🔴 1 November 2019. Kalinga Stadium, Bhubaneswar.
Around 15,000 people in the stands to watch us play. One of them, Narinder Batra.
We were up against the tricky United States of America in a two-match, winner-takes-all Olympic qualifying match. All our hard work and sacrifices, moments of joy and times of despair came down to these 120 minutes, spread over two evenings.
Minutes before the pushback of the most important game of our lives, Batra — dressed as usual in a kurta-pyjama and a jacket — walked up to us on the field to wish us luck. He started by greeting Rani, but it got a little awkward when he turned to the others because, well, Batra did not know any other player by face. ‘Who is the drag-flicker?’ he asked, blissfully unaware that he was standing a couple of yards away from one of the best in the world, Gurjit.
He did not have a lot else to say, so he smiled, turned around and walked back to the presidential suite on the top-most tier of the stadium. From his cosy, air-conditioned room, he would look down on us again.
It wasn’t a comfortable moment, especially just before such an important match. But Batra, rather unwittingly, made my job easier. I used his words and actions to fire up the group.
🔴 Batra’s indifference was symptomatic of the larger apathy towards women’s hockey in India. Sadly, we felt like foreigners in our own home.
Imagine this. Rani first played for India in 2008, when she was only fourteen years old. Ten years later, she was inching towards her 250th international appearance and proudly wore the captain’s armband.
Yet, our game against USA in 2019 was only the second time she was playing a high-stakes match at home—and the first since 2012. The rest had never experienced such a thing. I can’t think of any other team in any sport that had gone without playing in their own country for such a long time except for some exceptional circumstances.
It was a shame, especially because India attaches so much sentimental value to hockey. But I’d again go back to a point I mentioned earlier—here, hockey was a men’s game. The leagues that offered life-changing sums of money, regular matches against top teams, world-class coaching staff … were only there for the men.
Unfortunately, women’s hockey did not feature in the country’s collective consciousness. I understand there is market economics at play here. But it also comes down to the federation’s priorities and unfortunately, women’s hockey was not one of them.
I am not complaining, just laying out the facts as they are. Hockey India, during my tenure, had largely been supportive. We had good facilities to train and stay, our requests were promptly met, mostly, and their media team worked hard to give the same level of exposure to both teams without any bias.
Yet, there were not-so-subtle reminders about the standing of the women’s team. Like moving me to the men’s team because I was viewed as a good coach without caring how it would impact the women’s programme; having the Hockey India League — a tournament that really helped players—just for the men; or Hockey India withdrawing the bid to host the women’s World Cup in 2023 and instead pitching for the men’s event again (after holding it in 2010 and 2018). Or if I were to be a little nit-picky, giving prime-time space on TV to the men’s qualifying match against a lowly Russia ahead of our match against the USA, which was very much a classic in the offing, given that both teams were equally strong.
🔴 I was happy with the draw. Canada and Ireland were the two other teams we could have played against. We did not have pleasant memories of playing Ireland in the World Cup and although more than a year had passed since then, the mental barrier was tough to overcome. Not impossible, but tough. And since they were ranked above us, we had to play away from home in conditions that suited them.
Canada, on the other hand, had had a good run of results, including a morale-boosting win over the USA in the Pan-American Games semifinals in August 2019. Their tails were up after that victory.
So, if I had to choose a team to play against for a spot at the Olympics, I’d have picked the USA. They were ranked below us, which would give us a chance to play at home, and they were a team in decline. The USA had some encouraging results during the 2012 to 2016 Olympic cycle, having finished fourth at the 2014 World Cup and fifth at the Rio Olympics. But they were unable to sustain the momentum because of a high attrition rate among players. I knew we just had to neutralize the threat posed by just one or two players in their team who could make all the difference.
From our perspective, beating the USA would also mean coming full circle. The Americans, for long, had been a thorn in Indian flesh. During the 2008 Olympics qualifiers in Kazan, Russia, they handed India a 4–0 drubbing. The scars from that defeat were still fresh for Rani, who was the youngest player on that team. The memory of having felt inferior to the American side that was physically bigger and better technique-wise was something she had not been able to get out of her head.
The USA continued to have an upper hand over India every time the two sides met, including the Rio Olympics where they won 3–0. But since then, the USA’s gradual decline coincided with our rapid rise. At the 2018 World Cup in London, we had caught up with the US and held them to a 1–1 draw. And the qualifier in Bhubaneswar was perhaps the first time we were going to enter a match against them feeling like an equal.
We had a good feeling about this match and were pretty relaxed. We formed a huddle and prayed for a good match, without anyone suffering an injury. Gurjit came to me, held out her hockey stick and asked me to kiss it. This was a tiny little tradition we had developed. During the 2019 Hockey Finals tournament, I planted a kiss on Gurjit’s stick just for fun. In that match, she scored a couple of important goals and since then, we’ve made this our ritual before every game.
And whatever last-minute push we needed came from Batra’s careless remarks. It motivated us, even more, to do better and give him a fitting reply.
‘Excerpted with permission from the book ‘Will Power: The Inside Story of the Incredible Turnaround in Indian Women’s Hockey’ by Sjoerd Marijne, published by HarperCollins India.