As calm and composed she is on and off the field, Ashalata Devi brings a different dimension to defending. The quality of being intimidating, intense and fearsome are some of the characteristics you would attribute to a defender but Ashalata has none of that.

It’s that very calm demeanour that not only helps her marshall the defence with aplomb but also makes her a great leader.

Ashalata was the captain when the Indian women’s football team clinched their fifth SAFF Championship in Nepal earlier this year and the centre-back also guided the team to a historic second-round appearance at the AFC Olympic Qualifiers.

Ashalata, one of the mainstays in the Indian squad, has come a long way from once playing under the mentorship of Bembem Devi to leading the side on her own.

“There is a big responsibility as one of the senior players in the team but I don’t need to tell the youngsters much because many of them have played international matches at the junior level. They know their roles very well and are dedicated enough,” Ashalata, who was adjudged the ‘All India Football Federation’s Woman Footballer of the Year’ told

While she has cemented the centre-back position her own in the national team, Ashalata wasn’t meant to be a defender in the first place. It was only during the recommendation of current India assistant coach Chaoba Devi that she switched from midfielder to defender while playing for Manipur club Kryphsa FC in 2008.

“It was difficult at the start because I was still understanding the role... when to make the runs, how to pace my game and many other aspects. I was still figuring out what was my best position. But slowly, I got comfortable technically after playing a few games,” she recalls.

Relishing the challenge

Going by her all-round abilities, the 26-year-old could have adapted to any playing role but defending brought an additional challenge and she took it upon herself.

“There is a lot of focus on scoring goals, not only in India but also abroad. But if you can’t defend collectively as a team, there’s no way you can win matches. So that way, I try to lead the team.

“Whenever you win, people generally praise the strikers and forwards because they have scored the goals for the team. But no one notices that if you don’t defend well, the team is constantly under pressure. So that way my role becomes very important,” she explains.

Bursting onto the scene as a talented defender, Ashalata has been part of the Indian squad that has undergone a remarkable progression over the years. Once touted underdogs on the international circuit, multiple exposure trips have seen the team scale new heights this year.

Earlier in May, they went toe-to-toe and drew against Myanmar in the AFC Olympic Qualifiers before crashing out on goal difference. This was a team that once was head and shoulders above India a couple of years ago and still have a reputation as one of the heavyweights in Asian women’s football. The results highlight a stark difference in how the team has evolved.

“We didn’t have much of the exposure we are getting now. Even before any assignment abroad, we had to wait for a month or more. But this year, given the number of matches we played abroad, we could match teams like Myanmar. We lost 0-7 to them in the 2016 AFC Qualifying round but after playing higher-ranked teams, we could compete against them.

“So that is why playing in Europe is very beneficial for our development because the intensity is different. You don’t get that if we keep on playing games at home or in the Indian Women’s League,” she said.

The journey has just begun and with Ashalata at the forefront, there’s no better player to lead by example.