‘Those people just don’t understand the game’: The Savita Punia save that wasn’t

Published on Aug 06, 2022 09:35 AM IST
  • A glaring miscommunication between match officials leaves battling India women gutted after the controversial shootout loss to Australia in the Commonwealth Games semi-final.
The technical delegate on the sidelines (in blue, left) has her hand held up with players in position.
The technical delegate on the sidelines (in blue, left) has her hand held up with players in position.
By, Birmingham

The scores tied 1-1 with 1.02 minutes to run down, India faced a penalty corner against Australia in their Commonwealth Games women’s hockey semi-final on Friday night. For each of those 62 seconds, India defended like warriors with goalkeeper and skipper Savita Punia the uncompromising guard. On the sidelines, coach Janneke Schopman couldn’t stand on her feet while Sushila Chanu wouldn’t unlock her crossed fingers. When Schopman eventually did get up, it was to land a high-five.

India had taken Australia to a shootout. The Australia that had not conceded a goal in the tournament until this game.

Australia’s Ambrosia Malone went first up. Savita saved it, cornering her prey while winding down the clock. Except, it hadn’t. A combination of human error and miscommunication between the technical delegate on the sidelines and the umpires on the field of play was the cause. The effect was a retake. Malone scored this time, and Australia two more. India didn’t score any, and lost the shootout 3-0 alongside a shot at the CWG gold medal they got close to.

So here’s what panned out at the University of Birmingham on Friday night that led to a legitimate opening save by India not getting recorded. The shootout commencement process plays out thus: a technical delegate on the sidelines has his/her hand held up with the players in position. The moment the hand is lowered and the stopwatch pressed, the umpire immediately blows the whistle for the eight-second shootout try to begin.

In this case for Australia’s first attempt, the whistle was seemingly blown by the umpire before the delegate’s hand was lowered. The delegate did try to stop the shootout by instructing “no, no, wait, wait, wait” from the sidelines, which was audible to those stationed directly behind but not the umpires or players out there to pick up with the sizeable crowd.

Once the umpire’s attention was drawn to the miscommunication even as Punia walked away and Lalremsiami lined up for her first attempt, the retake instructions were relayed to the people concerned on the field. Schopman argued with the umpire, visibly frustrated before turning around gesturing to her equally emotive players to back away and calm down.

Schopman later revealed that the umpires had then merely told her “we were told to take the retake”. The Indian coach's other contention was that Malone’s attempt had anyway gone beyond the stipulated eight-second shootout timeframe and therefore the start to the clock did not matter. Plus, the head coach added, Australia had not even complained about it.

“I’m not using it as an excuse, but your goalkeeper makes the save, that’s an enormous boost for the team. You turn the decision around and the girls are really upset about it. Hindsight is 20-20, but I’m sure their focus was lost a little bit after that moment. After that, we lost a little bit of our momentum. Then it (the retake) did go in, and everyone is deflated. We don’t need to be, but it’s all human and all emotion.

“Should we be better? That’s what I was trying to say, ‘girls it doesn’t matter, doesn’t matter, doesn’t matter’. But of course it does matter and of course I am angry also because the umpires don’t understand it either. They said 'it’s not our decision'. I said, ‘well, Australia is not complaining, they know they’ve missed it’. It was easily 10 seconds that they got the opportunity to score. Yeah, I think those people just don’t understand the game and the emotions that are involved,” Schopman said.

The emotions did show up after the final whistle that put India in the bronze medal match with New Zealand. The most noticeable among the gloomy faces was that of Punia, who after saving 12 Australian shots (apart from the one that wasn’t) was in tears.

“Of course, we are human beings,” Punia said, her eyes moist, when asked if that moment affected her for the rest of the shootout. “The next moment we realise that we can’t change it and can't give an excuse. It was tough and we had to move on. It’s our hard luck.”

Officials of the Games’ technical delegation team present at the venue refused comment, leaving it for the international hockey federation (FIH) to do. In a statement, FIH said, “… the penalty shootout started mistakenly too early (the clock was not yet ready to operate), for which we apologise. The process in place for such situations is that the penalty shootout has to be retaken, which was done. This incident will be thoroughly reviewed by the FIH in order to avoid any similar issues in the future.”

Both Punia and Schopman, the former Dutch player, said they hadn’t experienced something like this before in their respective long careers. So did Malone, who added she is "not going to be opening up my social media tonight".

India had come back with aplomb to take the fight to the Aussies, whom they beat in the Tokyo Olympics quarter-finals. Rebecca Greiner got the three-time Olympic champions ahead in the 10th minute, but the composed Indian defence didn't leak too much after that. India's attacking intensity picked up in the fourth quarter, a neat deflection off right-place-at-the-right-time Vandana Katariya was the reward in the 49th minute.

The shootout didn't go to plan, even more with Lalremsiami, Neha and Navneet Kaur not able to make inroads.

“I think it (retake) did have an impact. Emotion plays the role that ‘I have to score’. If Siami (Lalremsiami) is taking the first one and knows Savi (Savita) made the first save, you know it’s different than when you know you feel the need to score,” Schopman said. “It’s unfortunate how it all went down, because I can live with losing in shootouts but the way… I’m a little bit upset with it.”


    A romantic of the ferocious Rafael Nadal forehand, Rutvick Mehta loves his tennis but has been covering various other sport since 2012. He writes for HT.

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