On Sunday evening, when they step on to the pitch of the Green Stadium in Kakamigahara, Japan, the Indian women's hockey team will be favorites to win the Asia Cup. If they do beat fellow finalists China, the team would be breaking a long-running drought. India last won the tournament 13 years ago, when it was held in New Delhi. Indeed, they last competed for a gold eight years back in 2009.
India have been relentless here -- they have scored 27 goals while conceding just four. The two teams that were expected to pose a threat were disposed of without fuss. China were beaten 4-1 in the group stage while hosts and defending champions Japan were trounced 4-2 in the semi-final.
The steady certainty of India's title march is particularly surprising considering, at least on paper, they were not the favourites to win or even medal. Ranked world No. 12, India are the fourth highest ranked team in the competition, behind China (8), South Korea (9) and Japan (11). Indeed, while their male counterparts were considered the odds-on favourites in the men's version of the competition that they won last month in Bangladesh, the women's team departed seemingly under the radar.
However, former coaches and players say that a closer look at the team's performances in recent times suggest there was little unexpected in the team's run in Japan. "At least at the Asian level this result was not a surprise," says MK Kaushik, coach of the women's team that last won the Asia Cup in 2004.
While India have done poorly recently in world competitions -- an eighth-place finish at the Hockey World League Semi-Finals was preceded by a 5-0 test whitewash in New Zealand. However, India had better results in Asia, winning the last continental tournament -- the Asian Champions Trophy in November last year. India had suffered just one defeat in that tournament -- a 1-0 loss to China.
India had shaped up well for the tournament too -- in their tour of Europe in September they had managed to beat the Belgian Junior men's team and draw another match against the same team.
These results had come under coach Sjoerd Marijne, who subsequently left to take charge of the men's team. However, there was no loss of continuity when coach Harendra Singh took over in September. Indeed it is felt that Harendra, in his first stint as women's national coach, has slipped far more smoothly into the role than a foreign coach might have. "With Harendra sir, communication is no longer an issue and obviously he has a good understanding of Indian culture and players' mentality, so that also helps a lot," captain Rani Rampal had said of the new coach.
Harendra's tactics of eschewing speed and emphasizing error-free play too has had an impact. "The statistics show that India have been converting penalty corners and not conceding goals. We have not been getting caught on counter-attacks like we used to," Kaushik says.
Defender Gurjit Kaur, who has had a breakout tournament scoring eight goals through penalty corners, is praised as symptomatic of an overall change. "Goals are being scored not just by one or two players. They have got a chance and grabbed it. It shows that the coach has put a lot of thought into his substitutions. It is clear that a lot of planning has been done by Harendra," says Kaushik.
Kaushik says that it was simply a matter of time before the Indian team came good. "After 2009, women's hockey suffered in India. But we had a core group of players led by Rani Rampal who were in the team. If you put six or seven world-class players together for half a decade, they will perform together at some point," he says.
The team itself was confident of doing well. While through a number of permutations India would qualify for the 2018 World Cup if South Africa won the Africa Cup, the team was looking forward to making the world event on their own steam. "Honestly we knew all along that this would happen, that South Africa would win and we would qualify," Rani says. "But we want to win the Asia Cup and earn a qualification. World Cup kisi team ke khairat pe nahi, khud ke dum pe jaana chahiye (We should enter a World Cup not because of the mercy of another team but on our own merit)."
India will have their best chance in nearly a decade to achieve that. Their opponents China are fielding a young and inexperienced team. Just three of their players are from the squad that competed in the 2016 Olympics and just eight from the squad of 18 have been capped more than 10 times for their country. Kaushik says he would be surprised if the team does not win. "Winning the Asia Cup will be good but it will simply be a case of us getting to where we deserve to be," he says.