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Friday, Dec 06, 2019

Fear has gone out of players’ minds: Rani Rampal

LOOKING AHEAD: 24-year-old Rani Rampal says just focusing on medals at the Tokyo Olympics will impede team performance

other-sports Updated: Nov 17, 2019 11:54 IST
HT Correspondents
HT Correspondents
Hindustan Times, New Delhi
Rani Rampal during a visit to HT House in New Delhi on Saturday.
Rani Rampal during a visit to HT House in New Delhi on Saturday.(Raj K Raj/HT PHOTO)
         

It was 5-5 on aggregate. One goal by USA in the FIH Olympic Qualifiers and India’s dream of making it to their successive Games for the first time would have remained a dream.

But skipper Rani Rampal’s 48th minute strike made sure that the women’s hockey team qualified for Tokyo 2020, edging past USA 6-5 on aggregate. Now, Rani, 24, and her team will prepare for India’s third Olympic Games.

In a visit to the HT office on Saturday, the forward from Haryana spoke about what it took to qualify for the Olympics, the road ahead and what she likes as a pastime among other things.

Excerpts:

The pressure is off. The Indian women have qualified for the 2020 Olympics and for the first time will play successive Games.

It feels good. We qualified in 2016 (after 36 years) and this time too. We have been doing well since the Rio Games. Our coaching staff has really helped us in improving, especially in terms of fitness. We can compete with any team and are not behind any in terms of fitness. Game awareness has increased among players. We have a mix of experienced and young players.

Despite taking a 5-1 lead in Leg 1 of the Olympic qualifiers, India let USA level the aggregate (5-5) with a 4-0 lead at half-time in Leg 2. What was discussed during the break?

We played the first match well in front of the home crowd. Beating USA 5-1 is not easy, especially in qualifiers as teams fight for every goal every second. Like we did in the first match where we were aggressive and converted our chances, USA did in the second. At half-time, our coach (Sjoerd Marijne) said, ‘You’ve not lost the tie.’ We had 30 minutes to decide who will head to the Olympics. He told us not to give up and play with more energy. The players changed their mindset and decided to fight. In the last two quarters we played well and aggressively. Yes, at half-time we felt we were down but after the pep talk we played like a unit.

WATCH: Rani Rampal’s exclusive interview

 

The USA coach was unhappy with refereeing decisions.

We cannot change their decisions. They must have felt that the cards were necessary. In modern hockey, a two-minute penalty can change a game. Playing with a player down gives the opposing team a big advantage. Our players also got cards. It is a matter of timing. They scored when our players were serving penalties and we scored when their player had cards. I don’t know why she said that.

Before the match, Lalremsiami told you that you’d hit the winning goal and that’s what happened.

Siami is the youngest player and my roommate. Before leaving for any match, we hug and tell each other that we have to play well and return as winners. At times coincidences happen. That day she told me, ‘You’ll score the winning goal and if it happens I’ll come to hug you.’ And when it happened, she remembered and came running towards me and said, ‘I had told you didi.’

Did the change in coaches last year affect the team’s consistency?

London: Indian women's hockey captain Rani Rampal in action during a match against England at Vitality Hockey Women's Hockey World Cup 2018, in London on July 21, 2018. (PTI Photo)
London: Indian women's hockey captain Rani Rampal in action during a match against England at Vitality Hockey Women's Hockey World Cup 2018, in London on July 21, 2018. (PTI Photo) ( PTI )

Earlier, Marijne was our coach. Then Harendra Singh came but he too left. Then Marijne returned. But importantly both coaches, in their own way, only thought of improving but not changing the team which could have been problematic for players. They focussed on how they could modify the existing practices and worked according to the capability of the players.

How much continuity do India have in terms of tactics? How quickly do we adapt to the changes in world hockey?

Nowadays, hockey is quite systematic. Our training load is monitored weekly. For that GPS data tells us which player has run how much (and) how much high speed running she did. The second week’s schedule is made accordingly, whether to increase or decrease the load. Recovery is also given a lot of attention to as it’s as important as nutrition and training. If we train a lot and don’t recover, we cannot train with high intensity the next day. That way, things have changed. Also with self-start, hockey has become very fast. Earlier, you could not move the ball and had to pass but now, especially in the quarter-game, hockey has become faster. The changes FIH bring in, players adapt to it quickly.

Which has been your best year yet?

Every year is different and has its memories. Some are bad because you couldn’t perform and (you) remember them for regrets. But last year was good one. We won an Asian Games silver, had good chances in the World Cup. This year, we have won all the Test series and won what we had been working for the last four years—to qualify for the Olympics. Now we have to work on how to play at the Olympics.

What do India need to do to match the top teams?

If you see the top-10 teams, there isn’t much difference. Earlier, a world No 1-2 would have surely beaten world No 10, but not anymore. On the given day, whichever (side) plays better, wins, whichever utilises their chances better, wins.

India will tour New Zealand, Spain and England before the Olympics...

All three are good teams. The competition will be good to prepare for the Olympics.

India failed to win a match at Rio 2016? What are your expectations from 2020?

The team has changed in four years. The scenario and staff has changed. You’ll see a different team at 2020 Olympics. That fear has gone out of the players that we lack fitness or we are not as strong as European teams. That is no more in the mind and we play freely. We just have to perform our best on the given day.

Any team heading to the Olympics goes there to win medals. But if we focus too much on medals, we won’t be able to perform the way we’d like to. We will go match by match, focus on ourselves, on what training we need to perform better. Play; see where you can improve and work on them for the next time.

Unlike India men, the women are not playing in 2020 Pro League. Do you think playing in Pro League could have prepared India better for Olympics?

Naturally, top teams play in Pro League. The competition is good. On the other hand, it would have meant a lot of travel, especially in Olympic year. The moment it finishes you have the Olympics. This way, you have more time to work on the things you want to improve. During competition, you cannot work on them as you can only focus on matches. So it has its advantages and disadvantages.

Areas where India need improvement?

We need to handle game-speed better. Only experience will make us better.

Six years back India won bronze in the Junior World Cup but that has not translated into podium finishes at the senior level.

Medals are not won overnight at World Cups or Olympics. A team like Belgium has been at it for ages and finally became world champions last year and also played the Olympic finals. That team was together for 10 years. Many in our team came from the juniors and that is why the senior team has grown. We are close to a medal but for that we need that extra step.

What has changed since you debuted in 2008-09?

Hockey has changed a lot. Earlier, self-start wasn’t there, it wasn’t that fast, there were not many Astro-turfs. Now even domestic tournaments are played on Astro-turfs. Sixty-minute hockey with four quarters instead of 70 has changed the sport; it can become speedier and physically demanding.

What kind of fitness exercises do you do?

We have a schedule where we gym three days. Then we have conditioning and running but that depends. Like the next one is a fitness camp where we do more off-season work, taking our fitness to the peak and learning how to maintain it. Sometimes, if you are working on your fitness for long, fitness load decreases during tournaments. Players then are fresh in body and mind. Players know that and have become very professional. For me, my body is my mind; I can only do something if my body is fine.

Your thoughts on Hockey5s.

It is a good thing FIH has started 5-a-side because in the normal format 12-14 teams get chances. In Hockey5s more sides will get chances. FIH is thinking of making the sport faster, getting more people interested and enjoyable.

India will host back-to-back men’s World Cups while they pulled out their bid for women’s.

This, we cannot decide. A lot of these things are in the hands of the administration. I don’t know what the reasons are. Now Spain and Netherlands are co-hosting it. Spain is a medal contender maybe that is why. But it is good that the men’s World Cup is happening again in India in 2023 after 2018. With more hockey in the country, people will become more aware of the sport. We also felt very good when we played the qualifiers at home. People showed interest, especially in Odisha where people love the sport. Hopefully, more tournaments will happen in India.

How much following does women’s hockey have in India?

There has been a lot of change because of social media, newspapers with people writing about women’s hockey. There is more awareness but more improvement is needed. If we are playing in the final of Olympics or World Cup, more people will follow women’s hockey.

What other sport do you follow?

Our team players follow other sports when Indians play semis or finals, like in badminton. We feel good and happy to see someone else representing India and doing well. There are many things we can learn from other sports --- football is similar to hockey.

What do you like to do in your past time?

When I am home I like to spend time with my parents, nephews and nieces because I meet them after, at times, months. Otherwise during camps, when we have off days, I like to rest. I also like listening to Punjabi music.

How would you rate the current Indian team in comparison to the ones in the past?

This team is the fittest I have seen in my career. This team can play well and for long and can compete for medals.

Do you see more talent emerging from tribal areas?

Absolutely. There are so many academies and after Khelo India, many youngsters have got a platform to perform. The government is also helping them a lot. When we perform well, kids get inspired. There are many good players in the junior team who’ll do well in the next 10 years for India.

Any player who has caught your eye?

Every player is different and has a different quality. When they come to the team, you mix those qualities, only then will results be good. They are different in nature too; some aggressive, others cool and calm. To name one will be difficult. But youngsters have a lot of energy and josh. Lalremsiami, Salima Tete are good players.

Indian hockey is known for its skills. Today, how much of European hockey, which focuses on stamina, endurance and physicality is mixed with skill?

Indian hockey is known for its skill. But now fitness is included with it. You can use skill in a much better way because some players are very skilful but not entirely fit so they can’t properly execute their skill. Importantly, coaches haven’t killed our skill. Like Marijne or Harendra, they mixed both styles, how to pass the ball quickly because it travels faster than the player and during a one-on-one battle how to beat them with Indian skill.