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NEW DELHI: Back in the country after helping the Indian women’s hockey team lift the Asia Cup title for the first time in 13 years, captain Rani Rampal and experienced goalkeeper Savita Punia are naturally beaming when speaking of the team’s success over the past ten days. On Sunday, India extended its unbeaten run in the tournament held in Japan to a fabulous sixth game, beating China 5-4 in the penalty shootout to be crowned Asian champions.
And yet amid the unmistakable pride and satisfaction following their achievement, there is a tone of measured expectancy and hope when the two stars talk about 2018, in which India will participate in the sport’s three biggest events – the Commonwealth Games, Asian Games and lastly the World Cup. The Indian team put behind it a middling year – during which they finished eighth out of ten teams at the World Hockey League Semi-Finals in South Africa, swept Belarus 5-0, endured a poor run in the Australian Hockey League and did well in a low-key tour of Europe – to claim gold in the Asia Cup and thus seal passage to the World Cup. But for Rani and Savita, this victory is only a stepping stone into the next year, where they are determined to do the country proud and remind everyone that they mean business.
“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,” Rani told TOI Sports in an exclusive chat on Tuesday. “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 lot to work on. There is plenty of hard work to be done. Everyone needs to see the confidence we have from training hard.”
Four months ago, the team finished eighth out of ten in the WHL Semi-Finals in Johannesburg. According to Rani, the catalyst for a change was shift in the players’ mindset as well as the arrival of Harendra Singh, who in 2016 coached the junior men’s team to the World Cup title.
“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,” she said. “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.
“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.”
Savita, who was adjudged Goalkeeper of the Tournament at the Asia Cup, concurs. “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 one or two performances, but a collective goal,” she said.
She too underlines the arrival of Harendra as pivotal in the women’s team undergoing a shift. “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,” she said.
Savita’s brilliance in the penalty shootout during the final proved the difference between victory and defeat, as well as a ticket to the World Cup, and in particular, her stunning save with the scores locked at 4-4. It would prove the defining moment of her spectacular tournament – she conceded just five goals while India’s strikers scored 28 – but for Savita, the good work by her strikers, headlined by Rani who scored twice in the shootout, as well as Harendra’s confidence after full-time never let the butterflies in her stomach get out of control.
“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,” she said.
“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.”
And then there were Harendra’s words during the brief period between full-time and the shootout, which lifted the experienced goalkeeper a notch. “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.”