Not quite women on top yet but, boy, aren’t they closing the gap. Gone are the days when the Indian women’s team stayed in the shadow of their illustrious male counterparts. Now, the men struggle and even though there is quite a bit of catching up to do, the women are on a high. And this is no reel life story. Neither team has sealed their ticket to Beijing — the women haven’t ever — but don’t be surprised if both land in China for the Olympics.
“It’s true that we have a young team now, but I feel the girls have enough zeal and enthusiasm to make the country proud when we go for the Olympic qualifiers next April,” said captain Mamta Kharab.
Coach G.S. Bhangu also accepted that women’s hockey is growing and claimed that a consistent showing in the Asia Cup, where India are the defending champions, would certainly take the women’s game to new heights.
“The way we trained for the Asia Cup, I am confident of a podium finish,” said Bhangu, adding, “our ranking in Hong Kong will help us get an easy group in the Olympic qualifying.”
Since the Delhi Asian Games — where the women finished first unlike the men — a lot has changed in women’s hockey. There have been changes even after the latest edition of the Asian Games last year. Coaches M.K. Kaushik, a gold medallist in the 1980 Olympics, and A.B. Subbaiah left for different reasons, while the experienced Jyoti Kullu, who led India to a bronze medal win at Doha, too didn’t stay around.
Journey of success
After 1982, international success was hard to come by. The nadir was hit in the 1998 World Cup in The Netherlands when
India finished 12th, losing 0-5 to China. They redeemed themselves somewhat at the Commonwealth Games in Malaysia, reaching the semi-finals before losing 1-3 to Australia. By year-end though the turnaround had begun with a silver medal in the Bangkok Asian Games. A runner-up finish following a sudden-death 2-3 loss to South Korea in the 1999 Asia Cup final showed that women’s hockey was back on track.
Then came the biggest high of all. India won the 2002 Commonwealth Games gold in Manchester despite there being stronger teams like Australia, N Zealand and England in the fray. Kharab, who scored the winning goal in the final, said: “That goal reminds me of the re-birth of women’s hockey in India, and I am happy that I could do my country proud.” Gold in the Afro-Asian Games and in a four-nation meet in Singapore, where India thrashed South Korea 3-0 in the final in 2005, and a runner-up finish in the Indira Gandhi Gold Cup the same year showed that it paid to reckon with India now.
To fine-tune preparations for the Asia Cup in Hong Kong this time, Dutchman Herman Kruis was brought over. He was the first foreign coach in Indian women’s hockey. Kruis, an FIH Grade 1 coach involved with club hockey for over
half-a-decade back home, stayed with the team for just 15 days but did his best to make the players tactically more astute. Training the girls in two groups, Kruis appeared to focus on quick movements of the players, their dribbling skills, and short passes.
“I am confident that my training methods will have a positive impact on the team’s performance in Hong Kong,” he said. “I discovered that the girls were dribbling too much. This was the area where I paid special attention.”
A women’s PHL?
Women players now feel the time is ripe for a Premier Hockey League (PHL) for them too. “A PHL for women would certainly raise the standard of the game in the country as right now we don’t have many domestic tournaments for women,” said Bhangu. "It will not only generate competition among players in the domestic circuit but also help the federation spot the talent."
Kharab supported Bhangu. “The consistent performances of Indian women have attracted young girls to hockey, and an exclusive tournament on the lines of PHL would give better exposure to girls in the country.”
The commendable performance of the women’s team at the international level has attracted foreign clubs to Indian talent. The trend started last year and a few girls were hired by clubs in Europe. Recently, Jasjeet Kaur and Subhadra Pradhan were invited to play in The Netherlands. The duo will represent HC Den Bosch Club. The IWHF is excited about this. Secretary Amrit Bose hoped that Jasjeet would also be able to learn the nuances of the drag flick from specialist Toon Siepman, a trainer at the club. “Toon is the drag flick specialist and has trained players like Bram Lomans, Maartje Payment and Sohail Abbas,” Bose said.