The tears at the end of the Tokyo Olympics accompanied a historic achievement. A fourth place in the final standings may mean missing a medal by a whisker, but a women’s hockey team from India had never finished that high at the Games. It followed a welcome chance to debut at the Pro League, where India finished third, ahead of teams like Belgium, Spain, Germany and England — winning six of their 14 matches.
One vital cog missing in the team’s wheel during the Pro League was inspirational skipper Rani. A hamstring injury had kept her on the sidelines for 10 months, before she finally worked her way back for the European tour. But coach Janneke Schopman gave Rani just one Pro League game on the tour, her 250th cap, but the central striker looked as good as never being injured at all.
It seemed India’s set-up was complete just ahead of two big events — the World Cup in Spain and Netherlands, followed by the Commonwealth Games in England. The squad was announced with all the excepted names, except one — Rani.
WHY EXACTLY IS RANI NOT IN THE WORLD CUP SQUAD?
It was a surprise for many to see Rani’s name missing from the World Cup squad, but coach Schopman, who interestingly played against Rani at the 2010 World Cup, came on record to say that Rani is yet to fully recuperate from her injury.
(Rani with coach Janneke Schopman – Photo: Hockey India)
“On selection matters, it would be best if you ask the coach,” said India captain and goalkeeper Savita Punia during an interaction with Timesofindia.com three days before India open their World Cup campaign against England on July 3.
“I feel it would be best if we talk about the players who are there (have been selected). Whatever combination or squad we have, we are happy with it…Definitely Rani has been a great player for India and been part of the team for a long time, but again for me to comment on this (won’t be right).”
Savita stepped back from adding more to a selection decision that raised more eyebrows when Rani was not included in the squad for Commonwealth Games, beginning July 28 in Birmingham, either.
“This decision has been taken by the coach. Some injuries are such that it takes time to recover; but if young players have come into the team, they too are doing their job well in their positions,” the skipper added to end her reply on matters related to team selection.
THE SEMIFINAL JINX
Ranked 8th in the world, India are grouped along with England (4th), New Zealand (9th) and China (13th) in Pool B this time.
Looking to break the jinx and enter a World Cup semifinal, India will have to endure a league phase against two teams in the top 10 of the FIH rankings and a competitive China.
(Savita Punia – Photo: @savitahockey Twitter)
At the 2018 World Cup in England, India lost their quarterfinal against Ireland in a shootout (3-1) after the regulation period of 60 minutes ended 0-0.
But Savita believes things are different this time after a historic finish at the Olympics and an opportunity to play top teams in the Pro League in the run up to the World Cup.
“If you see the last World Cup, we lost the quarterfinals in the shootout but after that we shifted our focus to the Asian Games (won silver) and then we kept improving and building up to the Tokyo Olympics (finished fourth) and then in the Pro League,” Savita, who took over as India captain after Rani was sidelined with an injury, further told TimesofIndia.com.
“So I feel our preparation is moving in the right direction. Our performance going into the World Cup matters a lot. But we are taking it one game at a time. Our first game is against England (on July 3), so for now we are focused on that alone.”
THE DUTCH INFLUENCE
It’s been a year since Schopman took over as Chief Coach from Sjoerd Marijne after the Tokyo Olympics. But she has been part of the set-up for two years now, having served as assistant to Marijne before replacing him.
Savita believes that has helped, more so because both Marijne and Schopman come from a Dutch background, so the coaching mindset and philosophies are similar.
“Every coach has his or her own style and there is always some or the other difference. But one good thing is that both Sjoerd and Schopman are Dutch, and the other good thing is that she (Schopman) was with us for a year before taking over from Sjoerd,” said Savita.
“At that time (when Schopman was assisting Marijne) too we focused on playing attacking hockey and it’s the same now as well, but we are focusing equally on defence. We are happy about the way we are getting trained.” the 31-year-old from Haryana, who was also part of the 2014 (bronze) and 2018 (silver) Asian Games squads, told TimesofIndia.com.
THE TARGET THIS TIME AT THE WORLD CUP
The primary objective for India, like in the past editions of the World Cup, is to enter the top four; and from there if they have at least one good day, they will be on the podium.
It’s easier said than done, of course, but Savita also said that this time the Indian team is going into the tournament with a target that she can’t share.
“Definitely there’s a target…We have a team goal and we will do our best to achieve that. We can’t share that with you exactly at this point because we missed a medal after being so close to it at the Olympics. The coach was happy with the performance, but we did not have a medal to show for it. We want to fill that void at the World Cup and the Commonwealth Games,” said Savita, who has 225 senior-team appearances, and will turn 32 during the World Cup.
“But again, performance matters more for us. I am often asked if we can finish on the podium. Of course, (we can). We all work hard to achieve that.”
FIH WOMEN’S WORLD CUP DATES: July 1 to 17
WORLD CUP HOSTS: Netherlands and Spain
WORLD CUP POOLS:
Pool A: Netherlands, Germany, Ireland, Chile
Pool B: India, England, New Zealand, China
Pool C: Argentina, Spain, Korea, Canada
Pool D: Australia, Belgium, Japan, South Africa
INDIA’S POOL FIXTURES & TIMINGS (IST):
July 3: India vs England, 8 pm
July 4: India vs China, 8 pm
July 7: India vs New Zealand, 11 pm
Goalkeepers: Savita Punia (c), Bichu Devi
Defenders: Deep Grace Ekka (vc), Gurjit Kaur, Nikki Pradhan, Udita
Midfielders: Nisha, Sushila Chanu, Monika, Neha, Jyoti, Navjot Kaur, Sonika, Salima Tete
Forwards: Vandana Katariya, Lalremsiami, Navneet Kaur, Sharmila Devi
Standbys: Akshata Abaso Dhekale, Sangita Kumari