The Indian women’s hockey team have improved in leaps and bounds in the FIH Pro League but their biggest test awaits them as they square up against defending Pro League champions and table toppers Netherlands. The Indian hockey eves are no longer the whipping girls of international women’s hockey as they used to be six-seven years ago. The two teams last clashed at the 2021 Tokyo Olympics, where the Blueskirts denied the formidable Dutch from running away with the game, holding them 1-1 till half-time before they lost the plot in the second half, as the Dutch struck four times to turn it into a lop-sided win.
There is no denying the fact that India are a rapidly-improving side and have the ammunition to hold their own against the best of sides – one saw how India conquered the Australian frontier at the Tokyo Olympics, and even made England and Argentina sweat in the medal round. The competivetiness the Blueskirts bring to the pitch is a far cry from the days when India would be inflicted thrashing defeats by the Dutch. Netherlands routed India 7-0 at the 2015 Hockey World League Semifinal Round at Antwerp – their last meet-up six years before the Tokyo Olympic encounter. India had also lost 1-8 and 0-8 to the Orange brigade in the 2013 Hockey World League Semfinal Round at Rotterdam and in the 2013 Europe Tour at Utrecht.
But the swift progress that the Indians have made over the years would make us believe that those heavy defeats are indeed a thing of the past and this team can stay competitive against the current olympic and world champions. The Dutch looked convincing in their wins over Belguim, Spain and USA, but India can take heart from the way Spain held the Netherlands 2-2 before losing the shootout in the second leg tie at Valencia after losing the first leg tie 0-3. Former Indian forward and captain Pritam Rani Siwach believes the Blueskirts can surprise the Dutch. “Netherlands are a strong side but India are improving all the time and high on confidence after their strong Olympic performance. There was a time when we used to worry about how many goals we would concede against top sides but not anymore as opponents know that we can turn the tables on them,” says the former stalwart, who donned the Indian jersey from 1991 to 2008.
The former ace striker agrees that the forwardline is depleted due to injury and some players doing Junior World Cup duty. “Look, the Indian team have performed well in so many games when experienced Rani Rampal was not in the side after the Olympics. Of course, Rani is making a comeback to the side after a long injury lay-off but the team would miss the likes of Lalremsiami, Sharmila Devi and Salima Tete along with injured Vandana. We have a good drag-flicker in Gurjit Kaur who can profit from short corners,” she says.
According to Pritam, the absence of regular forwards are a window of opportunity for the youngsters picked for the games against the Netherlands. “Navneet has come up well and would have to shoulder more forwardline responsiblity. For a newcomer like Aishwarya Rajesh Chavan and youngsters like Rajwinder Kaur, Jyoti and Mariana Kujur, it is a great opportunity to prove their worth and make a strong case for long-term selection in the national side,” she says matter-of-factly.