Where does the India women's hockey team go from here? | Hockey - Hindustan Times

Where does the India women's hockey team go from here?

Mar 05, 2024 06:28 AM IST

Not qualifying for the Olympics was a huge blow and it is important that the team sets new goals quickly.

There will be 16 fewer athletes travelling with the Indian contingent to the Paris Olympics in July. The women’s hockey team didn’t make the cut despite qualifying for both Rio 2016 and Tokyo 2020. But that story is over. As disappointing and hurtful as it may be, it is time to look forward so that the girls do not suffer the same fate at Los Angeles 2028.

Indian women's hockey team fails to qualify for Paris Olympics.
Indian women's hockey team fails to qualify for Paris Olympics.

The first step in that direction will be to identify players who will be available in 2028.

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“They should draw a line under the team now and start a new project involving the national junior team players that you’ll see playing in 2028," former India coach Neil Hawgood, who guided the women’s team to their first Olympic qualification in 36 years at Rio 2016, said from Hiroshima where he is coaching a corporate team. “The Pro League needs to be part of their growth. I am not saying (build) a new team but start giving the future players a taste of senior hockey.”

Sjoerd Marijne, who was coach of the team for the Tokyo Olympics, agrees.

“It is very important especially at this point in time that you choose players who will play for long for India," said Marijne. "You have to choose valuable players and mix them with young players. It is perfect time to reset for the next Olympics. What the new coach has to build is a new culture which the players adopt because everything changes whenever a new coach comes in.”

India’s next major tournaments will all be in 2026 – Commonwealth Games, Asian Games and the World Cup. While there is a question around CWG, the Asian Games should be taken with utmost seriousness as winning a gold in Nagoya will ensure a golden ticket to LA. It will also do away with the pressure of making the cut through the Olympic Qualifiers which turned out to be a disaster at Ranchi.

For that, as Hawgood said, India should start using the Pro League as an exposure and experimental tournament – as done by most top teams – to not just inject more young blood into the team but also build a solid bench strength so that in case a top player gets injured, the substitute is good enough to fill her position.

“There is no major competition in the near future. This period should be used to prepare our new batch which should be a mix of juniors and seniors, who can play till LA and not just for another year or so. We should create the core group again and work on creating two groups who can prepare together,” former India captain Pritam Rani Siwach said from Sonipat.

Siwach is quite right. Take Netherlands, for example. They regularly send not just their B side but also the junior team to play top tier Pro League matches. Though they may be losing those games, what they gain is invaluable experience so that when they graduate to the senior level, they are ready, confident and unafraid to take on the rest of the world, somewhat like the IPL effect.

Having played with the best in the business in the Indian Premier League (IPL), players like Jasprit Bumrah, Ishan Kishan, Rinku Singh were ready to ply their trade when they transitioned into international cricket.

Part of the only Indian team (male or female) to have won a Commonwealth Games gold in 2002, Siwach has always been critical of the small core group and the lack of injection of young blood which will not just increase the core group but also better the bench strength.

“Give chances to everyone. Those good, put them in the core group. We made a mistake earlier. We were only making one group play be it in major competitions, test matches, Pro League or bilateral games. That should not be the case. You have to keep changing. You should have 40 girls so that irrespective of who goes out, it won’t affect the team on the field. Of late, the foreign coaches have been creating a core group of just 20-24," said Siwach.

"Also, we should have a development camp. There have been many girls who graduated from juniors but never made it to seniors, just disappeared. This development camp should be taken seriously and be handed over to good coaches who can give it a competitive atmosphere and identify talent who can be promoted to the next level.”

Perhaps the most crucial area that hurt India in recent times was the inability to convert their chances, especially during penalty corners (PC). It is true that due to better training, equipment and technique, PC defence is getting better. But the best in the business are still able to convert when required. Drag-flick or direct conversion in women’s hockey is not as common as men as women’s hockey relies more on variation than strength.

“They should start working on converting the penalty corner chances," Marijne said. "They have been creating opportunities but now they should be converting those chances into goals. Apart from working on their PCs, the new coach should also focus on the field goals. They have been running in well and creating opportunities there too but if they are to win matches they should score field goals too. That will be one of the first tasks for the new coach.”

Another key area that can be worked on is the exposure given to the second goalkeeper. The reliance on Savita Punia has been overwhelming and with the defence failing, it adds to the pressure of the skipper standing between the posts. The women’s team can take a cue from the men’s outfit who, from the time of Graham Reid who led India men to an Olympic medal after 41 years in Tokyo, have been changing keepers every quarter.

The tactic has not just helped reduce the pressure on three-time Olympian PR Sreejesh but has also handed a tremendous amount of exposure to Krishan Bahadur Pathak to cope in high pressure situations. The result is that Pathak has at times even outperformed his senior colleague and when the times comes, Pathak will be ready to take on the responsibilities of a main goalie.

"When Savita decides to retire the team could face problems. We haven’t seen the team employ this tactic even against weaker teams. Everyone should get chances. I am not criticising anyone but only giving my views as a coach. Why are you taking a second goalkeeper to tournaments if you are not going to give her a chance,” questioned Dronacharya awadee Siwach.

For example, women’s team second keeper Bichu Devi Kharibam played only one match during the FIH Olympic Qualifiers in Ranchi and participated in only three Pro League games out of eight this year. In comparison, Pathak played in seven and was away for the eighth only due to the birth of his child.

“If you play them together, her confidence will also be high. All of a sudden if you send in a second keeper who then concedes a goal, it demotivates them. In all areas, they have to get serious now and not just before competitions," added Siwach, four of whose wards are currently part of the national setup.

Which brings us to the final piece in the puzzle: new coach. It has been reliably learnt that Hockey India (HI) is already on the lookout for a new coach but finalisation could probably take place around the Olympics when the contracts of most top coaches in the world ends.

“It needs to be local leadership now. It has been 12 years since a foreign coach was appointed to lead the changes required. First four years were about setting a new direction. The second four years was where they grew and had belief. This cycle was unfortunate," says Hawgood.

“I believe it’s time for a local coach with maybe a foreign advisor to help develop and create a solid link between both senior and junior teams, down to U-18s and play a style that suits the natural Indian skill set.”

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    From badminton to cricket, Sandip Sikdar writes on many sporting disciplines. He has the experience of working in digital, news agency as well as print organisations. Motorsport remains his first love.

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