The Indian women's hockey team lost 4-3 to Great Britain (GBR) in the bronze medal match at the Tokyo Olympics on Friday, missing out on their first ever Olympic medal. The India women were looking to join their male counterparts, who won bronze on Thursday.
This is GBR's third successive podium finish, having won bronze in London and gold in Rio in the previous edition of the Olympics. There is much to celebrate in India's performance, though, as they turned their form around from three successive defeats, took out Australia, one of the favourites, in a run of three matches, and then went toe-to-toe with Argentina and GBR, two of the best teams in the world.
India's performance at these Olympics has been reflected in their world rankings. They came in ninth in the world, saw their ranking slip to 12th after losses in the first three matches, but since have risen to seventh, and are likely to go even further up once the final between Netherlands and Argentina, later on Friday, has been played.
The first quarter saw the teams feeling each other out, though India goalkeeper Savita Punia was pressed into action as early as the second minute, using her left glove to deny Giselle Ansley off GBR's first penalty corner (PC). India seemed unwilling to commit players in attack in the early stages, content to play through Navjot Kaur and Salima Tete down the flanks. At the other end, Sarah Jones started growing in confidence, attacking the baseline down the right and getting into shooting positions, but denied on two occasions by Savita.
GBR had the perfect start to the second quarter, with Ellie Rayer working her way down the right, attacking the baseline, and her shot going off Deep Grace Ekka's stick into goal, just 34 seconds into the quarter. For India, Lalremsiami had been a tireless worker through the two quarters, and she got Maddie Hinch to effect the first save of the match with a reverse hit that was rising from the edge of the circle.
India then had Nisha Warsi receive a green card in the 23rd minute for a rash stick check, and within a minute, the experienced Sarah Robertson found some space at the top of the Indian circle, spun away to her left and unleashed a sharp reverse stick hit that beat Savita and crept into goal off the post to her right.
India found the perfect response in the last five minutes of the first half. First, Lalremsiami found a foot, and off the PC that resulted, Gurjit Kaur dragged the ball high to the left of Hinch into the net. A minute later, India converted defence into attack in a flash through a ball released to Salima, whose entry into the circle was followed by a stick check. Gurjit kept up her remarkable record of scoring in the knockout games in Tokyo, this time going hard and low to the left of Hinch.
Suddenly, the momentum was completely in India's favour, and in the 27th minute, Vandana Katariya played a defence-splitting pass, through four opponents, but Sharmila Devi was closed down by an advancing Hinch. Two minutes later, India were attacking the baseline down the left, and a stray ball fell for Vandana to slot home and give India the lead for the first time.
GBR, the reigning champions, came out firing in the third quarter. As early as five minutes into the quarter, Savita had to effect a save off Isabelle Petter, but seconds later a stray ball fell to captain Hollie Pearne-Webb, whose hit could only take a bit of Savita's stick into the goal. Savita continued to deny GBR, with effective saves off Petter, Lily Owsley and Hannah Martin. With less than two seconds left in the quarter, India had a referral for a GBR foot inside their own circle upheld, but with Gurjit off the field, India had to try a variation, which Hinch was able to quell.
India's discipline let them down in the early stages of the decisive quarter, with Udita Duhan giving away a PC due to a rough bump into a GBR attacker inside India's 23-metre area. It must be said the yellow card given to Udita seemed harsh, especially because GBR's Shona McCallin hadn't even been given green for a tackle against India in the third quarter that was equally poor, if not worse. Nisha Warsi charged down the first such attempt, getting pinged in her midriff in the process. However, India were unable to deny Grace Balsdon off the second such short corner in the 48th minute.
India looked to get more aggressive from there, but it didn't help that as soon as Udita's five minutes off the pitch were over, that Sharmila Devi was shown a green card for a poor challenge. India's best chance in the last 10 minutes was when their pressure resulted in a GBR defender deemed to have deliberately played the ball over the backline. Gurjit, back on the pitch for this PC, dragged the ball towards the post, and McCallin protected the post perfectly, with the deflection hitting an Indian forward's foot.
The Indian men had won bronze by beating Germany 5-4 on Thursday. In fact, India are the only nation to have managed top-four finishes in both men's and women's hockey in Tokyo.