Asian Women's Champions Trophy 2018: Can the Golden Girls repeat the Singapore magic sans Rani and with new coach Sjoerd Marijne?
Some sporting venues, dates, and results remain etched in memory for a lifetime for both the players and spectators alike. The Sengkang Hockey Stadium in Singapore is one such hunting ground which the Indian women's hockey team and their countless fans worldwide will probably never forget.
Last-minute drama on and off the pitch
The date was November 5, 2016, and the Indian girls were up against China in the finals of the Asian Women's Champions Trophy. Zhong Menglin had restored parity in the 44th minute for China after Deep Grace Ekka had given India the lead in the 13th minute.
Deepika Thakur was on fire with just over a minute left on the clock as she picked up a pass from Nikki Pradhan near the halfway mark and made a scintillating solo run to beat four Chinese players and enter the opposition circle. She took a tumble inside the circle after striking a powerful reverse which was blocked off by the Chinese custodian.
Undaunted, captain Rani Rampal entered the Chinese circle just a few seconds later and earned a PC for India. A clever variation took the Chinese runners by surprise and Rani took a shot at goal which was blocked by the diving goalie. Deepika pounced on the rebound in a flash and took the aerial route with the ball crashing into the top right-hand corner of the net.
With 20 seconds to go, India thought they had the winner but the referee was far from convinced. After a lengthy discussion with her fellow-referee, the goal was allowed to stand and the Indians were ecstatic. The Chinese players, however, surrounded the referee and decided to stage a walk-out. Chaos prevailed before the officials convinced the Chinese to return to the field and India were finally declared winners.
The win was historic and it marked the beginning of a new chapter for Indian hockey. Two years later, history beckons again as the defending champions open their campaign a week from now in Donghae City, Korea. Can India strike gold again?
Australian Neil Hawgood was the coach of the women's team when the girls conquered Asia in Singapore. It was under Hawgood that India had earlier won silver in the Asian Champions Trophy in 2013.
Hawgood's contract ended the same year and was not renewed with Sjoerd Marijne taking over in early 2017.
The thankless task ahead for Sjoerd Marijne
Sjoerd Marijne is back with the Indian women's team after a gap of eight months. In the interim, the Indian women have won the Asia Cup to reaffirm their continental supremacy under the guidance of Harendra Singh. Can Marijne script history by taking the team forward and building on their success?
Analytical coach Eric Wonink has prepared the girls for the upcoming tournament in the Bangalore camp as Marijne will join the team directly at the venue, Sportskeeda has learned. Wonink has been working with the girls for well over a year now and was appointed in February of last at the same time that fellow Dutchman Marijne was.
A massive challenge awaits Sjoerd Marijne, as he takes up the mantle of head coach of the women's side on the eve of a big tournament as India get set to defend the title they won in Singapore two years ago. He was expected to match the performance of his predecessors by guiding the men to a podium finish in the CWG and there is no reason to believe that the expectations will be any different with the women.
Anything less than a gold may be deemed a failure and winning the gold too may not assuage his critics, as he is unlikely to be credited for the success of a team which he has not molded himself.
Golden girls need to maintain CWG momentum
The Indian women started and ended rather badly at Gold Coast, but had an impressive run overall in spite of their inability to earn a medal.
After a dismal start when they went down to Wales, Rani Rampal's team came back strongly to beat Malaysia 4-1. The Indian women then beat Olympic champions England in what was their best performance of the tournament and outplayed South Africa as well. India fought bravely against mighty Australia and went down 0-1 in the semifinal.
Coach Harendra Singh lauded the girls for their performance and stated emphatically that he was proud of the way team played. Following India's 6-0 drubbing against England in the bronze medal match, however, the coach pointed to the fact that a few creases needed to be ironed out.
"Time to sit in the drawing room and chalk out a comprehensive training program to rectify the small mistakes for which we paid the price." Harendra Singh will in all probability have a such a session, but the ones benefiting from the program will be the Indian men and not the women.
The Commonwealth Games experience will go a long way in furthering the team's prospects in Korea and more importantly for the London World Cup just over two months from now.
Will the Donghae City Hockey Stadium be as memorable for India as the Sengkang Hockey Stadium was?
Quality in team good enough for podium finish
The Indian defence was as solid as ever except for the last match in the CWG with Sunita Lakra and Deep Grace Ekka being calm and tidy in their own circle. Nikki Pradhan, Namita Toppo, Monika, Lilima Minz, and Neha Goyal all have the capacity to control the game in the midfield as they have done so often against the best of teams.
Creating chances and converting them has been an issue for India. Young Lalremsiani, however, showed in the CWG that she can be fearless when it comes to taking the opposition defenders on, and if she can combine well with Vandana Katariya and Navneet Kaur, India have the ability to cause havoc up front.
Gurjit Kaur's powerful flicks need to be backed up some clever variations as well for India to find the winning edge.
Deepika Thakur was the highest scorer of the tournament in Singapore and will look to emulate her own feat once again in the absence of Rani Rampal. India lost 2-3 to China in the group stage of the 2016 ACT but raised their game in the final to register a historic win.
Who can challenge India?
En route to their title the last time over, India beat South Korea and Malaysia while they drew with Japan.
In the Asia Cup last year, India thundered their way through the tournament and even thrashed China 4-1 in the group stages. They outplayed Malaysia 2-0 last year and beat the same team 4-1 in Gold Coast last month. India had a successful tour of Korea before the Commonwealth Games. The Indians had gone down to Japan in the Hockey World League Semifinal last year but went on to beat the same side 4-2 in the Asia Cup semifinal.
In short, the ACT gold medalists have beaten all the teams who will be in the fray in Korea and if only they play to their potential, a second consecutive gold medal is definitely on the cards. Sunita Lakra and Sjoerd Marijne in their respective roles as newly-appointed captain and coach will look to inspire the team to victory in the Asian Champions Trophy with an aim to leave for London with immense confidence and take on the best in the world.
Success in the World Cup will be crucial for the betterment of women's hockey in India and may prove to be just the kind of resurrection which the new coach requires.