In April, Salima Tete received a harsh crash course in responsibility. The team had lost the bronze medal match at the Women’s Junior Hockey World Cup in South Africa. They were seconds away from winning the battle against England but ultimately the team had fallen short of their own expectations of returning with a medal.
She remembers the tears on the faces of her teammates as the disappointment set in. But Tete, as the captain, knew she had to be the first to pick herself up and offer words of encouragement.
“It was difficult. I was disappointed, I was the captain and I felt that I could have done more,” she said to Scroll.in in June. “I was trying to motivate everyone afterwards, par khud rona ho raha tha (but I felt like crying myself). But it’s something I needed to do. And it was something we had to learn – why didn’t we win a medal, so the next time it doesn’t happen like that.”
In the senior national team, the 20-year-old is still among the younger players in the squad. But on Sunday in Birmingham, she showed she’s taking the responsibility of serving her team well.
India was in yet another bronze medal match, this time in the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham, against the 2018 champions New Zealand – a team that had beaten them just a few weeks earlier at the senior World Cup.
A constant weakness for the Indians – arguably – was the conversion rate of chances being created. The team had been prolific throughout the tournament, even during the World Cup, in making opportunities but putting the final touch on some excellent build-up work was lacking more often than not.
There was another chance created in the 29th minute against the Black Sticks.
Navneet Kaur’s shot was blocked, and in the resulting scramble, Jyoti nudged the ball across goal hoping a teammate would get to it. Sharmila Devi was surprised and could not react in time despite the open goal. But Tete was waiting at the far post. She took a quick step forward and played a looping reverse hit shot to score the opener for India.
She had scored three goals prior to the trip to Birmingham. The one against New Zealand was her third at the Games alone.
The Kiwis would eventually equalise and take the match into a shootout, where the inspirational captain and goalkeeper Savita Punia would star. Yet Tete’s involvement was instrumental in the team winning bronze, their first medal since the silver they won at Melbourne 2006.
“Salima has been a fun player to watch since I joined the team,” head coach Janneke Schopman had said to Scroll.in in June. “Everyone knows she’s quick and has great speed. What I have been impressed with is, what I’m happy with more importantly, is she’s starting to assert herself more. She’s quite a smart player, she understands the game. And she’s showing more and more that she understands what’s needed in a press and why.”
And this is just the beginning of Tete starting to stamp her authority on the field.
Born in the Badkichapar village in Simdega, Jharkhand, Tete would play barefoot with a makeshift-hockey stick on the mud grounds in the village, inadvertently developing her leg muscles that have made her among the fastest runners in the team. In time and with training in the national setup, she’d learn how to control that pace and use it to her advantage.
Add the nimble wrists into the equation and she starts to dribble fluently while running with pace, often storming down the right channel and driving in crosses for the attackers to poach in front of goal.
But as Schopman said, being a useful player for your team needs you to be more than just somebody who can run fast and play crosses. And Tete has started to tick all those boxes.
She’ll read play and make intelligent passes, track back and make a nuisance of herself to opposition attackers. As was prominent in South Africa, she can boss the midfield by playing in a more central role, holding up the ball, dictating tempo, and then launch into a blistering counter-attack.
It’s all a part of expressing herself. In Birmingham, she did just that.
As a child, she and her friends would often compete in inter-village tournaments and win the grand prize of a hen or goat. On Sunday, she won a Commonwealth Games bronze medal for India.