Navjot Kaur describes the mood in the Indian women’s hockey camp as something that can be witnessed in a happy family. They’ve all seen the ups and downs and been together for so long that they now unconsciously pull in the same direction.
Navjot, along with other senior players such as skipper Rani Rampal, Deep Grace Ekka, Namita Toppo, Sunita Lakra and Co came into the team as wide-eyed teenagers, but they are now the senior pros who have helped India qualify for the Olympics for a second consecutive time – after a long gap between qualifying from 1980 to 2016.
“We spend almost the entire year together,” Navjot told Scroll.in. “Seniors like Rani are always there to help us whenever we have an issue with our game or anything else. The camaraderie off the field certainly shows in the way we communicate on the field.”
Navjot’s role is a vital one – to bury the chances her teammates create. In a sense, she is the tip of the spear. It is her role to finish off the opposition and with each game, she seems to be getting even better at that. The 25-year-old forward, like some of her teammates, now has more than 150 caps to her name is one of the first to get on the teamsheet in Sjoerd Marijne’s side.
Navjot’s journey to the team was slightly different from that of her teammates. Hailing from Kurukshetra, Haryana, the one-time midfielder claims that her parents encouraged her to take up the sport as a child. Her father, a mechanic, encouraged young Navjot to make a mark in hockey, which she took to in the sixth grade.
“I didn’t have to convince my parents at all,” says Navjot. “In fact, it was my father who suggested that I should take up the sport in school.
“He dreamt about seeing at least one of his children [we are three siblings] in sports and I am glad that I have made his dream come true. I just kept moving from one level to the other once I got into it. I am very thankful to my parents for all their love and support.”
But Navjot, a forward by instinct, had to work hard for coaches to see what she can do in front of goal. In her early days as an international, she was deployed an attacking midfielder. These days, there is hard to find an India win with Navjot’s name not on the scoresheet.
“The finisher’s job is very critical for any side,” she says. “The entire team puts in the effort of creating openings and then the finisher has to find the back of the net. There’s a lot of pressure that comes with the job, but I enjoy it and make sure that I put myself into good positions in every match.
“I really like to be at the forefront of the attacking unit and ensure that we grab all our goal scoring opportunities.”
Navjot’s secret weapon is her calm in the opposition circle.
“Any player in any position has to work on their composure as patience is the key,” she added.
“Over the years, I have learned to be more patient with my decision-making and learned to communicate with my teammates better. And we plan our strategies comprehensively before every match, so our movements on the field take place without much confusion.”
Where did it all begin for Navjot, who has quietly formed the backbone of the Indian side that depends heavily on the likes of Savita Punia, Rampal, Ekka, Vandana Katariya and Co to drive them.
“I think the U-19 Asia Cup in 2011 was a big turning point for me,” Navjot remembers. “We won a bronze medal there and I won the Best Forward Award in the competition. My performances in that tournament helped me get noticed and eventually I made my way to the senior team.
Little over a year ago, Navjot completed a staggering 150 international caps after making her debut in 2012, when she was a few weeks shy of her 24th birthday. Asian Games, Champions Trophy, Rio Olympics – Marijne’s outfit are no strangers to big events when the hockey season was cut short to the coronavirus pandemic.
Navjot reserved high-praise for the Dutchman, who is now a veteran in the camp.
“He [Marijne] is a very patient person and that comes across when he is working with us during practice sessions.
“We have learned many new techniques from him. Sjoerd is an excellent strategist as well. The biggest lesson he has taught us is how to maintain our composure in key situations of the game.”
Just like proving her mettle as a forward after being played out of position, Navjot has taken the postponement of the Olympics in her stride.
“We are given training plans by scientific advisor Wayne Lombard and we do our exercises in our rooms. We are watching videos of our previous matches as well to stay in touch with hockey as much as we can,” she said.
“Our targets still remain the same. We were working towards doing well at the Olympics since last year and we were in a good position right now.”
There is little doubt that India will be banking a lot on Navjot’s poaching instincts as Rampal and Co eye an improved show in Tokyo.