Rani Rampal was 14 when she first turned out for India. In the decade since, she has become captain and is inching towards her 250th international appearance. Incredibly however, this weekend will be just the second time she will play a high-stakes tournament at home. For the rest of her teammates, the two-match series against the USA – the winner will qualify for the Tokyo Olympics – will be the first experience of playing a big match at home.

“The last time I played this kind of tournament at home, the 2012 Olympic qualifiers, it was mostly in front of empty stands in Delhi. This will be the first time all of us will play an important match at home,” Rampal says.

For a country that attaches so much sentimental value to hockey – a sport that boasts of gender parity – the women’s game has often been an afterthought. The cash-rich leagues, annual tournaments at home or expert coaching staff, have all been for the men; some of it because of market economics, but most of it due to the federation’s priorities.

Things have changed for the better in the last few years, and the women players are now treated at par with their male counterparts. Yet, there are occasional not-so-subtle reminders of where the major priority lies. Like Hockey India’s recent decision to withdraw the bid for the women’s World Cup in 2023 and, instead, throw its hat in the ring to host the men’s edition for the second time in a row.

Or, if one were to nitpick, the fact that a lower-profile men’s qualifier between India and Russia getting a prime-time push-back this weekend ahead of the women’s team’s matches against the USA – a classic in the offing. The players, however, don’t seem to hold any grudges. They are happy just to get a chance to play a high-profile match at home, something that none from the current squad have experienced. In that sense, strange as it may sound, the atmosphere at the 15,000-seater Kalinga Stadium will be as alien for India as it will be for the Americans.

Nothing, though, is more symbolic of the administration’s attitude towards the women’s team than last year’s coach saga. In early 2017, Sjoerd Marijne, who was the coach of world number 1 Netherlands, took over the Indian team that had finished with a wooden spoon at Rio 2016, their first Olympic appearance in more than three decades. The dismal show – India did not win a single match at the Games – concerned few, though – their being there was a surprise in itself.

Changing perception

Marijne’s task was to change this perception of the team. “In the beginning, it was bit of a struggle because I came from the number one (team) to the number 13. Things that were normal for me were not normal for the girls,” Marijne says, in reference to the tactical limits and fitness of the team.

He collaborated with another Dutchman, analytical coach Eric Wonkink, and South African physio Wayne Lombard to slowly turn things around. In a short time, they got the women to play with spunk rarely seen earlier. Even the hard-to-please Hockey India were impressed. So impressed, in fact, that when they were looking for a coach for the men’s team, after Roelant Oltmans was sacked in September 2017, they did what few predicted – poach the women’s coach.

Marijne was informed of this decision via a phone call when he was away with the women’s team on an exposure tour to Europe. Former men’s coach Harendra Singh was subsequently handed over the reins of the women’s team, and led them to a bronze medal at the Commonwealth Games last year. The women, once again, played with intensity and ambition unlike any of the previous sides.

The men, meanwhile, did not buy into Marijne’s ideas and as a consequence, they returned from Gold Coast without a medal. Soon after, in what felt like a promotion for Harendra and punishment for Marijne, their roles were swapped. During that turbulent eight-month period, the women’s team was destabilised as their coach was changed twice because Hockey India wanted the men to perform better. “I don’t like when I cannot finish my work. And that was my disappointment,” Marijne says about that phase. “It was a frustrating moment.”

The women, who had gleefully taken to his ideas, were relieved when he returned. After the trust issues in the men’s set-up, the Dutchman was welcomed in the women’s team. “I still remember that one player came to my room and said, ‘we are very happy that you are back’. I felt very happy at that moment,” Marijne says.

Since then, the women’s team’s rise has been phenomenal. They came close to reaching the semifinals of a World Cup, losing to Ireland in the quarterfinals last year, and head into the Olympic qualifiers with some morale-boosting wins over Rio Games gold medallists Great Britain last month.

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Most of it, however, has been achieved without an analytical coach after Wonkink’s services with the women’s team were discontinued almost a year ago. The analytical coach is the most important member of the support staff after the chief coach – he is the one providing live feedback on opponents’ tactics and game-plan to the chief coach during a match and assists in mapping out strategies in training and before a match.

A bureaucratic delay in appointment is responsible for the post remaining vacant for such a long time. At the qualifiers, high performance director David John is likely to perform that duty. “I do two jobs now by working a lot of hours. The girls put in a lot of effort and I do the same,” Marijne says.

That’s been the story of the women’s team – putting in hours of silent hard work that has brought them to a position where, for the first-time ever, they can compete at back-to-back Olympics. Them being ranked higher than the USA gives them the advantage of playing at home. But they don’t know what home feels like.