They shocked the mighty Australian women’s team – so good they have a name, Hockeyroos – to move in to the semifinals of the Olympics. A Gurjit Kaur penalty corner conversion and nine saves by goalkeeper Savita Punia meant Rani Rampal’s team were handing the Aussie women an upset of epic proportions. Coming a day after, the Indian men’s entry into the semis, suddenly hockey was storming back into a waiting nation’s collective consciousness.
But it wasn’t just all heave and connect. There’s a backstory, starting with the meeting room in the women’s hostel at Bengaluru’s SAI South Centre, which is adorned with newspaper cuttings that chronicle their journey — as a team and as individuals. An initiative of skipper Rani, the laminated frames at the second home to this hockey team, are a reminder of who they are and how far they have come.
For a squad comprising eight first-time Olympians, this unique installation lends itself as anchor to forge a closely-knit unit. Scenes after the hooter at Oi Stadium – Indian hockey’s Lord’s – were testimony when tears, laughter, banter and huddles merged into a happy chaos, even as the Hockeyroos trudged off shellshocked.
What a turnaround it was proving. For a better part of their careers, the reach of the women’s team was limited. They couldn’t have gotten off to a worse start at Tokyo, losing three matches on the trot in the group stage. And then, out of nowhere, came two back-to-back wins that took them into the knockout rounds. Suddenly, these 18 destiny’s children were builders of dreams, knowing that everyone was at zero once the group phase was over. The sporting egalitarianism of a knockout stage provided an unlikely impetus.
The Indian women’s success is an evolving story of skill and speed as much as it is of mental strength. It has been a moving tale of pain, pressure, sacrifice, and breaking barriers. Most of the team hails from economically meagre families and all the attended societal pressures that come with it. In a sense, they were already battle-hardened even before they took up the stick, they only needed to turn a corner. Monday’s madness proved that turn.
It was the strangest run-up to the Games. Vandana Katariya, hattrick heroine against South Africa, lost her father as recently as May 30 this year. Seven players had to take a Covid-19-induced break, they have lived in near isolation at Bengaluru’s SAI centre and conformed to new norms of training – smaller groups and limited interaction. Most of the team building exercises were virtual.
Against Australia, the team was all aggressive intent, holding nothing back in both the attack and defence. Australia dominated ball possession but the Sjoerd Marjinecoached team took control of the proceedings. While each one played a part, it came down to goalkeeper Savita Punia to put up the performance of her career and the 29-yearold gave it her all. Covering every inch of her goal with quick reflexes and finesse in stickwork, she swatted away nine goal-bound balls to ensure this was not to end just a pipe dream.
After all, Lord’s 83 was in dire need of a partner, because after a while, one-man clubs are no fun.