The Indian hockey eves triggered a great deal of optimism all around and left hockey fans with much to look forward to with their stupendous fourth-place finish at the 2021 Tokyo Olympics. Bronze medal finishes in the 2022 Asia Cup and 2002 FIH Pro League left no one in doubt that the Indian women’s hockey team was primed for great things, especially at the 2002 World Cup. But the script folded otherwise – just about a year after the Tokyo Olympics, the Indian women fell off the high pedestal they created in the last twelve months or so, not only missing the quarterfinal and in the end settling for 9th position – a notch above their 8th place finish at the 2018 World Cup in London.
Clearly, the Janneke Schopamn-coached Indian outfit have undone some of the gains made at the Tokyo Olympics and in the run-up to the 2022 World Cup. It was not if the Indian eves have suddenly turned into an ordinary outfit – a close look at the Pro League games against a full-strength Argentina would bring to the fore one thing: the Savita Punia-captained Indian side have everything to give the best in the business a run for their money. So, what went horribly wrong at the 2022 World Cup? Skipper Savita made India look really competitive with their regular bout of eye-catching saves and atoned to a large extent for our highly vulnerable deep defence.
Experienced fullback Deep Grace Ekka had a poor World Cup – of course, she scored against Japan but that can hardly be redemption for her overall World Cup performance – she looked sluggish in reaching out to the ball or in tackling. The manner in which Deep committed a schoolgirlish blunder with a deliberate foot hit and was yellow-carded vs New Zealand is hardly befitting of a player with more than 200 internationals. It did not help India’s cause that Udita was blowing hot and cold in defence – if there are occasions when she made a neat tackle and moved forward, Udita also gave hockey fans much to be frustrated about with her loose defending, especially being guilty of ball-watching. India’s headaches in defence were mitigated by the likes of Sushila Chanu, Nikki Pradhan and Gurjit Kaur, who of course did not have a great time with her drag-flicks. Sushila Chanu has been one of the silent contributors to the team – she brings so much to the Indian side – in the New Zealand game, she played her part in two of India’s three goals as well as showed her game awareness in calling for two PC video referrals, which went in their favour and one resulting in a late goal by Gurjit Kaur.
Penalty corner conversions appear to be the biggest concern area for coach Janneka Schopman – converting just 5 out of 46 PCs is just not acceptable – what is worrying is that even when they were trying the indirect variations, the Indian women seemed to be running out of ideas and were only trying, hoping for it to work. Barring Vandana Katariya’s two PC deflection goals against England and China, the PC performance turned abysmal as the tournament wore on. The Indian midfield did not quite operate like a well-oiled machine – experienced Navjot Kaur was looking like a liability on the pitch – she received two cards in crucial junctures of the game and was guilty of trapping and passing blunders. Monica Malik sounded like a bag of nerves in the initial games of the World Cup, but she came into their own in the later stage – she is one our midfield can count on and can also be used as someone who can feed the forwards. The likes of Sonica Tandi and Jyoti gave a good account of themselves in the World Cup, and they would only get better with experience. Neha Goyal ensured the midfield was not severely depleted even as Neha Warsi had a quiet World Cup.
The Indian forwardline minus Rani Rampal found a saviour in their most capped player Vandana Katariya – as a senior forward she stepped up to the plate and scored in every match of the Pool stage – her goal against New Zealand was a superb one that bordered on superb game awareness. Navneet Kaur was off the boil in the first few games, but gradually hit her groove and it was her stellar efforts against Canada and Japan that had a big say in Indian finishing 9th. Lalremsiami is getting better and better – her peach off a goal against New Zealand was a visual treat for hockey fans. The forwardline received a lot of support from Neha Goyal, Jyoti and Sonika. However, the performance of Sharmila Devi left a lot to be desired and there will be pressure on her to perform or perish.
The Indian eves have just two weeks to iron out their shortcomings so that they can deliver improved performance at the 2022 Commonwealth Games in Birmingham. With teams such as Australia, New Zealand and England, the Indian women know they have to be in fifth gear if they are harbouring hopes of a podium finish in Birmingham.