Tournaments like the junior World Cup are meant to prepare its participants for the real deal, its triumphs and disasters. And India got a glimpse of both at the FIH Hockey Women’s Junior World Cup, which concluded in South Africa. It was England that had denied the Indian women’s team a medal in at the Tokyo Olympics, and here too, it was England that scripted their downfall yet again in the bronze medal playoff on Tuesday.
The women in blue had fought back from 1-0 down and had a medal well within their grasp when they led 2-1 (with two goals from India’s highest scorer at the tournament Mumtaz Khan) with just over a minute left on the clock. But as the seconds ticked down, nerves started creeping in. England scored through Claudia Swain in the 58th minute to send the match in the penalty shootout. They rode the momentum into the shootout while India failed to score on the first two counts. On the third, with captain Salima Tete going for goal, the eight-second timer seemingly hooted a tad earlier. India continued to argue with the on-field umpires in vain even as Maddie Axford scored to take the shootout score to an unassailable 3-0.
India’s campaign may have ended in heartbreak and controversy, but the women’s team had once again punched above its weight to make it thus far. They made it to the semi-final of the tournament for only the second time.India was the only non-European country to make it to the final four of the 15-team competition. Before this, India’s best performance had come in 2013, when a team consisting of current hockey stars like Rani Rampal, Deep Grace Ekka, Sushila Chanu and Vandana Katariya won the bronze medal.
For women’s hockey in India, that was the virtual take-off point. While India has been known as a great hockey nation, before 2013, its Olympic glories and legacy had been largely restricted to the men’s team. The women’s team was given somewhat of an equal footing in the wake of that tournament. Overseas coaches were hired, and a professional support staff was set up. The watershed moment came last summer when the Rampal-led Indian team made it to the bronze medal playoff at the Tokyo Olympics.
“From, the Olympics we've got that belief that we have a place at the top of world hockey. But we need to improve and need to keep improving,” Janneke Schopman, the Indian women’s team’s assistant coach during the Olympics campaign, said during an online media interaction earlier this year. A former Olympic gold medalist herself, Schopman has now taken over as head coach of the team and also helped prepare the junior side for the World Cup.
Not a press conference goes by when the members of the junior World Cup side is asked about Tokyo and its effects in the women’s hockey set-up in India. The one word most commonly used in their replies is belief. Even though the women frequently dissolve into giggles during such interactions, they are no docile pushovers. They know they now have a standard to live up to and are relentlessly working towards it.
They have watched the seniors closely for the last two years. In fact, three of the players—captain Salima Tete, Lalremsiami and Sharmila Devi—were part of India’s Tokyo campaign.The junior side has inherited the work ethic and the body language, and mirrors their commitment, camaraderie and heart for a fight. It was apparent in the way the Indian team stood up against their Western counterparts, particularly eventual finalists Germany and the Netherlands, despite being shorter and slighter than their opponents.
During India’s semi-final clash against the Netherlands, Lalremsiami took on a direct knock while defending a penalty corner. Being the first rusher, it comes with the territory, and the girl from Mizoram, after she had overcome the initial shock, was up and running within a few seconds.
The strength has been forged in the gym and on training pitches. “Our training sessions are divided in colours—there are hard sessions (red, high intensity), moderate (orange, conditioning) and green (specific skill work), which take place after hard sessions for recovery,” defender and team vice-captain Ishika Chaudhary explained after India topped Pool D during the junior World Cup. This colour-coded training template, first introduced to the senior side by Marijne, consists of three to four red sessions, two orange and two to three green sessions per week.
The 2022 junior World Cup, held in Potchefstroom, South Africa from 1-12 April was originally scheduled to take place in November last year. Though the Indian women were disappointed when the tournament was initially delayed, it gave them a chance to not just further hone their skills, but also helped the squad spend more time with the senior team and gather knowledge. Five players were handed their India international debut during that time, at the Asia Cup and the FIH Pro League. The team also got to play many more practice games with the seniors at the national camps.
“The speed is different in seniors and juniors, so that helped us,” said Chaudhary. “The seniors also guided us on how to play matches, off the field on field. We gained a lot of confidence through those practice matches.” Tete, who has been with the senior side for some time now, added, “It gave us a chance to play against the seniors, experiment with more combinations. Players like Beauty (Dungdung) didn't know how to play in what structure, so we got to practice that."
While Indian hockey teams have always known to have skill, the women’s set-up now has another ace up their sleeve: speed. The raw pace that the women, most of who are from modest backgrounds, possess saw them fly through the group stage. India started off with a 5-1 win over Wales, then defeated Germany 2-1 and Malaysia 4-0 to top their group and avoid a battle against defending champions Argentina in the quarterfinals. In the last eight stage, they overcame South Korea 3-0.
Two days after the senior Indian team scored a memorable 2-1 win over Olympic champions Netherlands in the FIH Pro League, the junior side came up against the Orange brigade in South Africa at the World Cup semi-final. Even though they defended bravely against the Netherlands, who had scored 43 goals in their first four matches, India couldn’t conjure a goal against a team that was equal parts artistic and efficient. In what the Dutch acknowledged was their ‘biggest test of the whole tournament’, they secured a 3-0 win to enter their fourth successive final. Two of Netherlands’ goals came in the final quarter when India had no choice but to press ahead and leave gaps in defense.
Like India’s famous Olympians, this team is not short of inspiring stories either. Take Mumtaz Khan for instance. Her parents, Qaiser Jahan and Hafiz Khan, sell vegetables in Lucknow to earn a meagre living. Though Qaiser Jahan was frequently taunted for having only daughters (Mumtaz has five sisters), she wasn’t going to let society shackle their lofty dreams.
If India’s time in Tokyo is any indication, the players’ humble beginnings are only part of the charm. What is captivating the nation is just how far their grit has taken them, and the team.
Deepti Patwardhan is a freelance sportswriter based in Mumbai.