Road less taken - A remote Himachal club puts India on track for Handball history
India's women's handball team are set to qualify for the World Championships for the first time. 3 players from the team hail from the same club. Surprisingly, this club has a ground cut from hills, not an indoor court.
India's women's handball team scripted a historic result at the Asian Handball Championships in Korea on Friday, defeating Thailand in the 5th-8th playoff match to put one foot into next year's World Championships.
No senior Indian handball team has qualified for a World Championships before. To put into perspective how special this run is, India seldom features in World Championships or World Cups in major team sports like hockey, football, volleyball and basketball.
"This is the best performance in our history," Sachin Chaudhary, the national handball team's head coach, said unequivocally.
"Earlier, we used to win barely one match at a tournament like this. This year, we have beaten Uzbekistan, Australia and Thailand in consecutive matches. I have been travelling with Indian teams as a player and as a coach for many years, this is the first time there is such a buoyant mood within the team," he said.
If India win their 5th-6th playoff match against Kazakhstan on Saturday, they will qualify for the 2023 Women's Handball World Championship. In the 65-year history of this event, this would be a first.
Even if India lose to Kazakhstan, they would still stand a chance to earn the few quotas which are handed out by the International Handball Federation to deserving teams who do not qualify through continental events like the Asian Championships.
Since the sport of handball got official recognition in India in 1972, this is the biggest result in the 50-year history of the sport in the country.
A silent handball revolution in a remote Himachal village
The biggest marvel, however, is how India's players have been able to go toe to toe with some of the world's best handball players despite lack of access to basic training - for example, an indoor court.
Chaudhary agreed that the lack of access to indoor courts is a major difference with other teams, but he added that what the Indian girls lack in facilities, they make up for with their hunger.
"All the girls are from very poor families. Had they not played handball, they would have worked in the fields. The lack of indoor courts is a problem everywhere in India, but we make our players so fit that they can overcome that challenge," he said.
"When we get access to indoor courts for one month at the national camp, we try to ensure that the players are so fit that they only need to work on their technique in the final stages of preparation," he added.
Chaudhary's Morsinghi Handball Nursery, a club in Himachal Pradesh's Bilaspur, which has a ground cut out of mountains as the training ground instead of an indoor court, accounts for some of the top young handball players in the country - three of whom are part of the senior team.
Bhawana Sharma, Sanjana Kumari and Priyanka Thakur - all players from remote Morsinghi - have formed the core of the team alongside the likes of Menika Pal of Railways and Sonika of Haryana.
"Take the case of Bhawana. She comes from an interior village in Himachal without any sports culture in her family. But she is one of three sisters who are part of my nursery. This is a route out of their lives of poverty for many such families," said Chaudhary.
"When one person secures a job through sports, many people from that village turn up to train in that sport. When one person is saved from early marriage through sports, many young girls turn up. It is very common that 3-4 sisters from one family turn up to train together," he explained.
Stars of Morsinghi take India to the world
Chaudhary's Morsinghi academy, which has stunned bigger players like Railways, Haryana and Punjab in recent years at events like the National Championships, has played a huge role in handball's breakout story in the country.
Now housing around 40 girls (from U10 to seniors) who stay at Chaudhary's hostel, the academy trains girls to have their lives revolve around sports.
"What we try to do is to have the girls do everything together - eating, sleeping, playing. This builds teamwork, something that is visible in better results in the matches. The collective nature of our play is what the other teams like Haryana, Railways also follow," Chaudhary said.
Earlier this year, when the junior women's team made their debut at the Junior World Championships, there were six players from Morsinghi in the national team - including Bhawana, Priyanka and Sanjana. These three players have since then made the jump to the senior team, infusing a newfound aggression and energy.
Bhawana Sharma, one of the three youngsters from Morsinghi, is the second highest scorer for the Indian team at the Asian Championships with 35 goals, behind only Menika Pal, who has 38. Bhawana scored 16 goals in one match against Australia, somehow running rings around players who have grown up playing on indoor courts.
The Women's World Championship will begin on November 30, 2023. It will feature countries like Denmark, Norway, Sweden, France, Montenegro, Netherlands, Angola, Cameroon, Congo, Senegal, Brazil, Argentina, China, Japan, Korea, Iran - and most possibly for the first time, India.
But speaking on Friday, coach Chaudhary still had a tinge of regret.
"We lost out to Iran in our first match because we could not adapt to the conditions in Korea in time. There's minus temperature here now, the girls took some time to adapt to that. Had we beaten Iran, we would have been playing the semifinals and already ensured automatic qualification for the Worlds," he said.