Buoyant India show off their World Cup credentials

Hockey India

The penalty shootout that determined the winner of the 2017 Hockey Asia Cup was as expected a nervy affair. Both India and China had been locked 1-1 after an hour on the field in Kakamigahara, Japan. In the shootout, both teams scored off their first four attempts. China captain Cui Quixia missed her team's fifth shot and an error from Navneet ensured the shootout went into sudden death. Indian captain Rani Rampal made no mistake before vice-captain and goalkeeper Savita Punia blocked Liang Meiyu to secure a historic win.

While the spectators at Kakamigahara's Green Stadium might have had few fingernails left at the end, the two coaches in the Indian dugout - Harendra Singh and Bharat Chhetri - were much calmer.

"Harendra bhai and I were very relaxed. Once it came down to shootouts, we knew we were going to win because in Savita we had the best goalkeeper in Asia," says goalkeeping coach Bharat Chhetri over the sounds of dancing and cheering in the Indian team bus.

Numbers might suggest India's win - their first at the continental tournament in 13 years - was an upset. They were ranked 12th in the world, behind China (8) Korea (9) and Japan (11). India, though, blitzed their way to the final scoring 27 goals and conceding just 4.

The Indian team had in fact targeted a gold even before the tournament. "The short term goal is to win the Asia Cup. I believe this is a realistic target," coach Harendra Singh had said last month, just a few days after he had taken charge from Dutchman Marijne Sjoerd.

It had seemed a bold prediction at first. India had just had an average outing at the Hockey World League Semifinals in South Africa. And just before that they had been savaged with five straight defeats in a test series against New Zealand.

Coach Chhettri, though, had seen glimpses of promise in South Africa, his first competition with the team. "We didn't do well at the World League but I knew there itself that this team was shaping up well. This is a special team. There was a lot of unity in the team and the girls wanted to do something together," he says.

Captain Rampal says the team's performance in Johannesburg, where they won just a single game, was a turning point.

"We were not happy with our performance and right then the team had decided that we need to start winning in order to gain that confidence to perform well in top tournaments. We worked a lot on creating PCs and Gurjit worked hard on converting PCs during our camps. We were also well-prepared for a shootout situation as we were anticipating the knockouts to end in a shootout. All the preparation helped us today," she says.

That preparation seems to have worked out. Although she didn't score in the final, Gurjit was instrumental towards India getting there, scoring eight goals.

It wasn't just penalty corners and shootout training that helped. Chhetri says the team under Harender had a simple motto.

"Coach Harendra likes to keep things simple. In the one month that we have together we have improved on the basics. These are tactics like passing to each other, controlling possession and covering each other's positions. These are simple things that make a huge difference in international hockey," he says.

Throughout the tournament, India rarely gave away lose balls ensuring both that they were able to keep opponents under sustained pressure and also that they didn't get hit on the counter.

"Even when Japan or China were pressing, we didn't lose control. And of course we had Savita in the goal. Goals wins you matches, but a good defence wins you tournaments. We were very good defensively," Chhetri says.

The task isn't done yet for India. MK Kaushik, who coached the last team to win the Asia Cup in 2004, says the victory while laudable was expected.

"We must remember that this same team won the Asian Champions Trophy beating the same opponents last year. Additionally the fact is that after we reached the finals of the Asia Cup in 2009, women's hockey had suffered a bad phase. With this win we are only recovering lost ground," he says.

Indeed, the team is now expected to build on their achievements. "We need to improve step by step. This victory is the first step for the team, but it is an important step. The next step will be the Commonwealth Games and World Cup. It was important for them to win this tournament to get the team's confidence up," says senior men's team goalkeeper PR Sreejesh.

Rampal had admitted as much. While India were expected to qualify for the World Cup through a complex arithmetic involving South Africa winning the Africa Cup, she had said the team wanted to qualify for the 2018 event on their own merit.

"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)," she had said echoing Sreejesh's words.

"This team now has the self belief that they are worthy of playing the World Cup. They know they deserve to be there now," he says.

It is unlikely to satisfy them. "It is great to be champions but our task is only just beginning. It doesn't make sense to do well here and nothing next year at the Commonwealth and World Cup," says Chhetri, straining to be heard over the pulsing beat of Dwayne Bravo's Champion being played on full blast in the team bus.

"We have the skill and the self belief. If we keep improving in this way, there is no reason to doubt we can be within the top four of the world next year."