet away from goal. Rani Rampal never had a chance. The Indian captain with the dribble-and-ball skill neutralised by the Irish goalkeeper. In fact, Savita Punia saved the first two off Nicola Daly and the dangerous Anna O’Flanagan. Then Upton scored as Ireland went ahead for the first time in the match at 1-0. McFerran then saved off Navjot Kaur.
And then Alison Meeke twisted left and then right, caught Savita in a bind and cheekily slipped it between her pads as the ball rolled away to hit the post and went in. Ireland were ahead 2-0 with a foot inside the semi-finals. Reena Khokhar showed how shoot-outs need to be done. A 180-degree turn with the ball before slipping it past McFerran. It came to Chloe Watkins to start the 3-1 victory celebrations as Savita lost balance and Watkins slipped the ball into an empty goal.
Irish players’ tears of joy mingled with the sweat of a hot dreary London day as the team hugged, cried, screamed and shrieked with glee. By contrast, the Indians sat in their dug-out looking stunned. Losing a shoot-out is like a physical blow. Initially, it stuns you. The pain follows later.
But that’s not how it started. Ireland began aggressively and within the first four minutes had entered the Indian striking circle twice. They wanted an early goal. The pace had to be set. Early blows dictate the contest. But India wheeled right back into the match. Defensive structures were set up to defend. But not use the counters. In fact, after the first two quarters, the tactical set-up was to negate and not to win opportunities. Risk taking in trying to create a goal was impossible. A goal in such circumstances was only possible through an error or a great bit of skill. Both didn’t happen.
For Ireland, O’Flanagan was the leader again. She tore through the heart of the Indian midfield. But time and again was stopped in her charge by Sunita Lakra, Deep Ekka and Gurjit Kaur. In the defence, Ekka was the pick. The circle was her domain, her territory. She picked up the moves early, picking out the ball smartly like plucking cherries and clearing it away. Sunita stuck closer to Savita while Gurjit manned the left zone.
The midfield rarely ventured up. Even though the Indians enjoyed more circle entries and possession, the sharpness and assuredness was just not there. Ireland may have been stopped by the Indian defence, but their build-up was excellent. Both teams, in their bid to not give away space and territory, refused to sacrifice players in the quest to get the goals. Both didn’t want to concede the first goal and that became the obsession. Later after the match, Irish coach Graham Shaw while muttering away “incredible, incredible” said: “Such intense matches are not about performing but digging deeper.”
It wouldn’t be to off the mark to say that one way or the other, the occasion got the better of both the teams. Ireland in the initial stages of the Pool played with abandon, like a cool breeze across scorched earth. India played with the fluency of their midfield and a side that never stops coming at you. But both played a cat-and-mouse game that was more about discipline on the field in not committing errors or yielding space. Lalremsiami’s pace and enthusiasm wasn’t used at all. She was confined to the left flank with no balls or passes being created for her. Through the match, only in few moments did one see the pace of the Mizoram girl. Vandana Katariya and Rani Rampal, play-makers with a lovely dodge could have created more.
Namita Toppo was off colour. Goyal did push a bit. Lilima Minz didn’t get space to showcase her talent. India played like a team shackled down; their minds filled with tactical planning rather than with enjoying the moment and benefitting from it.
To be fair to Sjoerd Marijne, it was a difficult match in terms of how much the team could let go or hold back. Somewhere between those zones, the natural ability of players suffered. Except for brief sparks of brilliance and innovation hockey — that wonderful sport of dodge and dribble where every player sells an illusion — was reduced to a dog-fight, mostly confined to the middle of the pitch. The raids were a rarity, pacy runs on the flank as scarce as an incorrupt politician and one-touch hockey seldom used.
In the end, both sides battled nerves more than anything else. They couldn’t find any new gears or that special moment which could suddenly light up the match. An early goal would have opened up the game. But as time flew by, quarter by quarter, it became inwards, with players closing down hard knowing a goal in the 3rd and 4th quarter would be difficult to equalise.
Yet, India managed to open up the 4th quarter with three chances plus a PC. It was a good referral from India and the video umpire gave the 1st and only PC of the match. Rampal took the hit which didn’t have too much power or angle as McFerran saved. There was a chance off a rebound, but that came and went in a flash. Even after that Vandana and Navneet Kaur had opportunities.
In hindsight, one can fell that a flick from Gurjit could have probably done more damage. It was the 1st PC and in the 4th quarter. Ireland would have been jumpy at this point. The truth is India could have closed the match in the last quarter. Hindsight is an easy craft. Handling a match as tight and tenuous as this is difficult. India had a possession of 55 percent in the 4th with four circle entries and one shot on goal. Ireland had one circle entry with only one shot on goal. India were down to ten men for two minutes in the 57th minute when Udita was shown a green card.
Kate Richardson-Walsh, former Great Britain captain and 2016 Olympic gold winner, analysing the match, later said, “You have to find a way to win. Ireland handled that pressure slightly better than India.”
It will take a while for the dust to settle; for the players to be able to tell themselves that they have a foundation to build on. When the anguish lessens, the pain dulls, new targets appear in sight, and like hardened pros they move on, someday they would be justifiably proud of what was achieved not only for themselves, but for women hockey players across India. That in itself is nothing short of a victory.
India's FIH Hockey Pro League matches against Great Britain postponed due to COVID-enforced travel restrictions
India and Great Britain were scheduled to play on 8 and 9 May in London
India had won the last of their eight Olympic gold medals in the 1980 Moscow Olympics before the team endured a sharp slide in their fortunes.
A passionate lover of the game, Joshi has been maintaining records of the sport since the early 1970s and also contributed hockey statistics to several national dailies.