Rewind to early July 2015 – the Indian senior women’s hockey team had raised ‘serious aspirations of qualifying’ for the 2016 Rio Olympics after a hiatus of 36 years (the Indian eves had last featured at the 1980 Moscow Olympics) with a fighting solitary goal win over Japan that paved the way for its fifth-place finish at the 2014-15 FIH Hockey World League semifinals in Belgium.
The Indian eves’ Olympic qualification was facilitated by England winning the 2015 Women’s EuroHockey Nations Championship, which had opened up a quote place for India. The Indian girls’ Olympic qualification was highly creditable, considering the fact that the national side did not have a chief coach for close to four months (Aussie Neil Hawgood had stepped down in November 2014) and Canadian Mathias Ahrens took charge just two months before the Hockey World League semifinals in Belgium.
Fast-forward to 2019, the Indian eves will again have to go through the Olympic qualification route after failing to seal a direct berth via the Asian Games route after they had lost to Japan 1-2 in the final. Now with the Olympic qualifiers likely to happen in November this year, the national team is striving to do all the right things to get the desired results.
“Every player understands the importance of qualifying for the Olympics. There is a great deal of mindset improvement on the part of the girls, who are taking ownership of what they do on the pitch,” says Indian women’s hockey team chief coach Sjoerd Marijne.
The 45-year-old Dutch coach took the charge of the senior women’s team in February 2017 and was subsequently handed the reins of the senior men’s team in September 2017 only to be reinstated as the chief coach of the women’s team in May 2018. Obviously, he knows the girls well enough now that he has spent close to two years with the girls.
“It’s been a good journey so far. We have got some good results – winning a silver at the 2018 Asian Champions Trophy was a high point for us and then we put up a lot of fight at the 2018 World Cup and playing out draws against sides like England and USA although we finished 8th. So I’m upbeat about the future.”
One question that is often asked is when the Indian eves would start to match top teams like the Netherlands, Argentina, Australia and England and beat them regularly. What’s Marijne’s take?
“Look, we have running top teams close over the last few years or so. I believe the upcoming Tokyo 2020 Olympics Test Event later this month will give us an opportunity to assess where we stand as we will be squaring up against teams like Australia (the currently world number 2 side) and Asian powerhouses China and Japan.”
The mention of the Indian forward line-up brings a smile on his face. “The good thing about our forwards is that they all bring different skill sets to the side.
“Rani Rampal has been leading from the front and she is different from Vandana Katariya, who is different from Lalresiami and the same applies to Navneet Kaur and Navjot Kaur. As far as improvement areas are concerned, the girls need to focus on improving their decision-making inside the striking circle.”
The Indian women’s hockey team chief coach also talked glowingly about talented drag-flicker Gurjit Kaur. “Gurjit is one of the three drag-flickers in the world – he is coming off age for us. We have other short corner options as well – even Rani can score from penalty corners.”
Modern hockey is increasingly focusing on full-press hockey and the same is missing in women’s hockey. “We try to adopt full-press hockey whenever possible but it is not easy to execute because a lot of European team engage in aerial balls, which makes it tough for any side to go for full press hockey,” says the Dutchman who does not read much into Indian team dropping one notch to 10th in the FIH rankings. “We earned 500 points by winning FIH Series in Japan, but we still dropped one place. There is not much you can do about rankings – at the moment, our focus is on qualifying for the Olympics and we can’t afford to bother about rankings,” he shares his perspective.
Ask him about a likely prospect of a women’s Hockey India League on the lines of the men’s Hockey India League, Marijne feels such an initiative will do wonders to women’s hockey in India. “We all know HIL has helped the Indian men’s team and women’s hockey will get a big lift if such an initiative is undertaken,” says the Dutchman who was in a hurry to have his lunch as he has to be ready for overseeing the next training session of the girls.