India survive U.S scare as Rani confirms Tokyo berth

India celebrate a goal against U.S. during the first leg of the qualifier. PTI Photo/Swapan Mahapatra

Bhubaneswar -- It isn't often that a team losing a hockey match 4-1 eagerly winds down the clock with 30 seconds to go. India played the ball out to the middle of the pitch, and as Neha Goyal won a sideline ball, the Kalinga Stadium crowd counted down the last 10 seconds. With the hooter going off, a fan with the Indian tricolour in the crowd spread his arms out wide and started a celebratory run. The Indians, who had worked hard to earn themselves effectively a 1-0 win in the final 30 minutes of their two-legged Olympic qualifier against U.S., could breathe again. Among the first players to get a hug from her teammates was Rani Rampal, who rescued a hapless India with an opportunistic strike in the early moments of the final quarter to put them through 6-5.

U.S. captain Kathleen Sharkey had sounded out her team's plans after Friday's 5-1 defeat. "It's obviously a challenge as we are down by four goals, but in my eyes, this is just half-time and we have 60 minutes to play tomorrow.". Her team had delivered in 30 minutes of excellence, scoring four goals to bring the tie level.

Savita Punia looked confused, angry and tired as she peeled off her helmet and walked off last among the Indian players for the breather. On both match days, she and reserve goalkeeper Rajani Etimarpu were the first players from either side to enter the pitch, training a full hour ahead of pushback, and at least 20 minutes before anybody else from either camp.

On Saturday, there was not a lot she could have done about the goals. India began defensively right from the start and play kept getting pulled deeper and deeper into India's defensive third, with Deep Grace Ekka often the isolated figure holding fort against a flood of navy blue in front of her. With numbers to support the American forwards, India were waging a battle they perhaps knew they started off second favourites for.

Amanda Magadan scored a brace, either side of goals by Sharkey and Alyssa Parker, and what stood out through all of this was how the Indian defence was flagging. Ekka was one of three defenders, alongside Reena Khokar and Gurjit Kaur, who were running themselves ragged with their efforts, but each time they looked to clear their lines, the ball seemed to find a U.S. player.

India didn't help themselves either with a green card and a yellow late in the second quarter for Sushila Chanu and Navneet Kaur. U.S. scored their fourth to level the tie with both players off the pitch, and nearly pinched a fifth just ahead of half time. Each goal felt like a gasp of air escaping the lungs of those gathered at the Kalinga, and at 4-0, the nerves in the crowd were palpable.

India came out with purpose in the second half, defending their lines better and pushing more players forward. Importantly, the midfield started operating harder, and made a few forays forward. A third quarter went by, and with U.S. having failed to score, India's Olympic hopes pretty much hung in the balance.

An early break in the fourth quarter saw Lalremsiami charging down the centre, with U.S. having committed far too many players forward, and while she ran at goalkeeper Kelsey Bing, she failed to keep control of the ball under pressure from the defence. Navjot Kaur also failed to make the most of the rebound, but the ball fell to Rani just at the edge of the circle.

India's captain collected herself, and shot a rocket through to the left side of Bing. It was a smart choice of placement, to the roof of the net over Bing's left shoulder, because goalkeepers prefer some space to be able to get their solitary gloved hand into play.

The net ripped. Kalinga cheered. Rani let out a roar and her teammates engulfed her in celebration.

They did it the hard way, but this was apt reward for two days of toil by the Indian women. And nothing less than what Rani deserves.