There are some who will choose to remember that India lost the bronze medal match against Great Britain. They will say we shouldn’t celebrate a fourth-place finish… that we as a nation should set our sights higher. But to all those people I say, ‘What is there to not celebrate?’
The greatness of sport lies not just in the champions. It lies as much in the underdogs who punch above their weight; who astound us with their tenacity; who shock us with their fight. They are the unpredictables and that is what the India women’s hockey team was at the Olympics.
Coming into the Olympics, most hoped that this team could get into the quarterfinal. They hoped that this team could sneak through in fourth place at the group stage. They did exactly that. Getting the vital win over Ireland and then scrapping for a win over South Africa while Great Britain, the reigning champs, beat Ireland.
But next up for them was Australia in the quarterfinal. Finishing fourth in the group stage meant that they ran into the top-placed team in the other group. Australia’s form coming into the game was scary – 13 goals scored, 1 conceded.
By almost every available yardstick, India should not have stood a chance. But they somehow scored one on the Aussies and did not concede. The result had Australia in tears. This was just supposed to be another game... not a defeat.
Tokyo 2020, hockey: In India’s double dream run to last four, a common theme of self-belief and grit
The semi-final was next up and even though they lost 1-2 against Argentina, there was barely little to separate them. India were not blown away, they were in it; in it all the way to the end.
The bronze medal match against Great Britain was more of the same. The higher-ranked team that had beaten them earlier but India ran them hard and even had the lead before eventually going down 3-4.
They sometimes say you grow during a competition. We saw that happen with India. From the defeat against the Dutch to start the event to the bronze medal match, this team has grown at an unimaginable rate. They probably won’t even consider them underdogs anymore and that is worth celebrating.
Women's world ranking
Also worth celebrating is Savita’s incredible defence in goal, Rani Rampal’s leadership which saw her rise to the challenge each time her team needed her, Deep Grace Ekka’s defence against PCs, Monika’s multiple clearances off the goal-line, Gurjit Kaur’s powerful and precise drag flicks in the knockout rounds, Vandana Kataria’s hat-trick.
There is so much more that we don’t see on the TV screens. Udita’s hard work off the ball, Salima Tete’s pace, Sushila Chanu’s calming presence, Sharmila Devi’s guts, Nisha throwing herself into dangerous positions, Lalremsiami’s veteran guile and Navjot Kaur’s aggressive presence in the midfield.
Given the pace modern hockey is played at, each and every player had to be at their absolute best. And that should be celebrated too. Many of them aren’t stars yet but they will be soon.
India at the 2020 Olympics
12 goals (4 field goals, 8 from PCs)
700 rolling subs
India made 700 rolling subs during the event which was held in trying conditions. It allowed them to play the game at a very high pace. It made them competitive. It gave them a chance. Sjoerd Marijne has been with this team for a long time and it is clear to anyone watching that the team shares a special bond with him.
Marijne thinks tactics, he thinks of ways to make this team competitive. But most of all he has each player’s best interests at heart. The atmosphere in the Indian camp speaks volumes of the work that has been done behind the scenes. It is a team in the truest sense. Celebrate that too.
“...first the emotion is about losing, yeah you want to win, but reality is I feel proud. I’m proud of the girls, how they again showed their fight and skills,” Marijne, the India coach, said after the defeat.
“And I said to the girls, ‘Listen, I can’t take away your tears. No words will help for that. We didn’t win the medal, but I think we achieved something bigger, and it’s inspiring a country and make the country proud...I think the world has seen another Indian team, and I’m really proud of that,” he added.
Perhaps in the days to come, they might not be able to find the same level right away. But they will now know that they are capable of so much better. That realisation will take them far because having played at a higher level, they will now know what needs to be done. It will be easier to replicate and achieve the consistency that the best teams in the world possess.
“We are feeling so disappointed because we were so close,” said Rampal after the loss. “We were 2-0 down and then we equalised and we were 3-2 up. I don’t know what to say, but yeah it hurts a lot because we couldn’t win the bronze medal. But I think everyone just gave their best, so I am proud of the team. Playing in the Olympic Games and finishing top four is not easy. We came a long way. I think now we were closer, but sometimes close is not good enough.”
And for the very same reasons as Rampal, India should be proud too. For this isn’t the end, it is just the beginning.