After an impressive build-up in the FIH Pro League, where they spent a few weeks in Europe playing high-level matches, India finally got their FIH Hockey Women’s World Cup campaign underway on Sunday. As per Savita Punia’s open letter, there was a good turnout in Amsterdam from Indian supporters and they got to witness a fighting 1-1 draw against England.
Here are the takeaways from this match:
Captain Savita Punia is aware that she has the ‘Save-ita’ moniker on social media but doesn’t read too much into it apart from calling it an honour. But on Sunday, she showed just why she is so important to the side. The match started with India on the front-foot more than England, but the better goalscoring chances fell the European side’s way. The first save of the evening was probably the best of the lot, with Savita putting out the stick to her right to deflect a shot away. The saves with legs and pads are usually a tad bit easier to make, purely based on the logic that the surface area to protect the shot is bigger. But this was a powerful shot, away from her, heading on target, but Savita’s reactions were so precise that it kept the ball out. It is a save of the tournament contender.
The goal that India conceded was a shot that was deflected so sharply that she couldn’t keep it out but otherwise the captain, as she does, led from the back.
India’s response and Vandana’s fine finish
India’s leadership group – the captain and coach – have mentioned a fair few times that they want the team to fight hard, fight as a unit, and keep faith in the processes irrespective of setbacks. England’s goal saw just that. India immediately forced Penalty Corners. First, Gurjit Kaur’s superb drag flick was kept out only by the width of the post. The sound of ball thudding into the metal echoed in the arena and even on broadcast. England’s star goalkeeper Maddie Hinch then pulled off a sharp save immediately after. India’s PC conversion of 1 out of 7 is surely an area to improve as Savita said later on but coach Janneke Schopman was right when she said at half time that the executions were not bad, only finest of margins kept India from scoring one of those.
The goal, when it eventually came in Q3, was from a PC too. Before talking about the goal, the calm play that led to it is also worth mentioning. Inside the circle, first Navneet Kaur did well to wiggle some room and find Sushila Chanu in space. The former captain rolled the ball into the danger area.
India, having gone to Deep Grace Ekka and Gurjit for the previous PCs, tried a hit from Monika this time. It forced Hinch to make another super save but Vandana Katariya was on hand to lift the rebound in. Watch the replay and you will see Vandana’s presence of mind and a microsecond of quick thinking to take the ball away from Laura Unsworth’s stick. Once she did that, an open goal greeted her.
India had their chances to win
The second half saw India fall back more and more, absorbing England’s pressure. Whether that was by design or just a consequence of England being the better side, it is hard to tell. But the defence had to be strong as England grew into the game with their circle entries, creating plenty of 1v1 situations. Despite all that, India were brilliant to not concede a single PC, a mark of calm defending inside the circle and also focussing on tackling outside the D as much as possible – an area Neha Goyal had said in an interview that coach Schopman insisted working on.
In the end, after England’s attacking ascendancy, India had at least two huge chances to win. Firstly, Neha – who had a quiet evening – unleashed a powerful reverse hit that drew another save of the tournament contender, this time from Hinch. The best chance would come late on, when around 4-5 attacking players combined for India, with Navneet finally getting a shot away through the English defence to find Sharmila Devi waiting a yard away, in front of an open goal. The commentator actually called it as a goal but an awkward bounce saw the India No 7 miss the ball, that hit her foot. Any touch from the stick and it was 2-1 India with with four minutes left.
Savita Punia said after the match, “England is a very good team, both played well today. We fought hard, we wanted to play together and we did. We missed some chances, next match we will focus. We had good PCs and variations, we missed a few but we will work on that. [Not conceding any PCs] Yeah, before match we decided that we have to stay calm in tackling against a good England side. We did that, and didn’t give away any PC.”— FIH broadcast
Full time stats: An even battle
Janneke Schopman said, “I think we started the game really well, creating a penalty corner in the opening minute. England were dangerous at times but we managed to play well on the ball and defended calmly most of the time. We were unlucky in our penalty corner execution and in the end, the two green cards disturbed our rhythm a little.”— Hockey India
Pool B: Tough to call
Even before the tournament started, it was evident that Pool B was too close to call. While most other groups had one or two clear favourites to finish in the top two, Pool B teams was a mixture of solid teams and unknown variables. China did not start the year well but under new coach Alyson Annan, they too came into the World Cup on the back of good performances in the Pro League. New Zealand haven’t played outside their continent since Tokyo Olympics but are always a force to be reckoned with. Their 2-2 draw on Saturday was the first on-field indication of how close things will be. And then England and India followed up with another even battle. As a result, the group now resembles a binary table with 1s and 0s anywhere. Predict, this.
Screenshots in the article courtesy: FIH Media / Disney+Hotstar