Carrying fresh hopes

Hockey

Ever since the Indian women’s hockey team returned from the tour of Spain last month, they’ve been putting in the hard yards. From the usual on-pitch training sessions in the morning to a couple of hours in the gym at the SAI South Centre to go with mental conditioning sessions, they are giving it their all. There’s a renewed vigour in their stride and a purpose in their practice. For they know the next two months are a great chance for them to steal the spotlight from their celebrated male colleagues who are given more prominence in comparison.

Their first challenge starting July 21 is the World Cup in London — they qualified by winning the continental championship last year — and when they return, they will have very little time to cool-off before they pack their bags to Jakarta for the Asian Games (August 18-September 2). While they are aware they are not the favourites in the global showpiece event, they know a strong performance could attract some attention and give them the momentum to make a strong push at the continental bash.

Two major events in such a short span of time can be taxing — physically and mentally — on even the best but coach Sjoerd Marijne exuded quiet confidence. That self-belief can’t be mistaken because the women have been stringing together consistent results since the start of last year. In 2017 they won the Hockey World League Round 2 in Canada and emerged champions in the Asia Cup at Japan. This year, they overcame a poor start to finish a respectable fourth in the Commonwealth Games and won the silver medal in the Asian Champions Trophy in South Korea, one goal making the difference.

“We are focussing first on the World Cup and then the Asian Games,” the soft-spoken Marijne said. “The girls have worked really hard to gain a spot in the World Cup. The last time they played in a World Cup was eight years ago, so it’s a big event for them. After Olympics, in hockey, World Cup is the second biggest event. When you work hard to qualify, you have to be ready to perform and we want to perform.

“After the World Cup we’ll turn our focus on the Asian Games. I know a lot of people are saying that there are two major events back to back and it’s not possible (to achieve success in both). I think it’s possible because the schedule of the World Cup is not heavy. We have one match and then four-day rest, again a match and two-day rest. The further you advance in the tournament, the gaps become closer. Had we not qualified for the World Cup, we would have had practice matches and training sessions anyway.”

World No 10 India are placed in a tricky Pool B featuring hosts England — one of the favourites — United States and Ireland. While Marijne stressed they would be entering the World Cup with a winning attitude, he hopes lady luck smiles on them. “I think we have a lot of potential but in hockey you need luck. There are a lot of moments, like ball hitting the post or stopping just short etc. You need some luck going your way. For us, the most important thing is we focus on our first match. You go to a tournament to achieve results. We would be happy with a quarterfinal but we should strive for a medal. Whether you are ranked second, tenth or 16th, you enter a tournament with the goal of winning it. We have to believe in ourselves.”

One area where the Indian women were found wanting against Europeans, Argentina and Australia was lack of physical strength. Often they were outrun on the field and didn’t have the required stamina to last the distance in high-tempo games. Marijne felt there has been considerable improvement on that front. “You can be skillful but at the same time you need to be as fast as the other ones. The game is played at a much faster pace now and if you can’t keep up the pace with your rivals, you have a problem. We fared poorly in one-on-ones and counter-attacks because (of our lack of physical strength). Last week we did the running tests and the girls have improved a lot, thanks to the work put in by scientific advisor Wayne Lombard. You can also see the difference visibly, they all have athletic bodies. I’m really happy with the effort the girls have put in the whole process. No team will outrun us anymore,” remarked the Dutchman.

Two areas of concern for the team were defence and penalty corners but Marijne said he’s done enough to polish all the rough edges. “The most important thing about the defence is their structure is very good. When I say structure, I mean their organisation and the way we are positioning on the pitch. Most of the times, you concede goals when you are not organised.”

“When we are organised, it will be difficult to score against us. To be organised they need to understand the tactical structure. We have put in a lot of effort to make them understand.

“With regards to penalty corners, the good thing about Gurjit Kaur is she’s always calm. I’m not saying she doesn’t feel pressure but she can handle it really good. But PCs are not done alone, you need a good injection, good trap and if the ball is positioned well, she can finish. She’s among the top three drag-flickers in the world. For me, all the things I wanted to train, we did it.”

It’s now up to the women to exhibit it on the pitch.

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Carrying fresh hopes

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