The year was 1980. At the Moscow edition, women's hockey was for the first time introduced in the Summer Olympics roster.
India, which so far had glorious exploits by the men's team winning a galore of gold medals, fielded their women's team in the Games, which ended up yielding their best-ever performance at the Olympics, where they finished fourth. However, despite a promising show in 1980, no one could have imagined that the Eves would take another 36 years to make their second appearance at the Olympics. Government apathy, poor infrastructure, financial woes could all be blamed for the lengthy wait. However, when Indian women's hockey team was inducted in the Rio Olympics schedule, it turned out to be a moment of historical significance for Indian sports.
A gargantuan effort went on to attain this historic milestone and a major chunk of credit goes to a sleepy town of India, lying 200 kilometres away from the national capital of Delhi. Shahabad, a small rural subdivision in Kurukshetra of Haryana, is not a place of much significance and many might not have ever heard of it. It is, however, the Nursery of Women's Hockey in the country, where champions like Ritu Rani, Rani Rampal have been raised and honed to what they are today.
A three-hour drive from New Delhi, off National Highway 1 will take you to the famous Shahabad Hockey Academy. A small patch of artificial turf which made all the difference by helping Indian women’s hockey team taking the giant leap into the Rio Olympics. In 2016 Olympics team, two players were from Shahabad Markanda. The exceptional players of Shahabad Markanda were being produced by Dronacharya Awardee coach S. Baldev Singh, who maintained his superior performance for a very long period at the international level. Indian hockey will always be indebted to Baldev Singh for his contribution in training some of the best hockey players in the country.
In 1981, Singh got appointed in the Haryana Sports Department. Posted in Shahabad till 1986, he focussed mainly on training the boys, which included Olympians like Sanjeev Kumar Dang, Sandeep Singh. During this stint, some girls also showed interest in learning hockey. However, he couldn't give time to them as he was transferred to Sirsa in 1986, where he revived Namdhari’s Hockey Team. In 1992, he came back again in Shahabad, in the State’s Sports Department. Looking for a good hockey ground, he found one school named Guru Nanak Pritam Girl’s Senior Secondary School. Since accessing the ground meant allowing the girls to play as well, Baldev took on the challenge to fight conservative ideas of the native Hariyanvis. Even an accidental slipping off a dupatta was unacceptable.
Baldev Singh with Rani Rampal
The school administration did not want boys and girls to play together. Reluctantly and under pressure from the relentless Singh, the school allowed the girls to play. Fighting all odds, Singh stoked a revolution of hockey with the girls and later went on to produce star players. Take for example Rani Rampal, the captain of Indian women's hockey team, rared under the watchful tutelage of Singh, has come a long way of becoming the most popular face of women's hockey in India. She was honoured as best young player of the tournament in 2010 Hockey World Cup, in 2013 Junior World cup she got the award of player of the tournament. Rani Rampal awarded as “Top Goal Scorer” and “Young Player of the tournament” in the Champions Challenge Tournament, Russia. Rani has led the India team to historic victories in the Women's Asia Cup in 2017, silver at the 2018 Asian Games and played a critical role in the Olympic Qualifiers in 2019 by scoring the deciding goal that helped in their qualification for the Tokyo Olympics. She has also been nominated for the prestigious Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna Award this year.
Rani, a girl from Shahabad, registered in the town's team by the age of six and she feels she will always be indebted to the Shahabad Academy for shaping up as the player she is now, in an exclusive with The Bridge, she says "The Shahabad Hockey Academy will always be special for me. I learned everything about hockey in that academy and I wouldn't be where I am today without being coached by Baldev Sir there. The academy has produced many international players and it's one of the oldest hockey academies in the country. If one has the talent and the will to work hard then the player will certainly make it to the top through the Shahabad Hockey Academy. That's the speciality of the place."
Being a small town, people in Shahabad have a conservative philosophy According to them, girls should not play hockey, not to wear t-shirts and shorts. Rani, who is a daughter of daily wage labour, also had to face the same challenges and was questioned for her choices. "My parents didn't want me to play hockey when I had first asked them. We don't come from a well-to-do background so my father was apprehensive about inducting me into a hockey academy. But I kept nagging and pleading because I wanted to play hockey and finally my father agreed.
"Most parents in the town understand how the academy functions and gained confidence when players started joining the national team. My relatives used to tell me that I would spoil my family name if I played hockey, but now the same people are proud of my achievements and send their children to play the sport," says the captain.
It was because of the consistent support from Singh, Rani could flourish in her hockey career. She says, "The advantage of Shahabad is that any player from any background can become an international player. Everyone in the academy support one another and get the best out of each other. From my own personal experience, I could not have played hockey if I wasn't supported by Baldev Singh sir and my seniors. My seniors gave their old hockey kits to me for my training. The camaraderie that the group has at the academy is amazing."
In Shahabad, rigorous practice sessions go twice a day. At 5 am, practice session goes on for the girls — and a small group of boys, which ends at 7 am. Then they have their standard breakfast with bread, butter, two bananas, cubes of raw paneer, and a steel mug full of steaming milk. Then the players are off to school, college or work, but everyone will be back for evening practice at 3 pm. This gruelling regime has led the town to produce over 30 international women’s hockey players in the last 15 years. Along with Rani, Monika, Navjot Kaur, Pooja, Neha are some of the players who are a part of the present Indian squad coming from the Shahabad Hockey Academy. Even the youngest girls tackle and handle the ball effortlessly on their sticks while darting around the field. They are lean and tough. Their short-sleeved jerseys and shorts show off strong biceps, wrists and calf muscles.
Singh quit the Shahabad Hockey Academy in March 2015, after being disillusioned by the negligent attitude of the state government and sports department officials. He now coaches at another academy in Punjab. Gurbaj Singh has taken over as the coach of the Shahabad Hockey Academy since Baldev's departure. The future, however, looks bright for the academy as Rani concludes, "The future of Shahabad has always been bright because of the academy. Many children can dream of playing hockey for India only because of the academy. The youngsters know that anything is possible with hard work and dedication."