When the Indian women finished eighth at the Hockey World League Semi-final in Johannesburg in July 2017, it left them sweating over the continental championships that were to follow in order to qualify for the 2018 World Cup. They were hoping to get there after an eight-year absence.
"We had a team full of a number of youngsters, so that ability to soak up big-match pressure that you normally acquire with experience, was lacking in the team. One of the biggest things that a team needs to have is self-belief, and that was probably lacking at that point of time in our team," recalls captain and forward Rani Rampal, who failed to get herself on the scoresheet throughout the tournament. Relative newcomers Preeti Dubey and drag-flicker Gurjit Kaur did, though, but Gurjit's early goal against Ireland in the play-off for seventh place was cancelled out by two Irish strikes early in the fourth quarter that India never recovered from.
India waited and watched, as Argentina, Netherlands and Australia, all won their respective continental championships, with South Africa reaching the final of the African Cup of Nations on October 29. A South African win would open up a slot in the 16-team World Cup for India, who began their Asia Cup campaign on October 28. The motivation to qualify as Asian champions was a strong one, especially under new coach Harendra Singh, and in a field where barring India's win in 2004, South Korea, China and Japan had shared seven of the eight previous editions.
"At the Asia Cup, our only thought was that we had to forget about the missed opportunity and grab our second chance. The other thing was that we just wanted to be the best in Asia. Unless we call ourselves the best in Asia, we can't think of doing well at the world level," says Rani.
Harendra recalls encouraging his team to believe in themselves and take more risks. "I gave them the example of Indian women who have taken risks in all walks of life and are talked of with great respect today. I told them that I would bear responsibility for all the consequences, but that they need to start taking risks, in order to play a more aggressive and attacking brand of hockey," he says. "That is the Indian way of playing hockey -- we have never been known to play defensive hockey. Whenever we have played aggressive hockey, whether our men or women, we have produced good results."
The results were remarkable -- India scoring 28 times through 11 different scorers, including in a 4-1 win over China. Japan -- who had beaten India 2-0 during the World League in Jo'burg -- were beaten 4-2 after a two-minute blitz in the first quarter that brought India three goals. Gurjit's eight goals in the tournament included a hat-trick against Kazakhstan, and she credited Harendra for working extra with her.
"He (Harendra) told me things like how to roll with the ball, how to approach the drag-flick, and how to play generally. He puts up noodles or tires along the goalpost to give me a restricted area to go for, and challenges me. It gives me an angle to work with and helps improve my flicking accuracy," she says.
India faced China again in the final. After Navjot Kaur had given her team the lead, Tiantian Luo pulled one back past goalkeeper Savita Punia from a penalty-corner. As the teams came together for the shootout, Harendra had a simple advice for them. "I told them that they needed to score three goals, because Savita will make three saves," says Harendra.
It nearly worked out to perfection, with Savita denying two Chinese players to cancel out a miss from Navneet Kaur. Rani stepped up to take the sudden death penalty and scored, giving India an undisputed berth in the World Cup, and the crown of Asian champions after 13 years.
"To go to the Asia Cup with a new coach and dominate the way we did, without losing a single game, it had a lot to do with our mental strength as a team," Rani says. "This relationship of faith that we were able to establish was a memorable moment for me, as also doing so well in the very first tournament after having prepared for such a short time," adds Harendra. "The girls did what was asked of them, and it couldn't have been any better."