The Indian women’s hockey team have been off the international hockey action radar for more than two months since their last Pro League tie against the Netherlands on April 9. However, the Blueskirts would be pumped up by their best-ever jump in FIH world rankings (to number six) something that would make the girls feel that they belong to the elite league of women hockey powerhouses. It is this confidence that the Savita Punia-captained Indian side would look to build on and give a good account of themselves in the Pro League games against Belgium. Perched in third spot in the points table behind tabletoppers Argentina and Netherlands, the Indian girls would fancy their chances against world number 8 Belgium despite playing in their own backyard.
Coach Janneke Schopman would be happy with the return of experienced forwards Rani Rampal and Vandana Katariya. Rani hasn’t played any international game since the 2021 Tokyo Olympics, while Vandana was forced out of the team for a few games owing to an ankle injury. However, it cannot be denied that youngsters such as Navneet Kaur, Lalremsiami, Sharmila Devi alongside newest entrants – Sangita Kumar and Deepika, have more than made up for her absence of especially Rani, and to some extent Vandana. Much of our forwardline has appeared competitive because Navneet Kaur has shouldered a lot of responsiblity in their absence and received solid support from her team-mates.
One of the heartening features of the Indian women’s hockey team has been the manner in which the midfield department has functioned. Neha Goyal has been outstanding in midfield and she has scored some crucial goals as well. Salima Tete is another one who has quietly raised her performance bar and so has Neha Warsi and vastly experienced Sushila Chanu, who brings so much to this Indian defence – the Manipuri lass is good at neat tackling in deep defence as well as overlapping and assisting the forwardline. Jyoti and Sonika Tandi have also been impressive not just with their ball distribution as well as feeding the forwards. Navjot Kaur – another experienced campaigner – has been a disappointment – despite her rich experience she hasn’t done much of note – surprisingly, she is not often seen on the pitch.
Savita is a calming presence in the Indian goal and she would need support from her backline. Nikki Pradhan has really matured over time and can be counted upon to bottle up the opposition. Udita – a natural striker-turned-defender is developing well in her role. Gurjit Kaur will be India’s trumpcard when it comes to short corners. Deep Grace Ekka is very experienced but she appears to be sluggish in her movements something Indian cannot afford in their deep defence. Like Navjot Kaur, Deep Grace needs to up her performance.
India had last played Belgium during the 2017 Europe Tour in the Netherlands where they won 4-3, close on the heels of a 2-2 draw in another game in that series. Belgium have surprised mighty Germany 1-0 and 3-1 in the Pro League and have the ammunition to spell trouble for India. The Red Panthers under Dutch coach Raoul Ehren have a fair sprinkling of experience under their belt. Ehren has been shuffling the captaincy armband around three players – Alix Gerniers, Michelle Struijk and Nelen Barbara.
Nelen Barbara – Belgium’s most capped player with 277 international caps and Michelle Struijk marshall their midfield while the likes of Alix Gerniers and Louise Versavel lend a lot of expereince to their forwardline. Like the Belgium men’s team, the Belgium eves have a drag-flicking forward in talented 21-year old Ambre Ballenghien, who played her part in Belgium’s stunning wins over Germany. France De Mot is another young forward who exudes promise. Besides Ambre Ballenghien, India must watch out for two other drag-flickers – Alix Gerniers and Stephanie Vanden Borre.
A favourable result would help Indian eves in a big way to finish among the top-three in the 2021-22 Pro League assuming India hit winning ways in their subsequent games against Argentina and the USA.