TOKYO: The Indian women’s hockey team
made history by qualifying for their first Olympic semi-final – they lost to
Great Britain in a nip and tuck battle on Friday. But the journey has not been
an easy one, writes Deepti Patwardhan.
will she do playing hockey? She will run around the field wearing a short skirt
and bring a bad name to your family,” Rani Rampal’s parents were told.
Katariya was discouraged to play hockey because it was “unbecoming of a
girl”. Neha Goyal, born to an alcoholic father prone to violence, sought
solace in the hockey field.
Warsi’s mother worked at a foam factory to keep food on the family’s plate
after her father suffered a paralytic attack in 2015. Nikki Pradhan, who hails
from the tribal belt of Jharkhand, laboured in paddy fields and started playing
hockey with borrowed, broken sticks on gravel playgrounds.
tackled the odds, ignored the naysayers and silenced the critics. They
Katariya, Goyal, Warsi and Pradhan are only some of the protagonists in India’s
history-making squad of 16.
first time, the women’s hockey team competed for a medal at the Olympics. On
Friday morning they played their hearts out before going down 3-4 to Rio 2016
gold medalists Great Britain in the fight for bronze.
before they left for the Olympics, not many gave them a chance to progress into
the knockouts. But they did.
quarter-finals they took on former champions Australia. They played with the
kind of skill that the world associates with Indian hockey, and the kind of
pace no-one had quite expected from them. They defeated Australia 1-0 on Monday
to make their maiden Olympic semi-final. It was a momentous occasion for
hockey, which is so intricately linked with India’s sporting glory.
once ruled field hockey, mainly when it was still played on a natural field.
While the men were put on a pedestal, women were largely ignored.
won 11 Olympic medals, including eight golds, in hockey. But the women’s team,
which made its debut in 1980, has played in only three editions, including
the women in Indian hockey came from impoverished backgrounds and were used to
making do with meagre resources and official apathy. At times, the promise of a
government job and a steady salary had to suffice over athletic dreams. It
wasn’t till 2012 that efforts were put in to improve the women’s game.
Australian player Neil Hawgood recalled the diffidence in the team when he
arrived as the coach in 2012. He had to convince them that he was there to help
them succeed rather than blame them for the failures.
had to get them to trust us, and that was the biggest key,” Hawgood told
Grace Ekka and Sunita Lakra took about two years before they would look me in
the eye…By 2014, that trust had been developed, and the team began to grow.
Foreign coaches can say that (Indian players are meek), but to recognise and
understand why that was there in the first place is and was where we made the
biggest gains in the early years.”
Hawgood, the Indian women’s team qualified for the Olympics for the first time
in 36 years.
the trip to Rio didn’t quite go according to plan, they gained experience and
some confidence. It proved to be an important first step, because it proved
that they could work wonders when given the proper resources and tools.
coach Sjoerd Marijne at the helm and Wayne Lombard revolutionising the way they
train, Indian women’s hockey has almost been brought up to speed.
when the team travelled to Moscow Olympics, they were accompanied by a coach
and a manager. At the Tokyo Games, they have a support staff of seven.
last five years, the women’s team has benefitted from a scientific,
sophisticated approach towards the game. Of the 16 players that are in Tokyo,
eight of them had played at Rio 2016, giving the team a strong core. They have
learnt from the experience, shared it and built upon it.
pandemic threatened to throw a spanner in the works, but the Indian team stayed
on the extra year in the Sports Authority of India campus in Bengaluru revising
their lines, devising their plans.
arrived in Tokyo prepared.
new-found confidence was evident in the way they refused to fade away against
South Africa in the final group match or be intimidated by Australia in the
who once trained in isolation to hide from the reprimanding glances of elders in
her village, thrived under the spotlight. She scored a hat-trick, first by an
Indian woman at the Olympics, to help India edge South Africa 4-3 and stay
alive in the competition.
there have been streaks of individual brilliance, like Katariya’s, this squad
of 16 will be remembered for their team work and commitment to each other.
all had their own journeys, their own stories of struggle, and have found
strength in a common goal.
A lot of
them had built their and their family’s lives from ground up. Now, they are
taking Indian hockey to greater heights.