It is early morning at Bengaluru's Sports Authority of India (SAI) campus, and the goalkeepers in the Indian women's hockey team have opted for a training session. One of them is attending in spite of a neck strain.
Goalkeeping coach Bharat Chettri fires balls with a bowling machine. He keeps varying the frequency, trajectory and speed of the balls, as the three keepers line up with their protective equipment but without the stick; it is a drill to improve their footwork, and especially effective for defending penalty corners.
The woman with the strained neck faces 204 balls and misses just one - the 124th. There are 15 others that sneak off her pads into the net -- though in a game situation, there would be a defender protecting each post -- and she lets out a shriek admonishing herself when that happens.
When India take on England in the opening match of the women's World Cup in London on Saturday afternoon, hers will be one of the first names alongside striker Rani Rampal in the team sheet. It will be her 149th appearance for India and also her World Cup debut, like for her 14 other teammates. India have only qualified for the seventh time in 14 editions, and the first time since 2010.
Savita Punia could not be more ready.
Three years of consistency and excellence have marked Savita down as one of the best goalkeepers in the world. Lightning footwork, sharp anticipation and a presence of mind, turns an otherwise reticent, self-effacing woman into a 5'8" presence in goal, one who will stab her stick against its wooden frame, defending penalty corners as if they were encroachments on her private space. In goal and under the helmet, she takes on another personality.
"If I had been an outfield player, maybe I would still carry some fears within me. With the helmet on, I just feel a lot more comfortable. You learn every day, and the more mistakes you make, the better you become. That's the key to enjoying your game," she says.
Savita, who turned 28 earlier this month, was a key player for India as they qualified for the Olympics for the first time in 36 years, won their first points in Olympic hockey since Moscow 1980, and then won the Asia Cup after 13 years in 2017. India also beat England 2-1 in the pool stages of the Commonwealth Games earlier this year, and lost 1-0 to hosts Australia in the semis.
Yet, before her heroics in goal during the World League Semifinal of 2015 -- India beat Italy via shootout and then Japan 1-0 to secure their Rio berth -- it was never a given that Savita would confirm her place as India's No.1. In fact, her journey into hockey itself was an accident.
Ranjeet Punia, the eldest member of a joint family in the Jodhkan village in Haryana, had once been to Delhi to watch a hockey match and liked the sport instantly. In 2004, he encouraged his granddaughter Savita to enroll at the Maharaja Agrasain girls' school in Sirsa, famous for sport. Savita says she could have taken up judo or badminton, but chose hockey because her grandfather wished so.
The first year and a half was spent less on hockey and more on "fitness", as young Savita savoured every visit home. She would make excuses so they wouldn't send her back to the hostel, and copious tears in front of her mother Lilavati would lead to pleas to her father Mohender to let her stay. It was always agreed upon to give hockey another year, with a cousin enrolled at the same school for moral support.
A defining moment in her life came when Savita's coach recommended goalkeeping to enhance her chances of making the Indian team, and her father bought a Rakshak kit worth 18,000 rupees (approx. $260) without asking her. "He told the coach that he would do anything in his capacity to see his daughter play for India. That's when I decided to get serious about the game," says Savita.
In 2007, Savita was picked for a maiden national camp in Lucknow, and training with the top goalkeepers rammed home the value of an India call-up. She made her debut in 2008, and two years later, India qualified for the World Cup in Rosario, Argentina. Savita, however, had to give way to the more experienced Dipika Murthy and Rajani, having fractured her toe when playing football after a gym session with her team-mates following the Asia Cup in 2009, and consigned to a four-month recovery period.
Sitting out almost broke her down, but her parents were a source of strength as she waited. "I was still a little tentative, but my parents took such pride even in my being the reserve goalkeeper, that it made me change my outlook," she says. "I always share everything with my father, and he would tell me to keep calm and work hard every day. My time would surely come."
Mohender and Lilavati's support for their daughter is a consistent theme through her career, though they rarely watch her live in action, leaving that instead to Savita's elder brother Bhavishya.
"My brother follows all the games, and alerts my parents if I make a save or if there's a replay of a save I have made. They will always inform all relatives and friends, but they can't bear to watch my games," she laughs. "My father watches all of the men's matches. He is a huge fan of (men's goalkeeper) PR Sreejesh and so am I."
They have also never brought up the question of marriage with her, an outlier for a traditionally conservative Haryanvi household. She misses her grandfather's guidance and his affection, though, as Ranjeet died in 2013.
"I have saved his picture on my phone screen, and it is his blessings that I seek first thing in the morning every day," she says. "Everybody says that when our elders are no more, their blessings live on. I believe that too, but it would have been great to have him physically around and enjoy my success. I miss that."
India's improved record since the Rio Olympics is no coincidence, feels Savita. The team is fitter than before, and there is a unity stemmed from the Olympics, evident at the Asia Cup in Japan last year. "Since the Olympics, we have changed ourselves on and off the field. When one or two players say something at a team meeting, the remaining 16 speak up and endorse that. We simply wanted the opposition at the World Cup to know we are here by right," she says.
Personally for her, the turning point was the World League Semifinal win against Japan in Antwerp three years ago. "I can never forget the Japan game [World League Semi-final of 2015]. I just felt that I could take on any team, anywhere. Andar se darr nikal gaya (all my fear just went away)."
Chettri, who has trained in the past alongside Savita as a member of the Indian team himself, and has been on the coaching staff for the past one year, singles her out as the top player not just in her team, but in the wider world. "She's one of the best in the world, because there's nobody fitter than her in world hockey," he says.
"On the field, you need to believe in yourself. Your movements have to be sharp because in hockey, a ball can come at you from anywhere and at any time and with any speed. You need presence of mind to react to that. She has the complete package as a goalkeeper. The remaining 10 players have to support her and raise their level as well -- if that happens, then the team will start getting good results in the coming tournaments."
Savita also realises the importance of mentoring younger players around her in the team. "Rani, Deepika di (midfielder Deepika Thakur) and I are the only senior players here, and we have to shoulder our responsibility. It's the first World Cup for almost all of the girls, and there'll be an anxiety to give more than 100% every time. We have to remind the girls to take it one game at a time."
When Savita herself became an India regular, around the time India won bronze at the 2013 Asia Cup, she was not in the frame of mind to enjoy the game, having lost her grandfather. "I wasn't mentally prepared, and it showed in my body language and lack of confidence. It was like performing a duty.
"My grandfather never got the chance to educate himself, but he always promised me that one day he would read out an article about me in the papers. When I returned home a year on, he took a newspaper out and started reading it. At that age, he learnt how to read through my nieces.
"I just couldn't control myself then. I burst into tears and just could not stop. Aisa laga sab kuch mil gaya life ka (It was as if my life was complete)."