What is the biggest achievement in Indian women's hockey? Fourth place at the first Women's World Cup in 1974? Or fourth at the 1980 Moscow Olympics? Why not the 1982 Asian Games gold in its first edition of the women's competition. or the 2002 Commonwealth Games gold from its second edition? Or hauling the team into the Olympics after a gap of 36 years, and then again?
Whichever side of that argument you are on, whenever there is a discussion about India's greatest hockey players, no list can be made without Rani Rampal's name on it. Not just on a "women's" list but included in Indian hockey's entire broadbrush - as a player of influence and an exemplar of the team she has belonged to and often led.
This is not one of the hyperboles that Indian hockey lends itself to after every good day at the office, which is what the Bhubaneswar Tokyo 2020 qualifiers were. The Indians are ranked No. 9 in world to the USA's 13, but in ensuring her team's scramble over the line at Kalinga, Rani stood cold-eyed, resolute. Because, as cricket commentators holler when things get tight, she had 'Previous'.
In her career now into its eleventh year, Rani has experienced several versions of Indian women hockey's Previous. As an 18-year-old, she was in the squad that missed out on the 2012 London Olympics qualification. Making it to Rio2 016 became an assessment of her team's standing against other top nations and how much further there was to go. A missed penalty in a generally doomed shoot-out against Ireland cost the team a 2018 World Cup semi-final spot. Then there was defeat in the 2018 Commonwealth Games bronze medal match followed by a narrow 1-2 loss to Japan in the Asian Games final.
At every stage, Rani has picked herself up and through example, shown her teammates how to find a new way on a new day. Regardless of injury, form or outcome. While her own skills were always feted and her appetite for a contest admirable, it is Rani's leadership of the collective that makes her incandescent. In a sport where chances can be converted or obliterated in a blink, Rani stops clocks and adopts a state of what can only be called nerveless omnipresence. To materialise and act. To create space and compress distance. To become not merely titan, but titanium - great strength with light weight and the most precious quality found in Indian hockey - a high resistance to corrosion.
Think of Rani's goal against Japan in Antwerp 2015 in the bitter tussle for a ticket to Rio. Or the goal she scored in the team's final group match versus South Africa at the 2018 Commonwealth Games to enter the semis. Or the goal that wiped out USA's chances in Bhubaneswar on Saturday night. If you want to go back further in time, when India won its first-ever medal at the Junior Women's World Cup in 2013, she was there too. In the bronze medal match versus England, she pulled out goals in regulation time, the penalty shoot-out and the sudden death.
No Indian woman has played more internationals than Rani or scored as many goals - hockey statistician BG Joshi confirming the number as 241 matches and 124 goals. But she is more than the sum of her numbers. In recent years, it is her composure and experience that has helped push the Indian women ahead - whether it is medals won or a top-10 FIH ranking or successive Olympic qualification. She too has been helped playing alongside some of her oldest, most generous teammates. Rani is surrounded by many 2013 Junior World Cuppers - Sushila Chanu, Vandana Kataria, Navneet Kaur, DeepGrace Ekka, Lilima Minz. It is this tight core that ensures that frequent slings and arrows bounce off and away from the more inexperienced in the team.
No matter what, Indian women's hockey has always been an afterthought - regardless of the ChakDe nostalgia, whose most famous character remains, of course, the male coach. The women's team has mostly been looked at from a long distance over the shoulder of the men with their weighty, almost cumbersome Olympic legacy. As of 2020, the men will be playing in the second FIH Pro League which is a six-monthly competition between the top nations, but the women won't. The reason for dropping out of the 2019 season was to enhance chances for qualifying for Tokyo 2020 and a lack of clarity in the ranking system. This when Narinder Batra has been head of the FIH (the international hockey federation) since November 2016 and on its executive board since 2014. Go figure.
In the 15 months between Feb 2017 and May 2018, the women's team has had their head coaches swapped twice. Almost to see if Sjoerd Marijne and Harendra Singh's magic could rub off on the men. Had it not been so unfair and unprofessional, it could have been comic.
The women didn't blink or break their stride. They knew that the magic was actually located elsewhere - inside their hearts and minds, and in the unyielding ambition of Rani Rampal.