Updated January 20th, 2024 at 23:25 IST
Future tense: Women's hockey searches for answers after Olympic dream shattered
Ill-timed side-lining of experienced players, apparent inconsistency in tempo, and inability to address long-standing weaknesses -- there would be plenty to ponder for the Indian women's hockey team when it gets down to the arduous task of rebuilding for the next Olympic cycle.
Ill-timed side-lining of experienced players, apparent inconsistency in tempo, and inability to address long-standing weaknesses -- there would be plenty to ponder for the Indian women's hockey team when it gets down to the arduous task of rebuilding for the next Olympic cycle after the shocking failure to qualify for Paris.
The 0-1 loss to Japan in the third-place match of the FIH Olympic Qualifiers here on Friday can seem stunning on the face of it but dig just a little bit deeper and it would be apparent that the debacle was a long time coming.
Skipper Savita Punia and her teammates had tears rolling down their dejected faces and all one could see in their eyes was uncertainty, perhaps a hint of fear too as to what awaits them next.
"I don't know," said the team's very shaken coach Janneke Schopman unable to articulate what the future holds for either her or her wards.
Hockey India has ruled out any drastic measures and quite frankly with an Olympic cycle lost, what would any drastic measure achieve at this point? The rebuilding process, after all, has to be a carefully thought out one.
Having qualified for two consecutive Olympics in 2016 and 2020 after efforts of more than three decades, the Indian women made gradual progress at the world level.
The big moment under the sun was of course the Tokyo Olympics. There was no medal but the side's gallantry in a campaign that fetched it the fourth spot won over the nation, which decided that these women deserved to be feted as much as those who came back with a medal around their necks.
So, what changed in a matter of three years? Where did the momentum go? The answer to these questions is not an all-encompassing one fact.
The first of the many reasons probably lies in the loss of their charismatic Dutch coach Sjoerd Marijne, who decided to pack his bags after Tokyo as he didn't want to stay away from his family in a high-pressure job.
Marijne had created a very committed, happy unit that roared in Tokyo and Schopman, also from the Netherlands, was his assistant at that point. It looked like a smooth transition of role to her.
But clearly, she has struggled to get the balance right even though to her credit, the team did rise to its highest ever world number six standing on the back of some good performances.
And that's why none could be faulted for believing that this team ought to have made it to Paris in the Asian Games last year, where a gold was needed to seal the deal.
Instead, the Indians brought home a bronze, one would say a medal nonetheless but then, it was just that, a medal which did not fetch them the bigger prize on offer.
That result should have set alarm bells ringing but call it complacency or confidence, there was immense belief that in Ranchi, the job would be done. And now that it hasn't happened, the questions are aplenty.
"...obviously it has been a disappointing outing for us. We now have to start from the scratch and have four years time in hand to prepare for the next Olympics," Hockey India secretary general Bholanath Singh told PTI.
The optimism of his statement can barely hide the fact that it would be a hustle for the team and that decades of hard work has come undone in a matter of months.
And HI has a lot to answer as well for its own role in what has transpired.
Rani Rampal, the mid-field fulcrum and captain of the side in Tokyo, was axed within months of the Games without so much as a proper explanation.
There were murmurs of rift in the side and the currently 29-year-old did not mince words in saying that only the coach, the team management and the selectors knew just why she was being ignored.
A nagging hamstring injury had a role to play perhaps but her exclusion from the Asian Games squad was still a surprise and she made her displeasure clear especially after making a strong case for comeback with 18 goals in the National Games.
What followed was HI's bizarre decision to appoint her as the coach of sub-junior players despite the fact that she had not yet retired. She accepted the role but refused to give up on a possible comeback on the field.
Seasoned defender and penalty corner specialist Deep Grace Ekka and drag-flicker Gurjit Kaur also made way for younger players but the experiment didn't yield the desired result, as was visible here.
While Gurjit was simply dropped, Deep Grace, after talking about how devastated she felt following the Asian Games heartbreak, opted out of the Olympic Qualifiers for personal reasons.
The two were key players for India in Tokyo even though one could argue that the team management was entitled to take a punt on youth.
Their replacements -- Deepika and Udita --, however, lacked consistency.
"Deepika is young and doesn't have that experience, while Udita has just one slap shot. There is no variation," said former India captain Ajitpal Singh.
"I don't know why the Indian team management didn't select Deep Grace and Gurjit, who are very good from penalty corners and also have the experience behind their backs," he wondered.
Having said that, it is not that the Indians played badly in the tournament, but they were guilty of not playing to their strength which is attacking hockey.
Skipper Savita, who is also the goalkeeper, mid-fielder Neha Goyal, forward Navneet Kaur are among those who would face some tough questions.
But for any fair assessment, the team will have to first overcome the agony of missing out on an Olympics. And that wound will take a while to heal. PTI SSC PM PM PM
Published January 20th, 2024 at 23:25 IST