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Posted at: Nov 19, 2017, 1:11 AM; last updated: Nov 19, 2017, 1:11 AM (IST)

Chak De! all over again

Indian women hockey team’s recent nail-biting win in the Asia Cup final is a story of grit and glory

Indervir Grewal

Whenever the Indian women’s hockey team tastes success, references to Chak De! India are inevitable. The story of an underdog team that goes on to win the World Cup despite facing discrimination and apathy resonated with the audiences. Since the movie’s release a decade ago, the film’s title song has become an informal anthem of sorts for hockey teams at almost every India match. What not many people may remember though is that the film was inspired by the Indian women's hockey team win at the 2002 Commonwealth Games where it beat superior teams like Australia and England to eventually win the gold.

Call it strange turn of events but the Indian women hockey team's recent nail-biting win in the Asia Cup final had some interesting similarities with the film. 

While this reel-real situation may have brought a sense of déjà vu, what has not changed is the situation of the women's team. For long, the women’s team has been ignored by the authorities. It has only been a few years since the team started getting some attention — be it exposure tours, support staff, scientific backup etc. Apart from one main coach, the team now also has a strategy coach from the Netherlands, a scientific adviser from South Africa and a goalkeeping coach as well. “We also have video analysis sessions now. The players have been given personal laptops,” adds goalkeeper Savita Punia, who says she has specially benefitted from having a separate goalkeeping coach. 

Hungry for acclaim

Despite support, the women’s team rarely gets the same acclaim and respect that the men’s team receives. There is a general lack of interest towards the women’s game. Sadly, this phenomena is not limited to just hockey but other games too. Then there is hardly any television coverage — the Asia Cup-winning team members say it was disappointing that their triumphant campaign was not shown on the television.

A major reason behind this lack of interest is low expectations. Every time the women’s team leaves for an international tournament, not many take notice. Fewer follow the results. But the women still go, determined to prove themselves, hoping that it might be their “Chak De” moment. 

The women’s team did make headlines after qualifying for the Rio Olympics last year, but the interest was short lived. While they finished last at Rio, the games were a harsh realisation about the level needed at the Olympics. “It was tough but to experience the pressure of the Olympics was a new lesson in itself,” says captain Rani.

Last chance

Earlier this year, the team travelled to Johannesburg for the Hockey World League (HWL) semifinals, looking to qualify for the World Cup. But it ended in disappointment, India finished eighth in the 10-team event. “We had high expectations. We remained disheartened for some time afterwards,” adds Rani. 

However, just three months after the HWL debacle, India managed to bounce back and win the Asia Cup title, qualifying for the World Cup as the continental champions. “We decided to learn from the HWL experience and move on,” says the captain. “We knew Asia Cup was our last chance to qualify for the World Cup and we went with that mindset.”

India took the tournament by storm, thrashing higher-ranked teams, China and Japan. India scored 28 goals in six matches. The team won all six. “Our plan was to either score or earn a penalty corner in the first five minutes,” says striker Navjot Kaur.

Savita, who has the best view of how her team performs, says it is the most attacking hockey she has seen India play in a long time. This transformation started under the previous coach, Sjoerd Marijne, who worked hard to make the women play fast and one-touch hockey. “We have always played attacking hockey. But over the past six months, we have become more disciplined and organised, and are playing more like a team,” says Savita. The team was, therefore, more confident and consolidated about their defence, conceding just five goals.

Rani agrees the team is bonding well, adding that the disappointments have made them stronger, and they are motivated by each other’s desire to succeed. Drag-flicker Gurjit Kaur, who was India’s top-scorer, is clear about her focus: “We were determined to not lose to these teams (China and Japan) yet again.”

Despite the players being high on emotion, Rani says the team consciously chose to stay calm. “It was our last chance but we didn’t want to burden ourselves with unnecessary pressure. It has never helped in the past.” 

Savita can also feel a change in the atmosphere in the dressing room, since her debut in 2007. “It was all about hockey then. Now, we do other things as well like listen to music, etc.. The atmosphere is quite relaxed,” she adds.

The goalkeeper carried this calmness onto the field, especially in the nerve-wracking shootout in the final that had some interesting similarities to Chak De! Luckily, the script in Japan played out similarly to the one in the movie. India won in a shootout, with the goalkeeper making the winning save. And the recognition followed. The team got a rousing welcome. Rani and Co. are basking in the glory and savouring it all.


Gurjit: Goal machine

Gurjit Kaur, who comes from a small village in Amritsar district, is the latest in the line of tall and strong defenders coming from Punjab. And as goes with well-built defenders, they generally become penalty corner specialists. Gurjit — who started playing hockey in 2006 at Kairon hockey centre — got serious about drag-flicking only after getting into college. After four years of plying the trade, Gurjit realised that there was much more to drag-flicking than raw strength. During the Indian team’s tour to the Netherlands in September, Sjoerd Marijne made Gurjit change her stick. "The stick I used earlier felt light and I didn't get enough power,” Gurjit says.

Marijne also set up sessions with Dutch drag-flicking coach Toon Siepman. “With Siepman, I corrected my basics,” Gurjit adds. “I had never realised that I was doing it incorrectly.”

At the Asia Cup, the 22-year-old scored eight goals to end as the team’s top scorer.


Navjot: Back to scoring goals

Navjot Kaur is not used to scoring five goals in a tournament and finishing among the highest scorers, at least not in the last few years. The 22-year-old from Shahbad, Haryana, had become accustomed to playing as a midfielder in the senior team. But earlier this year, she was shifted to the forward line. At the Asia Cup, she was the highest scorer among the forwards, and was named the Player of the Match in the final. 

But goal-scoring is not new to Navjot. Before settling into the midfield in the senior team, Navjot, who made her senior India debut in 2012, was a forward. “In one of my first tournaments in India colours — at the U-19 level — I was the top-scorer,” says Navjot, who started out as a forward alongside Rani at the famous Shahbad academy. 

“My role hasn’t changed much because I was an attacking midfielder. But now I get more scoring opportunities,” says Navjot, an RCF employee. Scoring is gratifying, but she is not obsessed about reading her name in the paper. “As a forward, I have to be more responsible, and there is more pressure,” adds Navjot, who has 114 caps.


Harendra: The Motivational man 

One month, or just 24 days in Harendra Singh’s words, is quite a short period for a newly-appointed coach to prepare a team for an international tournament. Hence, it is hard to imagine that Harendra could have made any significant changes in the strategy before the Asia Cup. It would have been unwise to tinker with the style that outgoing coach Sjoerd Marijne made the team play. “Not much was changed,” says Rani. The best then a new coach could do was to motivate the players. And Harendra suited this job perfectly. The small period he had with the team, he just focussed on their bonding and worked on developing their confidence, says the new coach.

The former coach of senior and junior men’s teams is known for his hyperbole. And his exuberance and confidence, sometime even overconfidence, tends to rub off on his team. Before India’s shootout against China, he predicted that how many goals would be scored and that Savita would make two saves. Forward Navjot Kaur wonders if he had had a premonition.


Savita: the Saviour 

“I still remember that moment clearly. I don’t think I or anyone else in the team will ever forget it,” says Savita Punia (27), goalkeeper of the Indian women’s hockey team. “The whole team was running towards me, shouting with joy.” She breaks into a chuckle, remembering the moment when her save in the shootout sudden death gave India the Asia Cup gold. While Savita’s name made the headlines as the star in India’s win, she believes in sharing credit where it is due. “It is wrong to say that I won it single-handedly, it was the whole team,” asserts Savita who was named the tournament’s best goalkeeper.

However, she loves the feeling of importance when the team counts on her. “It feels very fulfilling to think that I was a part of that moment when we won,” she says.  Savita, though, doesn’t get burdened by the pressure that comes with such responsibility. “I love the responsibility. I have grown a lot over the years,” says the goalkeeper, who belongs to Sirsa, Haryana. 

She has been India’s wall for some time now. This is not the first time that the veteran with 154 international caps has stood up for her team in a shootout. “A lot of research and planning goes into shootouts. When it comes to the actual moment, all I try to do is stay calm and follow the ball,” she adds.


Rani: The princess who became the queen

She was a young prodigy, touted to become the next star of Indian women’s hockey. Almost nine years after making her international debut — at the age of 14 — Rani has become the face of the women’s team. After the Asia Cup triumph, the India skipper has been busy giving interviews, attending award functions. Six days after the win, she was in Mumbai to attend the first Indian Sports Honours, rubbing shoulders with stars like Virat Kohli, Saina Nehwal and Sania Mirza. 

Rani has come a long way since her childhood when she trained in her hometown Shahbad, Haryana, under coach Baldev Singh. Once known just for her goal-scoring ability, Rani — who turns 23 on December 4 — has become the leader of the team. “I have become fitter and mentally stronger,” says Rani.  In the Asia Cup final, Rani was given the responsibility of taking the first attempt in the shootout, and the first attempt in sudden death; she scored both times. 

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