By B. Shrikant
Mumbai, Apr 2 (IANS): Having lived in the shadow of their male counterparts for decades, the Indian women hockey players have blossomed into world-beaters in the last two-three years, adding a few more chapters to the chequered history of the sport in the country.
From being also-rans at major events for decades, the Indian women's team qualified for the Tokyo Olympic Games, which were held in 2021 because of the Covid-19 pandemic, and virtually overshadowed the men's team that went on to end a four-decade-long medal drought at the Olympics by winning a historic bronze.
The women's team did not win a medal in Tokyo, but still captured the imagination of the entire country as it made a sensational run to reach its maiden semifinals, missing the bronze medal by a whisker, losing to Great Britain in the playoff match.
However, the brilliant comeback by the team after losing a couple of matches in the preliminary league phase and finishing fourth in their group, their memorable win against two-time gold medallists Australia in the quarterfinals, and the fight it put up in the 1-2 defeat to Argentina in the semis and 3-4 loss to Great Britain in the playoff match and the overpouring of emotions from the players, the Prime Minister and other political leaders made it a script better than the best-ever fairytale.
Their performance was totally unexpected even for their most ardent supporters. Players like captain Rani Rampal, goalkeeper Savita Punia, drag-flick expert Gurjit Kaur, Navjot Kaur, young forward Lalremsiami, Nikki Pradhan, experienced Sushila Chanu, Salima Tete, and Deep Grace Ekka became household names, proving that if nurtured properly and given the best of the facilities, Indian women can be world beaters in hockey.
In a country with such a rich tradition in hockey which has seen legends like Dhyan Chand, Roop Singh, Balbir Singh Senior, Prithipal Singh, Leslie Claudius, Udham Singh, KD Singh Babu, and Ajitpal Singh mesmerize fans around the world with their silken ball skills, helping the country win six gold medals in a row from 1924 and eight altogether in the Olympics, the women's team has always struggled for space despite producing players such as the Saini Sisters, Lorraine Fernandes, Prem Maya Sonir, Selma D'Silva, Rajbir Kaur -- the only Indian hockey player to have represented the country in four consecutive Asian Games in 1982, 1986, 1990 and 1994 -- Pritam Siwach, Mamta Kharab, and Helen Mary Innocent.
During this period, India won the gold medal in the 1982 Asian Games in New Delhi, the gold in the 2002 Commonwealth Games in Manchester, and the Asia Cup on a couple of occasions.
The change in the fortune of the players happened after the merger of old men's and women's federations -- the Indian hockey Federation (IHF) and Indian Women's Hockey Federation (IWHF) -- under one body, Hockey India in 2010, which paved the way for better-planned utilisation of infrastructure, financial resources, and hockey expertise, thus giving the players a chance and confidence to take on the best in the world.
Women's hockey made its entry into the Olympics at the fag end of India's dominance in 1980 in the boycott-plagued Olympics Games in Moscow. The men's team won its eighth and last gold medal while the women missed a medal, finishing fourth among six teams.
The Sjoerd Marijne-coached team then returned to the Olympics in the 2016 edition in Rio de Janeiro in Brazil but had an uneventful competition, finishing 12th and last in the standings.
Tokyo Olympics turned out to be the changeover Games for the Indian women's hockey team as it not only participated in its second successive Olympic Games but also achieved success exceeding expectations.
The main reason for the team's success at the Tokyo Olympics was the decision by Hockey India and the Sports Authority of India (SAI) to host the team for continuous camp during the nationwide lockdown because of the Covid-19 pandemic and train together without lengthy breaks.
That brought the players together as a unit and helped them improve their fitness and with special sessions organised to improve tactical awareness and game planning, the Indian women's team was better prepared for the Tokyo Olympic Games.
After Tokyo Olympics, the team finished third in the Pro League 2021-22 and also won the newly-introduced Nations Cup, earning promotion to the Pro League for the next edition in the 2023-24 season. Though there have been disappointments like at the 2022 World Cup, the bronze medal at the Birmingham Commonwealth Games has proved that the success of 2021 was no flash in the pan and the team is capable of reaching the top.
The team has made it to the top 10 in World Rankings and is looking good to qualify for the Paris Olympics next year by winning the Asian Games in Hangzhou, China in 2023.
If they manage to repeat their success of Tokyo in Paris, it will continue their march to the top of the World.