On most occasions in an India game your eyes fail to catch Gurjit Kaur. Unless, of course, when she’s wearing the full-sleeved compression garment (usually white) that no one else in her team wears. But otherwise, you wouldn’t notice her.
She isn’t as versatile as her skipper Rani Rampal, who, when on song, swivels and swerves to befuddle the defence, evoking a smile from her spectators, even if her attacks don’t culminate in a goal. No, Gurjit doesn’t create a spectacle.
She isn’t a natural like the young Lalremsiami, who, is touted to take over from Rani as India’s best player. Her positioning and the innate understanding of the angles to make a good pass even during a melee in the opposition circle – all this at just 17 – makes you take notice of her when India attack.
Then, there’s Vandana Katariya, perhaps the quickest forwards in the squad and Navneet Kaur, who’d scored a hat-trick against Japan (India’s opponent in the final) during the Asian Champions Trophy.
Gurjit, as the team’s key defender, is retreated to the back. At 5’6, as the third tallest player of the Indian squad (only the goalkeepers Rajani Etimarpu and Savita are taller), she’s cut out to be a defender. She clears away the incoming danger, she steals the ball from the attackers to feed it to the midfield. But these are high-pressure tasks that go unnoticed on many occasions. For, the one who scores is always in the limelight.
But there comes a moment during a game, like it did on Wednesday against China in the Asian Games women’s hockey semi-final, when Gurjit compels your attention. It is now up to her to save her team or to make it win.
From the back, she emerges to take the injection of a Penalty Corner. The following few seconds, ladies and gents, belong to her. This is the Gurjit Kaur Time.
And it came on Wednesday, too, when India were in a desperate need for a goal. Nine more minutes without a goal and they would have had to play a shootout against China. The last shootout they played, they lost to Netherlands in the World Cup. Another big tournament, another shootout. Different teams, same scenario, where the results could go anyway. India had to close the game and they had the chance to do so in the 51st minute.
She had a few penalty corners saved before that. Six of India’s PC attempts were thwarted. With nine minutes to go, the seventh one, the Indians would’ve feared, could be their last of the night.
A little rewind before we enter the Gurjit Kaur Time.
She wasn’t a natural at drag-flicking. Gurjit’s birthplace – Miadi Kalan, a hamlet of Amritsar – doesn’t have even the basic infrastructure to play any sport. Then, in sixth grade, she moved to a hostel in Kairon in Tarn Taran district, where she’d picked up hockey. She’d mastered the game enough to make it to the national squad. And, only there she was introduced to the mechanics of drag-flicking.
“I didn’t know much about drag-flicking when I started off,” Gurjit had told mykhel.com. “I used to do the lift-push routine on grass. You can’t exactly call that drag-flicking, can you?”
Gurjit’s footwork during the flicks used to go awry. And the shots, wayward. Her torso used to rotate away from the goal, too. “If the foot-work is wrong, you may intend to go for goal but you will end up flicking outside the boundary. If you hit five to six shots off the target, your confidence will go low,” Harendra Singh had said when he used to coach the women’s team.
With scientific advisor Wayne Lombard, Harendra had devised a training programme for Gurjit, wherein she had to bear dumbbells on her shoulders and do the flicks. The extra weight, Harendra’d reasoned, would improve her strength and make it easier for her to take the flicks during the games.
Gurjit also worked with the Dutch stalwart Toon Siepman, who’s an expert in penalty corners. Coach Sjoerd Marijne, too, was instrumental in sandpapering Gurjit’s drag-flicking.
But then, a successful penalty corner isn’t just about drag-flicking. According to the Indian men’s team analytical coach Chris Ciriello, it’s just 34% of the shot. So, the drag-flicker also should adjust accordingly to the push (33%) and the trap (33%) before unleashing the shot.
All this might have been going on inside Gurjit’s brain when she stood to receive the penalty corner in the 51st minute against China. India had missed two back-to-back PCs attempted by skipper Rani.
The third one was trapped. Gurjit wasn’t carrying dumbbells on her shoulders. But there was some burden that she had to carry as India’s lone drag-flick specialist. She sent the ball soaring to the ‘keepers’ left. Despite a dive, Jiaojiao De couldn’t stop it.
Gurjit, whom we don’t often see during the game, was flocked by her teammates for taking them to the Asian Games final, to which an Indian team had last been to 20 years ago.