The Indian Women's Hockey team will be looking to build on a path-breaking Olympic performance in Tokyo, as they get their campaign towards Paris 2024 underway at the Asia Cup in Oman next week. The squad's unprecedented fourth place finish in Tokyo was described more than once as a fairytale result for the second lowest ranked side in the tournament. However, the tag of underdogs isn't one the team wants to wear in 2024.
"I think ultimately as a team, we went into Tokyo not knowing where we stood," says coach Janneke Schopman, who had worked as a technical analyst under previous coach Sjoerd Marijne.
"Our performance in Tokyo exceeded expectations. But if we look at the stats from the games, we still have some gains to make to be in the top 6 of the world. I think from the Olympics we've got that belief that we have a place at the top of world hockey. But we need to improve and need to keep improving. The countries that are in the top of the world know that they have to perform year in and year out. The girls want that. They don't want to be one-day wonders. They want to be right there with the other teams. We are working on our ability to change behaviours on the field and playing as a team and making sure we play to the best of our potential. If we do that we will get closer and closer to the top teams," says Schopman.
Importantly Schopman says, the team buys into that vision. "I don't think they expected all the attention and requests individually (after the Olympics). When we started camp in September, the group was keen to play hockey again. Since then, I've continued with some of the things we achieved at Tokyo. I have a vision of how we should play and how we can make next step from the Tokyo performance. I'm happy with the intent and the way they are invested as a team and as an individual. I think we are moving in the right direction," she says.
The team isn't technically playing their first competition post the Tokyo Olympics - they had travelled to Korea for the Asian Champions Trophy a couple of months ago, but had spent all but one match in their hotel after a COVID positive infection in the squad - a situation Schopman said had been a 'scarring' one.
There is no shortage of matches this year though.
The Asia Cup will serve as a qualifying event for the 2022 World Cup. The team will also be playing the Commonwealth and Asian Games - the latter a qualification event for the 2024 Olympics-as well as taking part in the FIH Pro League for the first time. Of these, Schopman says, the Asian Games are perhaps the most significant, but the World Cup is no less important. For if the Asian Games might help the side qualify for Paris, the World Cup will give an idea of just how the team might do.
"For me the next game is always the most important but everyone knows qualification for the Olympics is very important. At the same time the World Cup, which has the world's top countries, will give us the best insight into where we currently stand in the world," she says.
India are defending champions at the Asia Cup and will naturally want to retain their title in Doha. However, Schopman notes that it'll be equally important to judge if the work they have been doing in training in Bangalore will translate onto the actual pitch.
"When you play international hockey you want to play games. Since the Olympics we have played just one game (in Korea). The Asia Cup is a World Cup qualifying tournament so there's something at stake. But for me, it's about looking at our own performance and seeing where we are at. We have implemented some things in attack and defence that I'd like to see. We are training very well on principles. We are training what to do when we do have the ball, and when we don't have the ball. And the most important thing for me is to see whether we translate that to a game. I have confidence it can but I also think it will give us information going forward into the Pro League. It will tell us if we're going in the right direction," she says.
Schopman isn't looking to reinvent the wheel. Having worked with the team since 2019, her philosophy is to build on what the team already has.The team however, will be missing a couple of well-known faces - the talismanic Rani Rampal in midfield and Lilima Minz in defence due to injury and retirement respectively.
"Our work rate was always there. Our defensive efforts were there. But I would like us to be more dominant when we have possession. The Indian team is very skillful and good at goal scoring. We're asking if we can create more attacking opportunities. But at the same time we can't just leave an open house. So how do we make that combination of putting more numbers forward, yes creating opportunities, but also ensure our defence stands tall - and like at the Olympics, ensure the opposition doesn't enter our circle," she says.
The incremental approach will be seen elsewhere too. For instance, even though Wayne Lombard - the strength and conditioning expert who revolutionized the team's fitness has left, his replacement Taren Naidoo, is someone who has worked with him in the past.
"She understands what his philosophy was. It will seamlessly transfer. It will continue in the same way. We want fit players, healthy players. That's what Wayne was about. That's what I am about as well. We want to work very hard for 60 minutes and give it our all and perform over the course of the tournament. Of course in transition, things change slightly but things won't be worse off. We will continue on the path we are on," she says.