Rani Rampal has been the flag bearer of Indian women's hockey for a long time now, but she continues to be curiously absent from the team one year after she led India to a historic fourth-place finish at the Tokyo Olympics.
Having made her international debut as a 15-year-old back in 2010, the Shahabad lass has not only emerged as a vital cog in the wheel for the Indian team but has also been a charismatic leader, leading by example.
However, with her exclusion from the FIH Nations Cup squad as well on Wednesday, questions on why the 27-year-old has faded into oblivion over the last year have been amplified.
Post the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, Rani Rampal has failed to find herself in the core group of 18-20 players. While injuries did certainly play a part, her continuing absence from the international setup despite good performances in domestic circuit raises eyebrows.
What makes this even more baffling is that this comes just a month after Rani smashed a whopping 18 goals in just six matches at the 2022 National Games in Gujarat, proving she is more than fit to make it to the national team.
The mysterious long-term injury
Rani was out of action until March this year after the Olympics owing to a hamstring injury. She, however, was expected to walk into the Indian team for the 2022 Women's FIH Hockey World Cup in July as the captain. But, that never happened. Savita Punia, who many had assumed was temporarily taking the captain's armband, continued leading the side.
"Except Rani Rampal, who is still not fully recovered from injury rehabilitation, the team has all the players who were part of the Olympic campaign," coach Janneke Schopmann said ahead of that tournament.
The veteran was named in the squad for India's European tour which preceded the World Cup, but she mainly warmed the bench. Rani was handed a game time of just 10-odd minutes in a match against Belgium, after sitting out the first four matches on the tour completely. While this could have been interpreted as an injury management strategy, what followed was even more baffling.
Rani Rampal not only failed to find a place in the Indian squad for the World Cup in Spain, she was also nowhere to be seen during India's bronze medal winning run at the 2022 Commonwealth Games in Birmingham less than a month later.
Moreover, it has been reported that "Rani had no fitness issues" during her 10-minute appearance in the match against Belgium. Fitness, therefore, could not have been the reason she was dropped from the World Cup or CWG squads.
Left out in cold, Rani racks up domestic goals
Seemingly left out in the cold by the Indian team, the Khel Ratna awardee let her stick do the talking at the National Games.
"Turning up for Haryana and enjoying every single moment on the pitch at this National Games reminded me once again why I love this game so much and no matter the hardships, aim is always to do well for the team," Rani had tweeted after leading Haryana to a gold medal.
Despite coming up with the most sparkling individual performance in domestic hockey over the last month, Rani Rampal continues to be overlooked.
Could the change in leadership post the Tokyo Olympics be the reason why she has not found a way back? The post Tokyo Olympics era ushered in a lot of changes for women's hockey in country, with Janneke Schopman taking over as the coach from Sjoerd Marjine and the charismatic goalkeeper Savita Punia taking over the captain's armband in Rani's absence.
While Punia has led the side incredibly well from the front, the team's performance has not quite taken off as expected. During the big ticket events like the World Cup and the Commonwealth Games, the Indians seemed to lack experience during their forward presses - something which could possibly be eased out with Rani's presence.
But for now Rani Rampal seems to be far off from Janneke Schopman's plans for this Indian team.