There were big smiles in the photograph the Netherlands national team clicked when they arrived at the airport in Bhubaneshwar. You could also say that there was a lot of joy the Dutch brought upon arrival for the Indian women’s hockey team.
It’s not often that you get to host and compete against the No 1 team in the world after all. For the hosts though, the upcoming double-header isn’t just a home-tie in the FIH Pro League, it’s the indication that the Indians belong among the top rung of world hockey.
“Earlier, we hardly used to get to play against top teams. We haven’t played continuous matches against such teams before,” said India captain Savita Punia, at a pre-match press conference on Thursday.
“These matches help us improve. You know, it’s a sort of achievement that the teams are willing to play against us. It gives us motivation and also shows that we stand somewhere in the world.”
More than anything though, it will be a test for the Indians to see where they stand.
The last time India faced the Netherlands was in their opening match at the Tokyo Olympics last year – which the Dutchwomen won 5-1. The team in orange left Japan with gold, but it’s not like the Indians returned empty handed. The brave performance that saw them finish fourth not only helped them win praise at home, the big names in hockey grew alert to their presence too.
And the Indians have only gone on to hold their own in this season of the Pro League ever since.
India is currently in fourth place, behind the Netherlands, Germany and Argentina in the points table, having won four and lost two in their six matches so far (for 12 points). It started with two wins over China, a win and loss against Spain, and then two draws that ended in a win and loss in the resulting shootouts against Germany.
The Dutch, meanwhile, have won each of their six matches – needing the shootout to decide only one match, against Spain.
The team that has travelled to compete at the Kalinga Stadium though is a new-look outfit, with several regular first-team players missing. It’s all a part of their rebuilding process ahead of the World Cup in July.
“We don’t think in terms of four years (Olympic cycle) but we think more for a two-year period. World Cup to Olympics and Olympics to World Cup,” explained interim coach Joost Bitterling.
“We don’t see it as something to be rushed but more as an opportunity to see who’s coming in. And it can be young girls or the ones that are 25-26 that can add value to the team as a person and a hockey player.
“It’s more of an opportunity to develop these girls on the field but also as human beings.
“For me, it’s also not always about results. Of course, we always want to win but how we do it together is the most important thing. The score is just to see on paper it at the end, the memories we take from this are most important for us.”
It may not be the best players the Netherlands have to offer that take to the field on Friday and Saturday, but it’s not something the Indians are too concerned with. For them, they’re playing the world No 1 team.
“Our focus is on our team. We respect the opposition and we have to note the strengths and weaknesses of the opponent. Netherlands is such a team that they have a lot of players from the club teams with the same base. Even if their main players haven’t come, the new players are still good,” Punia added.
“We have to focus on ourselves because it’s not like the new players are going to be casual, they’re going to want to take their chances. We too have some players missing for the World Cup, but our focus is on us because they are the No 1 team.”
The Indians will be missing eight players from their regular line-up who have travelled to South Africa for the Junior Women’s World Cup. It includes Salima Tete, Lalremsiami and Sharmila Devi – all three were part of the Olympics squad.
But the hosts are buoyed by the return of veteran forward Rani Rampal from a lengthy injury, for the first time since the Tokyo Olympics.
“Rani’s a very good player and we always used to keep a track on when she’s coming back from rehabilitation. It’s good that we didn’t have any major tournaments after the Olympics that we would have to play without Rani. Apart from the Asia Cup,” Punia said.
“The need now is to have a mix of senior and young players. The young ones have energy and seniors have the experience. Rani has that experience to know what to do in certain situations.”
The 27-year-old may be back in the side, but she’s expected to be eased back in order for her to return to match sharpness, rather than having her push from the get-go.
“Rani has also worked hard to be back in contention and if this training week goes well, I hope we can play her in one of the games,” head coach Janneke Schopman had said earlier.
A new-look Dutch team has come calling, but it’s the Indians who’re looking to make up new ground.
(with inputs from Samreen Razzaqui)
1. Savita (Captain)
2. Rajani Etimarpu
3 Deep Grace Ekka (Vice Captain)
4. Gurjit Kaur
5. Nikki Pradhan
7. Rashmita Minz
8. Suman Devi Thoudam
10. Sushila Chanu Pukhrambam
12. Navjot Kaur
14. Namita Toppa
17. Mahima Choudhary
18. Aishwarya Rajesh Chavan
19. Navneet Kaur
20. Rajwinder Kaur
22. Mariana Kujur
1. Upasana Singh
3. Vandana Katariya
On Friday, 8th April, the Indian Women’s Team will take on Netherlands at 1930 hrs IST.
On Saturday, 9th April, the Indian Women’s Team will take on Netherlands at 1530 hrs IST.
Matches will be live on Star Sports 2 SD & HD and Disney + Hotstar.