With just over ten minutes to go for the end of regulation time in the quarterfinals of the World Cup, the Indians earned a PC against Ireland. If Sjoerd Marijne's plan had been executed to perfection, the Golden Girls could well have made it to the semifinals.
Almost there - but not quite!
Contrary to the plan, however, the injection was too far to the middle, instead of being to the right where Rani was waiting to latch on and execute her trademark shot. The Indians were defending grittily and a goal at that juncture of the match would most likely have sounded the death knell for Ireland.
Rani did manage to get a shot on goal but it was not from the intended position and therefore failed to have the desired effect.
"In these moments, you always have to be good - that makes all the difference," lamented the Indian coach."
Reaching the quarterfinal had always been the aim and the Indians achieved just that after a victory against Italy. Standing in their path ahead of a possible place in the final were the Irish who were ostensibly the rank outsiders at London, and Spain - against whom the Indians had played five practice matches recently.
A dream finish was a distinct possibility, and the Indian captain Rani feels the pain of not getting there will last for a lifetime.
Indian eves create history - but miss out on landmark finish
The Indian girls made it the quarterfinals of the World Cup after a gap of 40 years and in all fairness should have been expected to return home with their heads held high irrespective of what happened thereafter.
Yet, there is only disappointment writ large on the faces of the Indian players and the coaching staff as they continue to dwell on what could have been. In the CWG at Gold Coast, the Indian girls had narrowly missed out on a podium finish, and for the second time this year, they failed to deliver the knock-out punch.
Sportskeeda met up with coach Sjoerd Marijne, captain Rani Rampal, and senior striker Vandana Katariya in an effort to assess what the Indian camp feels about their World Cup performance and what impact the same will have at the upcoming Asian Games.
The Golden Girls and the Indian coaching staff are still struggling to come to grips with the harsh reality that they so very narrowly failed to create history in London. The opportunity was there, and the opposition - at least, going by reputation and past performances could not be described as formidable.
Perhaps, a degree of sanity has now been restored with Ireland leapfrogging India to be perched merrily at the eighth position in the FIH rankings. The Irish have thus moved up eight places following their magnificent show while the Indians have moved up one slot.
"The Indians are a better team than Ireland"
Does that mean that Graham Shaw's side is a better team than India?
Try suggesting that to either the Indian girls, or to their coach, and the response is immediate, emphatic, and fiercely defiant.
"No, absolutely not," says Sjoerd Marijne. "We had 7 PC's in the group match against Ireland. We had 21 circle penetrations and they had less than half that number. We had 8 or 9 shots on goal and they only had 2."
"If you see the statistics, we were the better team. It was the same with the quarterfinals - I think we had more opportunities, but if you do not score goals, you cannot win."
Skipper Rani Rampal concurs that the Indians should have won. "I feel India is a better team than Ireland but we did not play well enough on the day."
Vandana Katariya sounded rather somber but chose to be rather philosophical about the silver-medalists at London. "The Irish played a physical defensive game. Three or more players often converged upon us when we attacked. We did our best, but one team wins and the other loses."
"We were not nervous in the least when we took on England"
Indian coach Sjoerd Marijne had opined that the pressure would be on hosts England in the opener and that was pretty much how things turned out to be.
"We were not nervous in the least when we took on England," says Rani. "We were leading by a goal for quite some time but the English capitalized on one silly mistake and managed to equalize. I think it was a great experience for us to play against the home team in front of a mammoth crowd."
"We had a feeling that if we played really well, the crowd would start cheering for us so we were kept our calm and remain focused. All said and done, however, at least we drew the match and did not lose."
Marijne and the girls were understandably disappointed that the Indians failed to win the opener, in spite of dominating the match - did that have an effect on India's performance against the Irish?
Rani does admit that the girls were distraught but recovered and were fully focussed before the Ireland match.
"It's quite natural that we were pretty disappointed as we came so close to beating England. We had a golden chance to beat them in their backyard. We had a plan but we failed to succeed."
"There was a gap of 4 days before the Ireland match and we had recovered and were fully focussed. In modern hockey, there are several teams who are improving by leaps and bounds. On any given day, if you underestimate a side even by one percent, they convey a message via their performance that they can be better in spite of the rankings."
Are penalty shootouts dependant purely on luck?
The Irish girls beat India via the shootout and did much the same against Spain in the semifinals too. Goalkeeper Ayeisha McFerran was brilliant but was it possible that the Irish had perfected the art of shootouts if indeed that was possible?
The Indian skipper disagrees. "A shootout is a 50-50 chance for either team and neither team has an advantage. Quite often shootouts are decided by the level of confidence with which a team approaches it. It is also a question of handling pressure and the team which does it better is the one which often prevails."
"Ireland won both the quarters and the semifinals via the shootout as their goalkeeper did well but our goalkeeper also did save the first two penalties. We failed to score and thus lost the plot."
"Youngsters did well at London''
Reena Khokar, playing her first major international tournament, exuded a level of confidence that the seniors would have been proud of, and Lalremsiami too dazzled against the Italians. The captain was pleased, no doubt, as she heaped praise on the newbies.
"The youngsters did well at the World Cup although it must have been quite difficult for them. Reena Khokar and Lalremsiami did really well. A few others performed well too and seniors like me also learned a lot from them. Reena took her shot with a lot of confidence and if more of us had done the same, we may have won."
Rani needs more support up front
Rani often seemed to cut a lonely figure in and around the attacking circle and reckoned she could have done with a little more support up front.
"As far as the structure is concerned, our defence is really solid but the forwards have some work to do. Over the last 3 or 4 days, we have had extensive discussions on how we can improve our attacks. I do feel that at times there was not enough support for me near the striking circle and I have conveyed that to my fellow strikers as well. They are doing their best, but I guess it will take some time for things to fall into place perfectly."
Vandana admits she was unable to perform as well as she would have liked to in spite of her best efforts. "As compared to the Asia Cup or the Asian Champions Trophy, I simply could not help the team as much as I would have liked to. I tried my best, but somehow fell short."
Marijne too did not seem too happy about the way the Indians attacked. "Too many times, we choose to go individually and I feel we need to play more give-and-go hockey. That is an area we need to improve upon in a short time."
"We had quite a few positives. We defended really well and conceded just three goals in five matches. I do not recall any other tournament where we have conceded so few goals."
In the absence of classification matches following the knockouts, points earned in the group stage and goal difference was the criteria which determined which team finished where. The Indian camp was of the opinion that an eighth-place finish was indeed a tad unfair given the way they had performed.
"I feel we could have done better if classification matches were played as we grew in confidence after every game." said captain Rani.
Marijne could not have agreed more. "I do not think it is fair because all the teams had different pools, and from our pool, there were 3 teams who had made it to the quarterfinal which was not the case in the other pools."
A slow pitch makes life difficult at London
Whether it was the PC in the quarterfinal or several others before, the pitch at London played spoilsport, as the Indian captain explained.
"The pitch was extremely slow but I do not want to use that as an excuse as it was the same for all teams. It is also true, however, that quite a few teams had a hard time on the pitch. It was difficult to run the ball as it seemed to stop, and it was equally difficult to push during PCs. It was also difficult to drag the ball and so most teams were reliant on indirect conversions."
"The indirect conversions too were tough to execute as the ball was bouncing oddly. Having said all of the above, I do not wish to use the pitch as an excuse by any means."
"The CWG and WC have provided us with an excellent platform ahead of the Asian Games. In both tournaments, we came pretty close but failed at the final hurdle. In the Asian Games, we will be at our best and ensure that the same does not happen again, Our aim is to qualify for the Tokyo Olympics - that will also be the aim of many other teams there, but we have to push ourselves harder and play each match well."
The Chinese and Koreans have fallen behind in the rankings post the World Cup, and China, in particular, did badly but Marijne has done his homework about his continental rivals and cautions against complacency.
'The Chinese left 10 players at home'
"I do not know if China was with their complete team as there were stories going around that the Chinese had left 10 players back home. As a result, I do not know how focused they were on the World Cup. We have to wait and see which team they have at the Asian Games and what their plans are."
"I told the girls that they cannot change history but they can change the future. There is a chance again to be successful. We have to use the positives from the World Cup and improve a few areas. True, Korea, China, and Japan are lower ranked, but the World Cup has shown that rankings may have little significance."
Confidence and consistency were India's biggest positives at London in Marijne's opinion.
"Consistency and confidence were really high - confidence at times was a little too high, but those are the biggest positives."
For critics who judge the team purely based on their eighth-place finish, Rani has a message.
"A team should be judged over a period of time"
"Genuine sports lovers always encourage a team which works hard and improves. Results are not everything and people who follow us will know it has been tough for us to get this far. In India, I feel we tend to look only at the results without trying to assess other factors but it is only fair to judge a team by monitoring their progress over a period of time."
"Critics will always point to the fact that we lost the shootout but a lot of them may not appreciate what it takes to have even come this far in a tournament of this stature. Irrespective of their viewpoint, we accept the criticism as a challenge to do better next time and not give them a chance to repeat what they have said."
"We will win gold at Jakarta," says Vandana signing off with a smile.Published 14 Aug 2018, 16:56 IST