Savita takes the good with the bad
As one of the most seasoned members of the team, however, the skipper of the India women's hockey team doesn’t mind the pressure anymore.
“Mujhe hockey isliye itni pasand hai (It is why I love hockey so much). It gives you many low moments, but also the energy to get back up the next day,” Savita Punia said, smiling.
The next day, in this case, happened to be her 32nd birthday.
The night before, the captain of the Indian women’s hockey team was the epitome of stubbornness in the FIH Women’s World Cup game against Spain, dishing out six saves to keep the hosts at bay and the scoreline at 0-0. Nothing would go past her, until a little over three minutes to the clock. Even there, Savita leapt to her right to get behind a strike from close range but a rebound met Marta Segu, and the ball the back of the net. India lost 1-0, out of the title race for the World Cup.
“Sirf teen minute the, kaash…” Savita would ring in her birthday with that sombre thought.
Less than 24 hours later, she led her players back on to the field against Canada to determine which team would play the 9-12th standing tie. It was 1-1 at full time, and 3-2 to India in the shootout as Savita thwarted all of Canada's last five attempts for India’s first win of the tournament.
Even before she could get out of her goalkeeping gear, her team-mates rallied around her to sing the birthday song aloud. Much like her saves, Savita pulled out a big beam, and even a little dance.
“Whenever you win in a shootout, the atmosphere is unmatched. And that day was my birthday as well, so everyone celebrated a bit more. The team always gives a different kind of happiness to me,” Savita said.
Go through those singing and dancing visuals and you’d think the Spain match and its heart-rending ending a night earlier were a nightmarish blur.
“That’s sport, you know,” Savita took the philosophical path to convey those emotional extremes. “If we have stared at the face of defeat today, it’s not necessary that we will have to do the same tomorrow. Of course, at that moment we’re either sad or happy, depending on the outcome.
“Everyone was sad that day, but as the goalkeeper, I was the most disheartened, because we knew we could have won the match (against Spain). Kahi na kahi demoralize ho jana, confidence tut jaana, hope chala jana, it can happen (we could have been demoralised, lost our confidence and hope). But I’ve learned over these years that whatever the phase, you have to deal with it, wake up the next day with new hope and take your team along. We couldn’t have changed what had happened. But we had two matches left, and it was important how we came out in them.”
India won them both to finish 9th, still an unflattering result for the team days before the Commonwealth Games (CWG) and a year on from its inspired fourth-place finish at the Tokyo Olympics. Yet, it wasn't a World Cup where India were completely bossed around. Prior to the Spain encounter, India lost 4-3 to New Zealand and drew 1-1 with England and China. The team had quite a few looks at the opposition goal, and plenty more—46, to be precise—PC attempts but precious little to ride home in terms of conversations and the most telling stat of it all: end result.
“Ek hota hai ki hockey na khele ho (It’s one thing to have not played good hockey). But I believe we played good hockey there. It was bad luck. Of course, there were some shortcomings—the finishing wasn’t there and our PC attack and defence, which are our strengths otherwise, couldn’t do well. But since I’ve been part of this team, I believe this is the first time we played such attacking hockey in back-to-back matches. Be it PCs, shots on goal, circle penetrations,” Savita said.
The team got down to iron out those issues in the fortnight between India’s last World Cup match and their CWG opener against Ghana on Friday. In the absence of the injured Rani Rampal, Savita continues to be the leader of the flock alongside head coach Janneke Schopman. Savita calls herself an involved captain. She keeps reminding her strikers and midfielders of how much they make her sweat during their practice sessions. She keeps reminding her troops of their impressive third-place finish in the Pro League. She keeps reminding them why there’s no reason they can’t replicate that in the CWG, where India finished fourth in 2018 and last won a medal (silver) in 2006.
“We know that in the World Cup we wanted to finish somewhere else, and we deserved it as well. I believe our team is playing the right kind of hockey. Honestly, after the Olympics we have improved even more, and our Pro League matches showed that. So that’s our thinking for the CWG. The aim is to try and top the pool. But I don’t want to drill that into my players. In the past, we have lost a lot just because we took pressure; bahut khoya hai humne,” she said.
As one of the most seasoned members of the team, however, Savita doesn’t mind the pressure. But with more experience, a wiser mind and a fitter body, the 32-year-old is also relishing the thankless job of a goalkeeper a lot more.
“There’s been a definite change that I feel inside me, and that’s the right mindset,” Savita said. “In India, people tend to say that after 30, you should probably look to leave. But if your fitness is good, mindset is right, excitement is alive, I don’t think age matters. Experience helps a lot. The same situation, if I look at myself five years ago, maybe I would think too much about my mistakes or think about them even before it happened. Now, I’m enjoying being a goalkeeper a lot more.”