The countdown to the Olympic qualifiers has begun and there is scant room for error as the moment of reckoning beckons.
The Golden Girls have been on a path of ascendancy for the last year or so, and while the opposition at Hiroshima - which will host the FIH Series Finals from June 15 - can scarcely be described as formidable, the highest-ranked Asian side in world hockey can afford no slip-ups.
It was in May last year that the Indians stormed into the final of the Asian Champions Trophy after getting past Japan, China, and Malaysia before going down to the hosts Korea in the gold-medal match.
The loss in the summit clash was a disappointing finish to what had been a stupendous show at Donghae.
A year after Donghae - the Golden Girls hone their skills in Korea
Getting past the higher-ranked Chinese girls (who have since slipped behind) was especially satisfying for the Indian eves - and in the absence of Rani, Vandana Katariya stepped up to don the role of the principal striker.
A brace from the highly-experienced forward helped the Golden Girls score an emphatic 3-1 win over their continental rivals just after Dutchman Sjoerd Marijne had returned to their camp after a stint with the men's side, as Vandana recounts.
"I remember the matches at the ACT distinctly. The entire team played as a unit and helped each other along the way. The ACT is a tournament which the entire team always looks back on fondly - from the goalkeeper to the strikers, every member of the team played their part."
A year after getting a silver medal back home from Donghae, the Indians girls are back in Korea to hone their skills ahead of the Olympic qualifiers.
In an exclusive chat with Sportskeeda, ace striker Vandana Katariya reveals how the girls are preparing for the FIH Series Finals, the importance of the tours preceding the all-important event, and how the Indian camp has kept pace with changing times over the last decade.
Nervous Indian fans watched on when Rani and co. played Korea in a pool match of the Asian Games at Jakarta last year. Neither side was willing to concede an inch in a tight encounter which saw the Koreans restore parity after Navneet had given her side an early lead.
The Korean equalizer resulted from a penalty stroke which appeared to have been dragged, but the goal was allowed to stand. The Indian defence, however, matched the tenacity of their counterparts and three goals in the space of the last five minutes resulted in a dream scoreline that read 4-1 in favour of the Indians.
Incredibly enough, Marijne's team could manage just five shots on goal, but Gurjit Kaur converted both the late PCs which the Indian eves earned - and Vandana took a tumble before scoring the fourth.
The 2018 hockey season was one of the busiest in recent times with vital tournaments like the Asian Champions Trophy, Commonwealth Games, World Cup, and Asian Games lined up in quick succession but the Indians have not played any tournaments this year.
"We play lots of practise matches - among ourselves and against the boys as well"
The trips to Spain and Malaysia have no doubt been successful - just as the current outing in Jincheon is helping to iron out the last-minute flaws - but in the absence of any competitive international hockey involving knock-outs, how is the team managing to keep up the tempo and motivational levels ahead of a vital event like the FIH Series Finals?
"We play lots of practise matches - among ourselves and against the boys as well. Regular sessions in the gym keep us fit and we do fitness exercises in our rooms as well when needed."
"Our coach and trainers are working to ensure that we achieve our peak fitness levels on the eve of the FIH Series Finals and we follow a strict diet as well."
The Indian girls travelled to Malaysia last month and remained unbeaten on the tour even in the absence of players like Rani and Gurjit.
Vandana opines that the girls did relatively well against the Malaysians who are currently ranked 22nd as per the FIH but stops short of utilizing superlatives to describe the performance which saw her side triumph with handsome margins of 3-0 and 5-0 in the opening two matches before wrapping up the five-match series 4-0.
"Our tour to Malaysia was relatively good. We did not do too badly. We were asked to focus on some specific areas with the Olympic qualifiers in mind, which I feel we did quite well."
Vandana as guide and mentor
New faces like Jyoti Gupta took the flight to Malaysia while Karishma Yadav who made her comeback into the team during the Spain tour, earlier this year, cemented her place in the unit.
Vandana who is known to have mentored several newbies like Reena Khokhar continues to share her experiences with the fledgelings who do not hesitate to seek her counsel whenever the need arises.
"Jyoti is a forward and can play in any given position. She makes a great effort to connect well with the rest of the team. Karishma Yadav too is a new-entrant but exudes a lot of positivity by guiding the midfielders apart from helping out in defence."
"There are quite a few junior players who seek my advice - both within the team and those in the camp as well. Siami (Lalremsiami), Karishma, and Jyoti approach me quite often and I help them out."
"Seniors like Rani, Navjot Kaur, and Navneet also engage a lot with the junior players in order to make them feel confident and comfortable."
"I feel extremely proud to be a senior member of the Indian team"
Back in 2009, a devastated and inconsolable Vandana almost threw in the towel after she was overlooked for the hockey camp, but following her return to the national side, she has slowly but surely become the mainstay of the Indian forward line alongside captain Rani.
The journey has been nothing short of exemplary for the Uttar Pradesh girl who overcame extreme poverty, in addition to facing societal taunts from a section of her neighbours who were unable to come terms with a village girl taking up an outdoor sport like hockey.
While the challenges have been immense - reaping the rewards of perseverance often leads to a level of satisfaction that cannot be fully enunciated - especially for an individual as bashful as Vandana.
"I feel extremely proud to be a senior member of the Indian team now but there is no way I could have achieved this feat on my own. The coaching staff have made an immense contribution in shaping my growth as a player."
"Hockey has a changed a lot over the last 10 years - the game has become a lot faster and Wayne Lombard (Scientific Advisor) works very hard to ensure that we remain as fit and fast as the best in the business. We are extremely fit and battle-ready."
"The coaches play a huge role in keeping me motivated and to keep me striving to do better. I do need to thank Sjoerd Sir in this regard."
"Most importantly, I simply could not have made it without the support of my teammates. It feels good when people speak highly of me - what more can I say (laughs)."
While the Golden Girls did manage to avenge their Donghae defeat by beating South Korea in Jakarta, it was the Irish who proved to be India's nemesis at the World Cup.
A narrow shootout loss in the London quarterfinals prevented women's hockey in India from taking a giant leap forward - and the bruises remained to haunt the team until they turned the tables on the World Cup silver-medalists during the Spain tour.
"One of the victories, this year, which was especially sweet for all of us was the win over Ireland who we lost to in the World Cup quarterfinals. It was something that had dampened our spirits for a long time and refused to die down until we managed to beat the Irish during the tour to Spain."
"We had worked on several techniques including improving our short passes which worked to our advantage during the tour to Spain. Every single player had a common desire before we took the field against the Irish - losing was simply not an option."
Yet, the primary mission for Team India is to make it to Tokyo - and the first vital step is to ensure a top-two finish at the FIH Series FInals which are scheduled to be played in Japan next month.
"Things are proceeding in a very smooth and systematic manner. Every single member of the unit - from the goalkeepers and the coaching staff to the trainers - are working towards a common purpose which is to do well in the FIH Series Finals and progress to the next round."
"We are focusing on the body and the mind. There is a lot of positive energy which percolates down from the coaches to the seniors and then onto the junior players as well. All the players know what their roles and responsibilities are, and are ready for the challenge."Published 21 May 2019, 09:08 IST