To achieve something in life, two things, according to the Indian hockey captain Rani Rampal, are important: Time and clarity. “When we are small,” she explains, “we will have lots of time. But we wouldn’t know what to do with it. When we become big we know what to do but we won’t have the time to do it. So, you need to have both to achieve something.”
Rani knew at an early age what she was going to do. She was born in a small town, Shahabad Markanda, in the Kurukshetra district of Haryana. Her father was a horse-cart coachman and mother a homemaker. Little Rani loved playing hockey than most things. She was better at playing hockey than most girls of her country. And, she wanted to pursue her passion as profession. She wanted to use it to uplift her family. In the sport that she loved much, she wanted to become big.
Two hundred international games later, Rani has achieved her dreams. She’s the captain – one of the best India has ever had. Her family is in a spacious new house in the same state. And, she is one of the best players in the world. The captain now has an ambition: She wants to help grow the sport that helped her grow big. She led India to triumph in the Asia Cup last November. This year, the team bested South Korea in their backyard in a five-match series. But Rani and her team have just begun the expedition that they hope will culminate with Olympic success two years later.
But before that summit, there are important landmarks to reach. One among them is the Commonwealth Games, starting on April 5 with a match against Wales. Ahead of their departure, The Field caught up with the Indian captain to talk at length about her 200-match journey.
We begin by asking her about the day she reached that personal milestone...
How did you feel that day (200th match)?
It was an amazing feeling, you know. You can’t explain that in words. It makes you confident because you realise you have done something for your country. It motivates you to do more.
Did your team do something special on that day?
Yeah, everyone wished me well. Some asked me to go for 300 games. The staff gave me a bouquet. Yeah, it was fantastic.
Did you feel any different when you took to the field?
Yeah, when you play with that sort of feeling, your energy level doubles. It’s a special day for you, special moment. And, I enjoyed that a lot.
So, how has this journey been?
Journey was quite hard. It wasn’t very easy. I was 14 when I started in the Indian team. There were good and bad moments. So, it was all about how you managed the tough periods… and there were injuries as well, you had to handle that. But it’s a proud feeling everytime you represent India, the whole of India’s population. They have their hopes pinned to you. So, you play with that in mind. So, the aim always is to do something for your country.
What are the differences between the team that you joined and the team you are now captaining?
When I started, there were no systems in place. The work now is more systematic. For instance, in training we observe how much workload is given to a player and the recovery period of a player, what is the muscle soreness, if they are feeling some heaviness. So, we have a scientific trainer who gathers these data. And, the schedule is prepared accordingly. So, in that aspect, there is a change.
Second thing, Hockey India and SAI (Sports Authority of India) have played an important role. Earlier, players weren’t getting enough exposure. Now they play matches with good teams, get better and play better in big tournaments.
Even the mindset of the players have changed. They are more confident now.
What are the differences you see in yourself?
When I joined, I was very small and one of my first tournaments was the Olympics (2008) qualifying. And, I didn’t even have the knowledge about Olympics. I didn’t know that it was such a big event. We lost in the tournament and didn’t qualify for the Olympics. Some of my senior players were approaching the end of their careers. They were crying that it’s all over for them. And, I was like why are they crying? There will be a next tournament, right? Slowly I realised how difficult it is to lose after four years of hard work. And, the next time when India missed qualifying for the 2012 Olympics, I was crying the whole night. I thought life was finished.
At the same time, I sometimes look at my roommate Lalremsiami – she’s just 17 (and the team’s youngest member) – and she reminds me of my younger days. I told her that we will be going to the Commonwealth Games and we must come back with a medal. And, there was no reaction from her.
You said you started taking tournaments like the Olympics more seriously. But does it also put more pressure on you?
Yeah. But that pressure, I think, is necessary. If there’s no pressure, you won’t perform. Then you tend to take it easy. But when there’s pressure, you realise the responsibilities you carry and you make sure you are always one step ahead.
What’s been your biggest achievement so far?
There are lots of things… I played the World Cup when I was 15. It’s a big deal to play the World Cup at that age. And I was top-scorer as well. And, I think, that was a great moment. And, when we qualified for the Olympics after 36 years, I scored the winning goal. That was a great achievement too. Then, the Arjuna award in 2016. I was made the captain, then, in 2017. But all these achievements are because of hard work and support of my teammates. Without them, these things wouldn’t have been possible.
What are the challenges that come with captaincy?
After becoming captain, I have to handle a lot of things. Sometimes, you have to lovingly talk to your players ‘Okay girls, let’s do this’. Sometimes, you have to be angry to bring some energy into the team. And, as a captain, you have to always work together. Sometimes, a player will not perform well on a day, so, as a captain you have to think of ways to boost her confidence. You have to set a good example to your team.
When you are not the captain, you can play with your own flow. But when you are captain, you have to notice certain things in a match. The movements of the opponents, who they are trying to mark, who should we mark… And, for me, I always want my team to be together. Because we go through difficulties and try to achieve something great. And, I want to have good memories with them.
So, do you guys go somewhere or do something together off the field?
Yeah, we go to movies together. Or, maybe once in four months, we go out for dinner.
What do you tell your team after a victory and after a defeat?
After a victory, I tell them ‘It’s good that we won the game. But there are lot more that we can do. We can’t be satisfied with this. So, leave this victory here and move on to the next match.’ And, when we are defeated, ‘It’s okay. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose. We have to realise our mistakes. And work on them.’ It’s important to analyse the game. Sometimes we would have lost despite playing well. So, this is important for the future tournaments.
You have been active on Twitter for over two years now. How often do you use it in a day?
There’s a time for that. Now, we are in the camp. So, it’s very less. On off days, you open social media to check what’s going on. Or, when you win a tournament, you want to read the wishes. And, it’s good that you’re active on it because you know what’s going with other sports, what’s going on in the country. You have to be aware of these things.
As a sportsperson, what do you think is good and bad about social media?
If you use it perfectly, then it’s good. It shouldn’t become an addiction. It shouldn’t take your focus away from your training. If you are using it for fun, or to be aware, then it’s fine.
After a defeat, do you get negative messages, reactions?
Yeah, but like I said, I don’t read them during tournaments. And, when you do something wrong, people always say bad things. It’s normal in our country. So, now you get used to that. I always think don’t give them a chance to say bad things about you.
Also, based on the reactions you see on Twitter and the crowds you see during matches, do you think Indian hockey, especially women’s hockey, has grown over the years?
Yes, I think the women’s hockey level is up now in our country. And 2018 is the biggest year for us to bring hockey to the forefront. If you look at the last two years, women’s hockey has done good. We won the Asia Cup, did well in the recent Korean tour, qualified for the Olympics after 36 years. There are lots of things that are improving the graph of women’s hockey. But it’s just the beginning. And, it’s a step-by-step process. You have to perform well in each tournament so that there’s a high standard that gets set for women’s hockey. The girls in our country have to have a craze for hockey. Like, after PV Sindhu’s silver medal, there’s a peak in interest for badminton. So, we have to set a similar standard. So, it’s a great opportunity for us now to take women’s hockey to higher places.
You hail from a rural background. So, was language ever an issue for you, especially while travelling abroad?
My parents never went to school. When I was young I always spoke in Hindi or Punjabi. Slowly you come into the team, you travel, you meet people. And you naturally learn a few things. In 2010 World Cup, I was the youngest player. When I finished as the top-scorer lot of people interviewed me. I didn’t even know A,B,C then. So, whichever teammate would be with me then, will act as a translator. You don’t feel bad because you know it’s your learning period. But also you slowly keep learning. And, anyway, language isn’t a big issue. You can handle that.
Alright. So, apart from hockey, what other sports do you follow?
Badminton… most of the time badminton… tennis.
BONUS VIEWING: Rani Rampal tackles the Proust Questionnaire
Why those two in particular?
I don’t find other sports that interesting. I find cricket very boring. I don’t follow cricket at all. I like to swim but don’t follow it that much. I find athletics very difficult.
Who are your favourite players in badminton and tennis?
Saina Nehwal, she’s my best friend… Every player who’s playing for the country is my favourite player because they are all doing something good for the country. Especially, the women. I always feel happy to be a woman.
Including you, there are a number of other sportswomen like PV Sindhu, Saina Nehwal, Mithali Raj, who are getting recognised for their good work. So, do you think things are getting better for women athletes in our country?
Yeah, things are getting better. If you look, in every sport, it’s difficult to get a start. In badminton, for instance, Saina started it. Slowly, badminton’s popularity grew. Before that it wasn’t this popular a sport. Same with cricket, when the women’s team reached the final, everyone took note. So, once you get that start, then everyone recognises you. So, this is the year for us to make that start.
Can you say something more about your family. What do you do with them when you go home, what do you talk about…
Even very recently I was crying over the phone because it’s been over two months since I went home. I spoke to my dad. I told him ‘I miss you a lot.’ Because of these gaps, even they are excited when I go home. I am the youngest of my siblings, so I am very attached to my father. And, he’s very emotional as well. So, when I start for camps, he starts crying. So, I tell him “Why are you crying? I am not getting married now.”
In an interview you’d said that some of your neighbours and relatives tried to dissuade your parents from letting you pursue hockey. Do you still see them? How do they react?
Yeah, they used to tell my parents that I might bring a bad name to the family. And, my parents aren’t educated. They don’t know about sports. And, I don’t blame them for that. Because they are from a poor setup. But, it was a great challenge convincing them. And, I somehow earned their trust. Also, I wanted to become a big player in hockey and build a house for them. Because we were living in a very small house then. So, I am happy now… It took 16 years, but my dream’s been fulfilled. I am happy that they are living comfortably now because they worked so hard for me to get here. I also want to thank my coach Baldev Singh sir; he’s like a god for me. He’s done a lot for me and I have learned a lot from him in life.
So, have things changed in your neighbourhood after you became a big player.
Yeah, they all appreciate me. Now they always tell my parents “you have a really good daughter and our daughter must do the same thing.” The good thing is now they send their daughters to hockey. I think that’s a proud moment for me.