The Indian women’s hockey team, despite being the highest ranked team coming into the Asian Games, aren’t the outright favourites to win the gold medal in Jakarta. They are just one of the favourites.

Less than two weeks before the Asian Games began in Jakarta, they returned from London, after reaching the quarter-finals of the World Cup. They had a great chance to go further into the tournament and make history but certain factors – external and internal – didn’t allow them to. With less than two weeks to recover from that loss and play again might have been challenging. So, even though a loss in the group stage would have counted as an upset, it wasn’t entirely ruled out as they had to face, among others, South Korea – the defending champions and the team that beat them in the Asian Champions Trophy final, earlier this year.

But Rani Rampal and company has, hitherto, exceeded the high expectations and go into the semi-finals with four consecutive victories and as runaway favourites to win the gold medal.

Ruthless against low-ranked teams

In the first two games, against Indonesia (ranked 64th in the world) and Kazakhstan (ranked 34th), it wasn’t a question of who’d win the match than how many goals will India score in it.

Out of the two opponents, hosts Indonesia were making their debut at the quadrennial event and needed a miracle to save themselves from defeat. And, no miracle happened as they lost 0-8.

The margin of 8-0 appears emphatic and India played well, too, to pump in as many goals. But they could have scored a lot more. In the third quarter, the Indonesians managed to hold off the Indian attack, giving away no goals.

They weren’t lackadaisical because of a 6-0 lead in the first half, the passing – with more Indonesian defenders crowding their circle – lacked precision and menace.

“Pass and run. Pass and run,” coach Sjoerd Marijne had instructed his team after the first quarter.

The simple advice paid rich dividends. In the next quarter, they scored twice. In the next match against Kazakhstan, they scored 21 times – just one goal short of a Games record.

This time, they showed no respite. This time, they didn’t relent. This time, they showed why they were ranked above all others in the Games.

Finishing woes sorted

One area of concern – and a significant one, too – from the World Cup for coach Sjoerd Marijne was the finishing. It is difficult, even for teams ranked higher than India, to breach their bulwark of a defence and score against them. The 0-6 humiliation in the Commonwealth Games bronze medal match against England apart, there haven’t been an occasion where the Indian defence had looked vulnerable. But, as Marijne had said, “you need to score to win games.” And, India scored only five goals in five games in the World Cup.

Of course, the World Cup is way tougher competition compared to the Asian Games for India. But regardless, it’s impressive that they have accumulated 38 goals in four games and won all of them. The last two victories – against tougher opponents South Korea and Thailand – would particularly please the Indian coach.

India in the group stage

Indonesia  5/21 3/10
Kazakhstan 5/16 15/31
Korea 2/2 2/3
Thailand 0/6 5/17
TOTAL 12/45 25/61

(Note: India also scored a goal off a penalty stroke.)

For the Koreans are the defending champions and are ranked just one place below India at No 10. India beat them 4-1. Against the compulsively defensive Thailand, Rani and company managed a 5-0 victory.

In both these games, they were challenged. Korea, similar to India, has a good defence and it isn’t easy to score against them. With just seven minutes left, the teams were locked at 1-1 after Korea had equalised through a penalty stroke. India, who often face the criticism of not capitalising on penalty corners, converted both chances that came their way in the 54th and the 55th minutes and Vandana Kataria delivered another blow in the 56th minute to steal the match for India.

Good teams, on crucial moments, capitalise on the momentum of a goal and score another. And, India did that against Korea.

And, once again, against Thailand. This time they were denied by ultra defensive opponents for the first two quarters. Then, captain Rani – who’d been struggling with an injury – did the star turn by scoring in the 36th minute. She struck twice in the next quarter in helping India win the match 5-0.

Her return to form, Gurjit Kaur’s potent drag-flicks in the penalty corners and the solidity in defence augur well for India as they head into the knockout stage.