Hockey Olympic Qualifiers: Women at home… not quite

After the 4-0 drubbing at the hands of the USA in the 2008 Olympic qualifiers, Suman Bala grabbed Rani Rampal by the arm and whispered in her ear, “one day, you have to become like them and beat them.”

Bala was 26 and on the last legs of a once flourishing career. Rani was half her age; the qualifiers, a first brush on the canvas for her. The Americans, with their superior strength and bigger physique, struck fear in the hearts of both players.

“They were so tall and so strong,” Rani gushes even today. “We were scared of them.”

On Tuesday, 11 years after that defeat and three days before India were to take on the USA in the 2020 Olympics qualifier, Bala called Rani to remind her of the promise she had extracted. Till a couple of years ago, this would have passed off as wishful thinking. Not so much right now.

Since that rout in Kazan, the two teams have routinely played against each other. Their physical and tactical superiority unwittingly turned USA into a gold standard for India even though they have not quite been the gold standard themselves in world hockey.

But after a decade of losing to them, this weekend will be the first time in the 36-year competitive history between the two teams that India will enter a contest against the USA as equals. “We feel we can beat them. So far, we had an underdog mindset but that is not the case anymore,” Rani says.

It’s taken 18 months of relentless and borderline obsessive focus on improving the team’s speed and structure to close this gap. And its genesis lay in an embarrassment at the biggest stage of all – the Olympics.

The Rio Games were India’s maiden appearance at the Olympics in more than 30 years. India hoped to show the world how much they had improved, but what they got was a rude reality check. The team scored just three goals, allowed 19 and finished last in the 12-team tournament.

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A few months after the debacle, Hockey India appointed Sjoerd Marijne as coach. “When Sjoerd first joined the team, I think he would have thought, ‘oh my god, what is this team!’” Rani says.

Marijne, who coached the world number 1 Dutch women before coming to India, laughs that what surprised him more was that the players called him ‘sir.’ But then, he saw the team train.

“There was no speed at all. And they did not have much understanding of tactics,” he says. “So what kind of structure are you going to play if your team does not have any speed? Are you going to do high press? But, you know, one ball and the opposition will overlap you. If you want to play counter, you don’t have the speed… It was very difficult in the beginning.”

Speed, structure

Marijne and his assistant Eric Wonkink, both tactical nerds, and South African physio Wayne Lombard became fixated with improving these two aspects of the team. Every training session since early 2017, including the phase when Harendra Singh coached the team, has been used to make the girls quicker and fitter, which in turn helped enhance their understanding and implementation of structures and tactics.

A similar approach in 2011 had worked wonders for the men’s team and catapulted them into the top five of the world before they stagnated once again. As Marijne saw it, this was the only way to make sure the women’s team did not have to wait another 30 years to play at the Olympics.

It helped that the women’s team was receptive to his ideas. “They have leadership and are willing to take responsibility,” says Marijne, whose brief stint with the men’s team ended because some players were not comfortable with his philosophy of players taking ownership for their decisions on field.

The results were visible against USA, who else. At the Rio Olympics, the Americans had trounced India 3-0.

At the 2018 World Cup, India turned the tables and even though the match ended in a draw, it was enough to take India into the quarterfinals and knock USA out. “They play with a lot of pace now,” USA captain Kathleen Sharkey says.

A couple of years ago, such a comment would have been unthinkable for a team that looked like playing in slow-motion every time they stepped on the field. Now, the team can adapt and switch between playing long balls from the centre line, indulging in patient build-up by being strong on the ball, and create goal-scoring opportunities from set-pieces. This is perhaps the best-trained and most settled Indian women’s team, with 10 players featuring in all tournaments this year. Of the 26 matches India has played, they have won 16 and lost just four, scoring on an average three goals every match. Given that they scored just three times during their entire 2016 Olympics campaign, this is a massive improvement.

India have relied heavily on Gurjit Kaur’s penalty corners for goals. Lalremsiami, Navneet Kaur, Vandana Katariya and Rani consistently chip in with field goals while Deep Grace Ekka leads the defence.

In USA, however, India will face a bogey team – the 2018 World Cup result was seen as an improvement, but it was still only a draw. The inferiority complex that once gripped the team may have vanished, but USA remain tricky opponents.

No one understands that better than Rani. “After we lost the match in 2008, so many players who were towards the end of their career were in tears because they missed the opportunity to play in the Olympics,” she says.

“At that time, I did not know how important Olympics were to a player. Now I know that. And I do not want to experience that sadness.”