In every conversation post the Asian Games, Indian women’s hockey team chief coach Janneke Schopman and captain Savita Punia had no qualms in admitting that the semifinal performance in Hangzhou just wasn’t good enough against China. Then, in essence, the seven matches in Ranchi were a chance to show they can be better.
After the disappointment in China, India bounced back to put together a fine run at the Asian Champions Trophy in Ranchi that culminated with the title on Sunday. It doesn’t make up for the missed opportunity at the Asiad, where an Olympic quota was at stake. But it sets the team up well for the FIH Olympic Qualifiers in January at the same venue.
We take a look at five takeaways from the tournament for India:
Salima and Sangita make Simdega proud
India’s biggest positive was the promise and potential of two youngsters who began their journey from Simdega, the hockey-crazy district about 120km from Ranchi. Sangita Kumari emerged as the tournament’s second best goalscorer, with 6 to her name. Salima Tete, the speedster who was given a new role through the center of the pitch, was the player of the tournament with five goals and plenty of other contributions to the team’s cause. That they both did so with all the attention on them from the local crowd is a credit to their mental strength as well as a vindication of the support they received to rise up through the ranks. Schopman was full of praise for Sangita’s goal-scoring and also seemed reassured about her call to move Salima inward from the flanks.
Penalty corners a concern
The recently relaid astroturf at the stadium wasn’t conducive for taking short corners, as almost all teams struggled. But even with that, India’s semifinal display on that front was especially disappointing. So much so that Schopman didn’t even show her team the videos ahead of the final. She just told her players, ‘not good enough’. “The mistraps and mishits, sometimes the pressure gets to the players I guess from short corners,” she had said after the Korea match. But to India’s credit, they brought something close to their ‘A’ Game from PCs in the final, showing quick thinking on their feet. (Two out of India’s four goals came via PCs against Japan.) Deepika showed glimpses of her talent for drag flicks but India still seem to depend largely on variations and deflections.
The number of cards that India got would perhaps be the biggest annoyance for the Indian management. While the occasional green card can be harmless, India repeatedly put themselves under pressure with late yellows. The semifinal, for instance, saw India get two back-to-back yellows for 5-minute suspensions. In a six-team tournament, India accounted for 5 out of the 10 yellows shown. India’s total of 10 cards was more than Japan and China combined. While maybe the odd one can be put down to harsh refereeing, India’s discipline simply has to get better.
India topped the goal-scoring charts among all teams, but that shouldn’t come as a surprise for a team coached by Schopman, who puts high-intensity hockey above everything else. But at heart, she is a defender. The former Dutch star had a wide smile in the mixed zone after the final, because defender Deep Grace Ekka was given the player of the match award. Along with Savita Punia stepping up, the last two matches in the tournament saw the Indian defenders shine in tough moments when put under pressure. Nisha and Nikki Pradhan came up with crucial interventions when Korea had their chances on the counter. Young Ishika Chaudhary showed good intensity throughout the tournament. And Deep was her solid self. The plaudits, as it tends to be the case, often go to attacking players in these tournaments but India’s defence was rock solid as they conceded just three goals in seven matches.
Dress rehearsal for Paris qualifiers
While a few boxes were ticked, the main target remains unachieved. The team should celebrate this win, but Schopman and Savita will know all too well that Ranchi was just a dress rehearsal. Paris is the ultimate goal. “The fact that we know how to change our performances from Hangzhou I think is the most important lesson. We really need to learn to be favourites and win, and this tournament showed we can. We did it in front of a crowd, which is pressure, but also fun,” Schopman said on Sunday. Against somewhat weakened sides, after the Asian Games, India did what they had to do. But in January, the likes of Germany, New Zealand, Japan (again) and USA will provide stern tests.
India at Jharkhand Women’s Asian Champions Trophy:
Goals scored: 27
Goals conceded: 3
Yellow cards: 5
Green cards: 5
Player of the tournament: Salima Tete
Top scorer: Sangita Kumari (6)