Argentina calling: Hockey women headed for first 'family' outing in nearly a year

File photo: Indian hockey players Rani Rampal (bottom) and Navneet Kaur Sonu Mehta/Hindustan Times via Getty Images

For a team that's been stuck together in camp for roughly nine months this year, a competition of any sort would come as a relief. The Indian women's hockey players will travel to Buenos Aires for an eight-match tour against the Argentinian women, junior and B teams, close to a year since their last competitive tournament. The event will run from January 18-February 1.

On Wednesday, members of the team arrived in New Delhi from their respective hometowns and underwent Covid-19 RT-PCR tests, 72 hours ahead of their departure. They are put up in individual rooms in a private hotel and have been advised to isolate until the results return on Thursday.

Goalkeeper and senior member of the side, Savita Punia, who drove four hours from her home in Sirsa district in Haryana to New Delhi on Wednesday, says she even skipped a bathroom break on the way. "After all those months together at the camp in our own kind of bubble, we've grown used to being extra careful. I drove non-stop all the way even though I wanted to use a restroom. We're getting the chance to travel and compete after a really long time and I just didn't want to take any risks. We're just seven months away from the Olympics, so this tour is coming at the right time. We've had lots of training, fitness sessions, endurance drills, what we haven't had is competitions. It's a good start for us. We need to get out there and play."

It will take the group -- 25 players and seven support staff -- 34-odd hours to travel from New Delhi to Buenos Aires on January 3, in addition to a 12-hour layover in Paris, where coach Sjoerd Marijne will be joining them. Prior to his current three-week Christmas break at home in Amsterdam, Marijne stayed back with the team at the SAI Bengaluru facility for the larger part, managing to spend only seven weeks this year with his family.

During camp, the women's team played four matches against the Indian junior men's team. In the midst of the conveyor belt of training, fitness routines and being cooped up in the SAI facility, it was a helpful assessment. "Between the first and fourth match, we made quite a few adjustments and improvements," says Punia. "After every match we'd go back and watch the video. Whether it was realigning our forwards combination, improving our counter control or even being able to keep up with their speed, we slowly got better. The speed of the junior men's team is perhaps equal to the senior women's no.1 team so being able to catch up with them, and play an attacking game helped our confidence."

Given the extended hiatus and with an eye on competitions ahead, Hockey India has been in talks with several countries for possible tour arrangements and submitted proposals for approval to SAI last month for the men's (in Argentina/South Africa) and women's national teams (in Argentina). It is understood that with a sanction for their tour still pending, the men are likely to return to the national camp in Bengaluru.

The women, who earned an Olympic berth at the qualifiers in Bhubaneswar in November 2019, last travelled overseas, to New Zealand, in January this year. They returned with wins in three out of the five matches against the hosts and Great Britain. Their next major tournament is the Asian Champions Trophy scheduled from March 31-April 6 in Donghae, South Korea.

On their arrival in Buenos Aires, the women's team isn't mandated to serve a quarantine. They will, however, not be permitted to venture out of the hotel, except for training and matches. "Hockey India and the host National Association have planned to create a bio bubble for both the Argentine women's team and the Indian women's team. The accommodation will be on a twin-sharing basis, where the room sharing partners will remain same throughout the tour who will also be same even in case of the seating arrangement in the team coach/bus, this has been planned carefully keeping in mind all necessary requirements. Team members will not be moving out of the bubble and meeting any third-party source as even while travelling to the match/training venue the team will be travelling in a dedicated transport which will only take up to 80% capacity," Hockey India release said on Wednesday.

In a way, the Indian women have been living in a bubble scenario for the greater part of this year. The rudderless feeling that followed the Olympics postponement initially was replaced by some measure of purpose and closer ties within the team. "We've spent so many months, just focused on fitness during lockdown and then training without even stepping outside the campus," says Punia. "Initially we felt homesick but once we made peace with the situation, we grew closer as a unit. We just kept telling ourselves that most teams across the world didn't have the opportunity to be together this year like we did. In a team sport, it's a cliché to say 'we're a family, we're a family' till you actually have to live for months together during a crisis. We did that. Now we're just excited to be back on the field together."