Indian women’s hockey team’s eighth-place finish at the 2018 Women’s World Cup in London exudes a kind of ‘guarded optimism’ feeling about its future.
Nobody expected the Blueskirts to set the Lee Valley Hockey and Tennis Centre at London on fire – not even the team’s ardent supporters. Deep inside, though, they would have cherished the national side crown themselves in glory in London but they knew that realistically the Rani Rampal-led side still does not have the ‘desired ammunition’ to counter formidable sides like the Netherlands, Australia, England and Argentina on a consistent basis.
One is no way suggesting that the Indian hockey eves cut a ‘disappointing’ figure in London. The Sjoerd Marijne-coached side probably surprised themselves more than anyone else with their 1-1 draw against England. It is never easy when you square up against the world number two side that was enjoying vociferous home crowd support that happens to be the first tie of a World Cup. Bear in mind that the United Kingdom is also reigning Olympic champion.
With little luck riding their way, India could have closed out a famous victory if not for letting in a goal six minutes from the final hooter. Frustratingly, the Indian girls undid all their good work of the first game and dished out a scrappy match against lower-ranked Ireland that was teeming with confidence after their 3-1 upset over the USA.
India’s World Cup campaign was in peril when they locked horns with world number seven USA in their final league. Like Ireland, the free-flowing game the Indian eves were known for, was sorely missing as they endured anxious moments doing ‘catching up’ after conceding the first-quarter goal and it need skipper Rani to save the day off a set-piece.
The 1-1 draw propelled India into the crossover phase, where they showed more intent to outclass Italy 3-0 – a side that was by no means a pushover squad having earlier stunned higher-ranked China 3-0 in the league phase.
The Indian girls adopted a cautious approach against Ireland in the quarterfinal, and it did seem like the ‘big occasion pressure’ got to them as the team struggled with their trapping and regularly indulged in sloppy passing. The Indian eves were guilty of not releasing the ball quickly and were often dispossessed by the Irish girls, as their passing game was tardy.
Individual dribbling comes naturally to Indian players but leveraging it judiciously is the key. Rani Rampal for one – tried to impose herself with her dribbling skills, but was severely bottled up.
The most significant improvement area should be decision-making in the striking circle. It was evident that the Indian forwards ran out of ideas once they forayed into the opposition ‘D’. On so many occasions at the World Cup, we saw crosses being drilled in from the right or left flank with no player in sight to deflect or pounce on those crosses. Lalremsiami was undoubtedly the find of the World Cup, but experienced guys like Navneet Kaur and Vandana Katariya did not quite make a big impression.
Vandana was sparingly used in the first few games, and one thought her partnership with Rani could be unsettling for any opponent. Overreliance on Rani was on expected lines but in modern hockey expecting one player to make a difference is asking for too much.
India’s penalty corner conversions left a lot to be desired at the World Cup. Save for Rani’s goal against the USA; the Blueskirts could not fetch any PC goal. Young drag-flicker Gurjit Kaur was a bag of nerves failing to find the target even once in five games, and was also guilty of lousy passing, especially in the quarterfinal game.
Of course, losing in a shootout of a World Cup quarterfinal is always hard to swallow, but then the Indian girls showed during the regulation time that they had the ‘stuff’ to breach the Irish cage. No team deserves to win if they can’t score off their first three attempts – in fact, Savita did a superb job effecting saves of the first two Irish attempts, but the Indian girls made a hash of the shootout themselves.
The Indian eves can surely take heart from the fact that they drew the world number two side as well as world number 7 USA but their twin losses to lower-ranked Ireland will perturb them for some time as ‘tears of disappointment’ was palpable in the Indian dugout after the shootout disaster. Overall, India is an improving side, and if they keep working hard, they can be a world-beater in the years to come. One hopes that the girls can tide over this ‘temporary gloom’ and fire on all cylinders in the upcoming Asian Games in Indonesia.