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“We dream the same dream. We think the same thing. We are the dream team. We are the Indian team. We are a champion team.”
Contrary to popular belief, the anthem from the 2007 Hindi film Chak De! India is not the main slogan or chant that the Indian women’s team uses when they are on the field. This was just one of the nuggets revealed by four members of the victorious Indian women’s team that beat China in penalty shootouts on Sunday to lift the Asia Cup – captain Rani Rampal, goalkeeper Savita Punia and forwards Navjot Kaur and Navneet Kaur – when they visited the TOI office in Noida on Tuesday.
Read on to learn more about the Asian champions, what went into their campaign in Japan, the promise that 2018 holds, the changing role of women in Indian sport and how detached Bollywood’s portrayal of hockey in films is.
Congratulations on the victory. Asian champions, unbeaten all tournament, winning the title after 13 years and qualifying for the World Cup … to whom do you give the credit?
First of all, to my team-mates and our coaching staff who have given us such good guidance. Then, Hockey India, the Sports Authority of India and the government of India who have provided us the facilities necessary for us to perform at such a high level. A special thanks to my coach Baldev Singh sir, because of whom I and some of my team-mates are sitting here today. It was sir who gave us a base in hockey, from where we were able to be groomed and learn so much.
Four months ago, the team finished eighth out of ten in the World Hockey League. What has changed since then?
Firstly, the players’ mindset changed. If you look at 2016, we won the Asian Champions Trophy. In Johannesburg, we had a very good team but we failed to play to our potential. We did not deserve to finish eighth out of ten teams. But that is part of sports – that you go somewhere and don’t play as well as you expected to. Sometimes, in a short span of time, you finish where you did not expect to finish. We were stunned to finish eight, and our confidence dipped. But we moved on, telling ourselves that though we did not qualify for the World Cup, we had one shot left to do so – the Asia Cup. We were determined to prove that we were good and we were determined to qualify for the World Cup. For the country, getting into the World Cup is a big deal and that was our singular motivation. We all decided that. It was not about winning the Asia Cup; it was about qualifying for the World Cup. When your target is so important, you focus solely on that and it becomes your common mindset.
Absolutely. That was our goal – to qualify for the World Cup. And qualification would only come with a gold medal. We wanted to qualify on merit, so that when we do travel to the World Cup, it is with a different level of confidence. Personally – and I can speak for Rani too – this was our third Asia Cup and we already had bronze and silver medals, so our mission was to win gold. We discussed about how victories are not based on one or two performances, but a collective goal.
Expectations were not that high when you departed for Japan, considering this year’s mixed results and the fact that you had not won the Asia Cup for 13 years. Was there any sense of this being a burden?
Not a burden, but a responsibility. When we have our camps, they are keeping in mind the next tournament or series. Once Harendra sir came on board as coach, the target was the Asia Cup. The fact that he coached the junior men’s team to the World Cup title last year acted as additional motivation for us. We started to think that maybe this was our time now. Being the last tour of the year, we had collectively decided that we had to win the Asia Cup to qualify for the World Cup and enter 2018 ready for the three tough tournaments ahead.
We were confident, largely because of Harendra sir’s appointment as coach. He had coached the men’s team to success, so we as a team felt confident of repeating that success under sir. Secondly, as I mentioned earlier, the mindset had changed. We had to qualify for the World Cup, that’s it. For a player, there is no bigger tournament than the World Cup. We wanted to keep it simple, but also remained determined to win gold. Knock-outs are never easy, and we had mentally prepared ourselves for the toughest quarter-final, semi-final and final. We spoke of how if we were unable to grab the early momentum in games, we try to force games into shootouts. We consider ourselves good in shootouts and we have a very good goalie in such situations.
There was no additional pressure. It was about qualifying for the World Cup. We had trained hard for this tournament, and for every foreseeable situation. For three months we focused only on the Asia Cup. That we achieved our goal is testament to our focus and training.
Now you’ve won the Asia Cup, there is plenty of focus on the team. In 2018, there are three major competitions – the World Cup, Asian Games and Commonwealth Games. Do you think success in these competitions will result in the limelight and attention you deserve?
The next year is very important for us. These tournaments happen every four years. Naturally, now that we have won the Asia Cup, expectations will increase. We as a team need to enter these tournaments with the same confidence we had entering the Asia Cup. That said, we cannot be content with winning the Asia Cup. We have to improve if we want to be compared with world class teams. Physically and mentally, there is lots to work on. There is plenty of hard work to be done. Everyone needs to see the confidence we have from training hard.
Savita, congratulations on being named Goalkeeper of the Tournament. Tell us about that shootout.
To be honest, there had been such situations during the past few years. But still, it all comes down to the goalkeeper’s performance on the day, in that minute … so that’s what you train for, what you practice for. We went into the final knowing how good China were, despite having beaten them in the league stage. We prepared for a low-scoring final score followed by a penalty shootout. When the buzzer blew at 1-1, it reminded us of the Olympic Qualifiers when Rani scored a goal and then I saved the decisive goal in sudden death. When Rani scored her first goal in sudden death on Sunday, I told her ‘didi, we have to repeat the same performance from the Olympic Qualifiers’. In shootouts, the player and goalkeeper have an equal chance at succeeding and failing, so it hinges on how calm and cool you remain.
But is it even possible to train for that level of pressure?
To everyone it would naturally look like an extremely pressure situation, but somewhere inside I had a certain positivity because my strikers were scoring consistently. Before the shootouts, our goalkeeping coach Bharat bhai and our coach told us that our strikers would score at least three goals and that I would save at least two goals. So after that, it fell on me to prove their trust in me. That meant I had to remain calm and focus on the goal. If I thought too much about the result, it could distract me.
You had some really pivotal moment’s during India’s campaign, and allowed just five goals conceded all tournament.
If I conceded less goals, that has a lot to do with the team’s performance (laughs). Credit to the defensive line, midfield and strikers. Before our opening match, we stressed on how we had to score a lot more goals than we conceded. I’m glad it panned out that. Personally, to play my 150th match was special during this tournament. I felt like an experienced player, especially when I reflected on my earlier years. The nervousness has long gone, thankfully.
You referenced the coach Harendra Singh’s instructions before the shootout to score three goals, because he was confident that Savita would save at least two …
Yes, he did say that to us. He also told us to stay cool because that was part of what we trained for. He wanted us to execute just that during the shootout. And that’s what panned out in sudden death. That was our coach’s experience talking … he has been coach of a world champion team, he oversaw a penalty shootout win in the semi-finals of the Junior World Cup … so we were inspired by his comments to us before the shootout because there was intent and experience in his words. It was critical.
You faced Japan, the hosts and defending champions, in the semi-final. What was it like preparing or that game?
When you play a host team, you know there is a slightly different atmosphere. You are under a bit more pressure, but equally so is the home team. We were hopeful that Japan would be under more pressure, in this case, and wanted to take advantage of that. We just viewed it as another game, and stuck to our plans and what we do well. And I think that’s exactly what happened – they fell under far more pressure and we played our attacking brand of hockey. We handled that match much better than them.
Most sports in India are compared to cricket when it comes to attention, remuneration, facilities and recognition. For women’s hockey, is there a division even within the sport? As in, the attention given to men’s hockey versus women’s hockey?
So much has improved. The facilities are a lot better and we get the same facilities as the men’s team. Overall, if you look at Indian sport, yes there is a difference. But not so much in hockey. Cricket is the most popular sport, and there is a difference between the men’s and women’s teams. I can speak only for hockey, and for us the idea is that we need to win and put up good results before we can think about asking for more support or better infrastructure or anything else.
Somewhere, it is about belief. Earlier, there was a widespread belief that girls could not win as many medals as boys could. We girls have changed that negative mind-set. Look at the Rio Olympics, from where the only medals came from Sakshi Malik and PV Sindhu. That went a long way in reminding everyone that Indian women can win medals, provided they are given the right support and focus. The same with cricket. Our women’s team reached the final of the World Cup this year and narrowly lost. Now we have won the Asia Cup. With such results, that mind-set will change further.
Sportspersons often say that when they win, it’s very easy for people to appreciate what they have done for the country. But they need real support when they are struggling to make a mark for themselves. Have you felt that?
Struggle is necessary for life and in sports. Without struggle, there is no fun. Our role is to go and win as many games as we can. Then it is for the public and media to respond. In India, sportspersons will struggle at the start because at the grassroots level the facilities are not that developed. But things have changed. In hockey, AstroTurf surfaces are being laid out across the country, so it’s a matter of time before such improvements translate into better results. The faster the development, the sooner the results.
Savita, did anyone prevent or discourage you from taking to hockey when you were young?
No, because I was not that inclined towards sports as a career option. It was my grandfather’s aim that I get into sports. It was only after I made it to the national camp that I appreciated the true value of what it meant to represent the country. It was from that day that I became determined to work hard to make a mark. Coming from Haryana, I know of the difficulties that many girls face; not being allowed to wear shorts or leave the house or traveling far from home.
When Chak De! India was made, it was loved by the audience. The story of this team is just as inspiring. Do you think when Bollywood tells a story of sport, it makes it more popular?
There is big difference between reality and a movie. Talking of Chak De! India … as players we view such movies as being very different from what actually transpires. In reality, doing all that is shown on screen is so much tougher. In movies, it looks easy. Our job is to win the country as many medals as possible. It is up to the film-makers and actors to take up our stories and make more biographies that are real and tell our stories. That will spread awareness among the public … awareness of real hockey. So far its been only about Chak De! India but there needs to be a lot more awareness of what is happening in Indian hockey.
You mentioned Baldev Singh’s contribution to Indian women’s hockey. You, Navjot and Navneet are his students and there are others in the current team who have emerged from his set-up. Similarly, in badminton, we have Pullela Gopichand’s academy in Hyderabad. Do you see similarities between the two?
The atmosphere which sir had created there was a feeder system to the national team. Wherever he goes, automatically players will emerge from there, such is his dedication towards hockey. If you are to compare, then Baldev sir’s contribution is far more. Badminton is an individual sport and when you focus on an individual, your focus can be more streamlined. But when you are trying to train and improve a team, it is tougher because you are working with 30 players from which you have to choose 18. And Baldev sir began working in schools were girls were not allowed to remove their dupattas from their heads, forget about getting them to wear shorts.
His biggest contribution to hockey is getting the sport played in places where it was unthinkable. To then gradually get girls from families who had never imagined their daughters stepping out of the house and reaching such a high level is remarkable. I am one of those girls. My parents never imagined that I would play for India. For Baldev sir to start out in such rural places where there were no facilities was very difficult, but he did it. He and the girls he trained would cut trees to make space for grounds to be constructed. India is indebted so sir for being such a guiding light.
Rani, there is an interview on YouTube where your father speaks of taking you to practice on horse-drawn carriage? Does he still drive a carriage, or has life changed drastically?
For the last year, I have asked him to not drive the carriage because he’s getting old. He’s worked for 40 years, he helped us get an education and helped us in sports, so now it’s time that he relaxes. I want him to spend the rest of his life in comfort, happily. This is our time to work hard, so that all his hard work is rewarded.
Compared to the men’s team, there are fewer women’s games on TV. Of your seven tournaments and tours this year, only two were broadcast to the Indian audience. Does the fact that Indian hockey fans are routinely unable to watch you in action play on your minds when you tour?
To be honest, after the final, what I saw on social media was surprising. Never before had I seen Indian women’s hockey get that much attention on social media. Social media is huge. Some women’s tournaments are telecast, some aren’t. We have to live with that. It has gotten better. There is live coverage of most major tournaments. I cannot comment on why the Asia Cup was not shown on TV, as I do not have an idea about that. It’s good that Hockey India keeps people up to date on social media and that so many media houses are actively covering us on Twitter and Facebook. That lets people know about what we are doing. I think people were going mad on Twitter and Facebook during the final against China, waiting so tensely for the final result!