About two hours from Chandigarh, Shahabad Markanda is just another sleepy town in Haryana. But the Shahabad Hockey Academy, just off the GT Karnal Road, is a seedbed of the national game. The nursery has given 40 women players to the Indian team. And, the current flag-bearers of the glowing tradition are the two 'queens'—skipper Ritu Rani and star striker Rani Rampal. Both are back home, for a much needed break after the FIH Hockey World League Semifinal in Antwerp, Belgium, where the team finished fifth. A berth in the Rio Olympics 2016 is now within reach.
Many of the 12 available slots will be decided only in October when all continental games are over, and India has a good chance. An Indian women's hockey team last made it to Olympics 35 years ago, in Moscow.
Though only 20, Rani Rampal spearheads the Indian attack. Known for her speed and dodging and scoring skills, she is the most heavily marked Indian player. Her lone goal against Japan helped India finish fifth in the ten-team event in Antwerp.
Rani was 14 when she made her debut for the national team. Spotted by the legendary coach Baldev Singh, she started training at the academy in Shahabad when she was eight. She used to watch the big girls playing and Baldev noticed her interest. It was, however, not an easy decision for Rani. Her father, Rampal, is a cart-puller. “When I started playing hockey, it was difficult for our family to even survive,” she said. “Many people dissuaded my father, but he never stopped me from playing.”
Rani made full use of the stick and kit given by the academy. “She always stood out, grasping more than the rest,” said Baldev. When she was 15, Rani played a key role in India's winning the silver medal in the 2009 Asia Cup. Superlative performances at the 2010 Commonwealth Games and Asian Games gave her a place in the FIH All Stars team and the Asian All Stars team.
Baldev became emotional while recounting how once he put her through a punishing test after a national coach rejected her at a junior selection trial. “The coach told her that she could not play for India as she had a weak back. I was so furious I made her do front rolls on the main road opposite the academy. Her hands and feet were badly bruised but she did not even cry once. I was in tears, but I made sure the coaches knew she was fine,” he said.
Rani is now India's primary scorer and she combines well with other forwards. “She is a team girl,” said former national coach M.K. Kaushik. “And, she has very good hockey sense.” Fearless and always willing to take risks, she is irreverent about the opposition's reputation. “The amount of risk she takes requires a very high level of confidence,” said coach C.R. Kumar, who has been with the team for a long time. “At the moment, Rani is one of the finest players in the world. She has fantastic elimination skills. The only worry is, she is prone to injuries.”
A railway employee, she shoulders the responsibility of her family, too. But the salary of Rs12,000 is not enough to make ends meet. Her father still pulls the cart. “My parents are happy to see me do well but I feel bad my father still has to work. He does so because he doesn’t want me to spend all on the family. He feels I will not be able to spend on my supplements and kit,” she said.
The other Rani, skipper Ritu, 23, is the most experienced player in the team. She led India to a bronze at the Incheon Asian Games last year. She laughs over the confusion that the names often create and is ecstatic about the Olympic chances. “We played against some of the higher ranking teams, which gave us insights on our shortcomings. We will work on them to improve our game and be ready for our Olympics dream,” she said.
It has not been an easy ride for the Indian women. All the senior players who revolted against former coach Kaushik were chucked out. The team had started showing results under New Zealander Neil Hawgood, but he left after a dispute with Hockey India. The team did not have a coach for five months since November 2014. Though Hockey India chose Anthony Thornton, he failed to turn up owing to medical reasons. Canadian Mathias Ahrens was given the job, and the HWL Semifinal was his first major competition.
The team's high performance director, Roelant Oltmans, was happy with the way the girls performed in Antwerp. “They had the desire, composure and willingness, and there was a lot of improvement in their game,” he said. “Of course, there is a lot of work to be done; we saw that against New Zealand and the Netherlands.”
India lost 0-7 to the Dutch in the quarterfinals, but beat Italy 6-4 in tiebreaker and then beat Japan in a game in which it withstood a barrage of attacks. Goalkeeper Savita Poonia saved half a dozen goals. The absence of a good penalty corner expert, however, was visible. “The new coach has introduced small changes in structure,” said Ritu. “But, we play a different type of hockey than our predecessors. It is more structured with more options.”
Rani Rampal, 20
* Best Young Player in World Cup 2010
* The first Indian to be nominated for FIH Young Player of the Year in 2010
* Player of the Tournament in Junior World Cup 2013
Ritu Rani, 23
* Played 2006 World Cup in Madrid
* Indian captain since 2011
* Won silver in Asia Cup 2013
* Won silver in Asian Games 2014