Champions Argentina were soaring. Debutants Indians were just about keeping up. During the first leg of their FIH Pro League contest against Argentina on 18 June in Rotterdam, the Indian team had seen their lead erased. Some fine stick work from Lalremsiami had helped India to go 1-0 up in the fourth minute, but newly-minted Pro League champions Argentina hit back with two goals, including a penalty stroke by Augustina Gorzelany, in the 37th minute.
In less than a minute, India came knocking at the door again. Dressed in dark blue, India earned a penalty corner. Gurjit Kaur stepped in for the drag-flick, getting into position to hit the ball low into the left corner, pulling the Argentine defence, including the goalkeeper to that side. At the very end, she changed tack, and thundered the ball to the right. As commentator Dan Strange said, “And India keep on going.”
It is the Indian women’s hockey team’s ability to face down adversity that has seen them emerge as a force to reckon with. Against Argentina, India came from behind twice, first at 1-2, then at 2-3 against the 2020 Olympic silver medallists, to force a penalty shootout, which they eventually won 2-1. It was one of the highlights of their successful FIH Pro League debut. The Indian team also recorded wins over Germany, the Netherlands, Spain —all higher ranked teams—during the 2021-22 season and finish third, behind World No. 1 Netherlands and champions Argentina.
India will hope to carry this defiant spirit to the FIH Women’s World Cup, which will be held in Spain and the Netherlands from 1 July. It is the senior side’s first big outing since their stunning run at the Tokyo Olympics—where they contested for the bronze medal playoff for the very first time.
“This did not happen by a chance. We achieved this by playing good hockey,” Savita Punia, who will lead India at the World Cup, said recently. “Our level has increased as well. We started working on big tournaments just after the Olympics, with the same ways and motivation. We also have goals that we want to achieve. For that, every match and tournament is a do-or-die situation for us.”
And it doesn’t get any bigger than the Women’s Hockey World Cup, a tournament that was introduced in 1974, a full 17 years before the Women’s Football World Cup. Netherlands has been the most dominant team at the quadrennial event with eight titles. Of the 14 editions before this, India had made the cut only seven times. Their best performance in the world event came way back at the inaugural event in 1974, when they finished fourth. But the current players have shown that they are no prisoners to history.
Looking to break new ground at the World Cup this time, India has selected a battle-ready team. 16 of the 18 players in India’s World Cup squad (discounting the reserve players) were part of the Tokyo Olympics campaign. According to the FIH media kit, 10 of the 18 Indian players have played more than 100 matches. Four of them—Sushila Chanu, Vandana Katariya, Punia and vice-captain Deep Grace Ekka—have won more than 200 India caps. And Navjot Kaur is on 196 caps.
More importantly, the Pro League has given the players enough exposure to get back in the groove. All of India’s core group members had their moments in the League: Drag-flick specialist Gurjit Kaur top-scored for India with five goals, and Tokyo hero Katariya made a strong comeback from injury and scored a brace against USA in the final Pro League match. Meanwhile, Salima Tete is looking more menacing than ever on the wing and Lalremsiami is showing maturity well beyond her years. Belief has clearly grown since Tokyo, but then so have expectations.
"Realistically, I think we are up there. Our performance against Argentina showed that we can compete against any country,” said India’s Dutch coach Janneke Schopman, who has won three World Cup medals as a player, including a gold in Madrid 2006. “We have chosen the best squad for the World Cup. It is a mix of experience and young talent who have shown great promise when they were given a chance against top teams in the FIH Pro League. If we can play consistently well, top-4, and who knows a podium in the World Cup is a possibility.”
India are placed in Pool B along with England, New Zealand and China for the 16-team tournament. The country that tops each of the four pools will directly qualify for the quarter-finals, while teams paced second and third will play crossover matches to have another shot at the knockouts.
On 3 July, India will open their World Cup campaign against England, who have been a thorn in their side recently. England pipped India to the Tokyo Olympics bronze medal; their junior side then defeated India on penalties in the bronze medal playoff at the U-21 Women’s hockey World Cup in April. While New Zealand, who remained isolated during the covid-19 pandemic, don’t have too many matches under their belt, China are the dark horses in the group. They have hired a crack coaching team of Aussie legends Alyson Annan and Ric Charlesworth (assistant coach) to plot their rise. But whoever the opponents, however big the challenge, this Indian team won’t be backing down.
Deepti Patwardhan is a freelance sportswriter based in Mumbai.