Ritu Rani was in tears at home when India's hockey squads were being announced at a glitzy ceremony organised by Hockey India (HI) on July 12. The women’s team will break a 36-year jinx when they take the field in Rio – only for the second time at an Olympic Games – but Rani, who was at the helm when India won the Asian Games bronze and then qualified for the Olympics, wouldn't be on the flight to Brazil.Sushila Chanu was the cynosure of all eyes instead. The Manipur girl, whose biggest moment on the hockey field came when she led the junior team to a World Cup bronze, is captaining India at Rio. Rani was dropped on disciplinary and performance grounds after she left the camp in Bengaluru.
The Indian women's hockey team will be hoping these were their only uncomfortable moments on their Rio odyssey. The countdown has begun, and the team is warming up with practice games in the USA en route to Brazil.
Uphill taskIn some senses, this is an adventure without pressure. For, a medal seems a far-fetched notion right now. Even qualifying for the quarter-finals from the six-member group may not be easy, with each of the other teams being ranked higher, and at least two wins being necessary.
Despite the women's team's spirited wins over US and Canada, hopes of a hockey medal are still riding only on the men's team, which has been faltering suddenly. Still, it's a huge opportunity for the 16 debutantes to play out of their skins to show that their 13th FIH ranking is just a number.
Coach Neil Hawgood quit his job before returning after a brief stint with Malaysia, but consistency is something that continues to elude him even in his second term. Wins over lower-ranked teams like Canada and Scotland don't highlight the yawning gaps with Argentina, Australia, Great Britain, Japan and the United States – the teams India will face in Group B at Rio Olympics.Indeed, all of India's opponents are in the top 10 of FIH rankings. But it's important to recall that it was under the same coach-captain combination of Hawgood and Sushila that the junior women's team won the World Cup bronze.
Where India's women hockey has historically lagged behind is in matching the fitness of its opponents, who thrive on common balls and breakaway attacks. In comparison, Indian women lack speed and stamina, especially when pitted against the Europeans and Australians.
A matter of prideWithout the stress of meeting expectations, can the Indian team raise their game? The Olympics, of course, are thew biggest stage, and midfielder Chanu will relish her stint as captain of the senior national team.
The 24-year-old skipper will have players like Poonam Rani, Rani Rampal, Deepika, Sushila and Deep Grace Ekka available for advice. The restriction of a 16-member squad – versus the normal 18 – for the Olympics forced India to pick only one goalkeeper in the form of Savita. That's a worry which will constantly nag coach Hawgood should the need for a back-up arises.The attack will bank on the skills of Rani Rampal, Navjot Kaur, Poonam Rani, Vandana Kataria and Lilima Minz, while Sushila marshals the troops as the defensive centre-half. The team's vice-captain and 2016 Hockey India Player of the Year Deepika will fortify the defence along with Ekka and Namita Toppo.
Unlike the invitational appearance at the 1980 Moscow Games – which many countries boycotted – this time the women's hockey team has earned a place with its blood and sweat. That pride should be reflected on the field. Even if they are unlikely to make it count in terms of medals, a top-eight finish in the 12-team event will ensure a hero's welcome back home.The Squad: Sushila Chanu (c), Navjot Kaur, Deep Grace Ekka, Monika, Nikki Pradhan, Anuradha Devi Thokchom, Savita, Poonam Rani, Vandana Kataria, Deepika (vice-captain), Namita Toppo, Renuka Yadav, Sunita Lakra, Rani, Preeti Dubey, Lilima Minz.