Grooming girls in the Jat heartland

Grooming girls in the Jat heartland

She lived in penury, often had to swallow sarcasm and foul mouth talk by relatives and fellow villagers as she grew up. Rani Pampal’s father is a horse cart owner and he too wouldn’t initially spare her one bit when it came to pursuing her passion for hockey. Rani never gave up, believed in her ability and things changed.

Today, Rani’s parents and relatives are proud of her. She was a part of the Indian junior women team that stunned everyone defeating England to win the bronze medal at the Junior Women’s Hockey World Cup in Germany in August. Rampal, 18, was adjud­ged player of the tournament.

Five of the team girls were from Haryana. They all owe it to their academy. Silently, a non-descript township in Khap-dominated Haryana, Shahbad, is scripting a story of unparalleled success. It’s the place which is home to a girls hockey academy which has produced many successful athletes like Rani .

Sample this: Seven of the Indian women hockey captains have trained at the academy in Shahbad. It has groomed 37 girls for the international arena. Its hall of fame includes Arjuna awardees like Surinder Kaur and Jasjeet Kaur, besides eight Bhim awardees.

Players like Navneet Buta Singh, another girl who was a part of the winning team over England, have become role models in this sleepy town. She shot the winning goal against England in the championship and was the youngest of the lot. In a country where cricket is considered next to religion, the script of the success story at the academy is tempting other parents in the area to goad their girls to take up hockey.

In patriarchic society of the Jat land, girls suffered the silent disapproval of their family members and people. Things have started to change, much of it already on the right turf. Their five hockey stars: Rani Rampal, Navneet Kaur, Navjot, Manjeet Kaur and Monika, who won the  bronze, are inspiring girls like a rage.

Challenges seniors

The credit, at least a lot of it, goes to 63-year-old Dronacharya awardee Baldev Singh, the academy coach. He’s the godfather of the academy, for the girls as well. He’s so confident of his mentoring that he has challenged the Indian women hockey team to defeat his team and take away a prize of Rs 20 lakh.

The start wasn’t easy at all. Training girls was a major challenge. Forget training, it was difficult to motivate the girls to play in the first place. Baldev says he took 15 girls initially, all less than 10 years old and started his mission. A half acre land full of stones and bushes was cleared to make way for a hockey stadium. The academy started in 1992. Baldev is now a deputy director with the Haryana Sports Department. The academy is run by the Haryana Government.

Over a decade after the academy started, it got the astro-turf in 2005. Shahbad is among the 20-odd Indian townships that have a synthetic turf. That was the turning point. The best in the girls came out and one after the other laurels, the academy emerged as the citadel of hockey grooming for girls. In the 2006 Doha Asian Games, the Indian women hockey team won the bronze medal. Six team members were from Shahbad. “Hockey gives these girls an identity and I am happy to play my part. Most of the trainees come from poor families,” says Baldev Singh.

Behind all the accolades that the academy has won is a rigorous training schedule. Each morning before the crack of dawn, several girls pedal their way to their academy miles away. For Navneet, it’s a staple routine on the cycle. It’s dark in the early mornings and her father Amrik Singh, a school bus driver, knows his daughter Navneet will feel more safe if he escorts her on his motorcycle from the rear. It’s time to line up at the academy. Then begins a four-hour rigorous session that is designed to churn out the best in the girls.

Navneet sees a new vigour in her strides. She’s the institute’s leading under-14 player. She was a member of the Haryana team that won gold in the sub-junior nationals in Bhopal last year. Her goal to don the Indian colours looks certain if one were to go by her exploits on the field. Many like Navneet have a lot to deliver other than scoring and defending goals on the astro-turf. After hours of training sessi­ons in the morning, many girls head for school. Homework, helping mothers at home, tuitions and then back to the evening session for hockey training once again, the day tires them out completely.

Rani Rampal said her parents were not aware of the importance of hockey and so initially there was resistance at home, but in the end they started supporting her. Interestingly, Shahbad is one town that has produced captains for both men and women’s teams at one time.

It is the remarkable success of this academy that makes people like Amrik Singh--Navneet’s father-- who earns just about Rs 7,000 a month as a driver- to dream big. He hopes his daughter will wear the Indian women team colours one day. That’s the day which will also end his everyday morning duty to escort his daughter before the crack of dawn to the academy.

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