Savita Punia showed the best-possible example of leading from the front, churning out four crucial saves to help the Indian women’s hockey team nose out New Zealand 2-1 in a nail-biting shootout to win a bronze medal at the 2002 Commonwealth Games in Birmingham – thus ending their 16-year medal drought since last winning a silver medal at the 2006 Melbourne Commonwealth Games. The Indian captain halted the shootout attempts of Hope Ralph, Rose Tynan, Katie Doar, and Oliva Shannon to ensure her team managed a bronze after making heavy weather of their solitary-goal lead in regulation time conceding a final-minute equaliser to the Black Sticks.
The Indian hockey eves started on a belligerent note and kept asking questions to the New Zealand deep defence but lack of final finish accuracy undid all their promise. Salima Tete finally broke the deadlock close to half-time with a reverse flick-in after New Zealand goalkeeper Grace O’Hanlon produced a save off Navneet Kaur – Salima got the much-needed goal after an across-the-goalmouth miss by Sharmila Devi.
New Zealand eves pushed forward in pursuit of the equaliser in the second half but the Indian deep defence despite living dangerously was able to keep them at bay. Grace O’Hanlon was taken in favour of an extra outfield player as New Zealand summoned desperate measures in the closing stages. Neha Goyal committed a defensive blunder in the dying seconds, resulting in a penalty corner for the Black Sticks. The shortie translated into a penalty stroke as Navneet Kaur kicked the ball in desperation even as Savita was beaten. Olivia Merry, using all her experience coolly slotted it home to take stretch the contest into a shootout where India had the last laugh.
The bronze medal effort would be comforting for the Indian hockey eves after their disappointing 9th place finish at the 2002 World Cup – Indian women also exacted sweet revenge for their 3-4 loss to the Black Sticks in the 2022 World Cup. At the 1998 Kuala Lumpur Commonwealth Games, New Zealand denied India a bronze-winning 3-0 and today it was India’s turn to deny the Black Sticks a podium finish.