Coach Sjoerd Marijne targeted a top-five finish for the Indian women’s team at the Hockey World League Semi-finals in Johannesburg. After the 1-4 defeat against England on Tuesday, that target bracket shrunk to just No 5.

But the good news for India is that the top six teams from this tournament will now qualify for the 2018 World Cup. England reached the semi-finals by defeating India, but since they have have an automatic qualification as hosts of the World Cup, it unlocked an extra spot.

That makes the equation simpler for India: Beat Japan on Thursday in the 5th/8th placement match and they will book themselves a World Cup ticket because the winner of that match will go on to play 5th/6th position playoff and be assured of a top-six finish in Johannesburg.

In second-ranked England on Tuesday, India had the toughest opponents of all the four quarter-finalists. It was a mountain too big for No 12 India to climb – after all they were facing the 2016 Rio Olympic champions (Great Britain) in a different avatar (England).

Alex Danson and Sofie Bray are among the tournament’s top five goal-scorers. Under the bars, England had reigning FIH Woman Goalkeeper of the Year Maddie Hinch. They came into the quarters as Pool A toppers winning three of their four matches.

A distant second

In that comparison on paper, India appeared a distant second. Going into the quarters, India had scored just two goals in four matches, while conceding seven. Their only win of the tournament had come against Chile – a team ranked 20th. They struggled against all teams ranked higher than them and finished fourth in Pool B.

The above statistics are not quoted to belittle India’s effort in Johannesburg. The players wore their hearts on their sleeves and gave it their all, but in women’s hockey, India simply aren’t there. It’s as true in cold print as evident on the pitch - primarily in fitness, speed and ball possession. The gap to bridge is far greater than in men’s hockey, but the important part is the girls are trying.

Even more important at the moment is to stay on the job in South Africa, for all is not lost. If Rani Rampal’s team can get past Japan, the tough journey ahead will have no dearth of motivation to travel.

Still a chance to make it count

Albeit Chile were the easiest of the teams India played in the pool stage, they must not forget why they were able to beat them. India had to put it across Chile to reach the quarter-finals. With that running as a ticker on mind, all caps and bold, India played out of their skin to get the monkey off their back.

At moments, it was evident in the quarter-final on Tuesday as well – in Vandana Katariya’s lunge that unfortunately remained a hairbreadth away from deflecting the ball in. It showed in Anupa Barla’s lion-hearted effort to guide Rani’s penalty-corner hit into goal and in Gurjit Kaur’s flick to score India’s only goal.

Yes, the conversion rate remained poor like before, the press conferences remained futile for most part, possession was painfully lost and elementary mistakes were committed; but the reasons for that, at the moment, can be left for brainstorming post tournament. There is an important battle coming up – with a big incentive of World Cup qualification at stake.

Japan are ranked 16th, which is four places lower than India. But the ranking shouldn’t ease any of India’s nerves because the Japanese women stunned England in the pool stage with a 1-0 win.

On a concluding note, agreed India haven’t read the script right so far, but if they can make up for it in the climax, the audience will still go home smiling, and among them will be many new fans.

Corrections and clarifications: An earlier version of this piece mentioned that India need to finish in the top five to qualify for the World Cup.