"Focus on fitness ahead of Olympic Qualifiers," says attacking-defender Reena Khokar

Reena with her jubilant teammates after the WC crossover against Italy
Reena with her jubilant teammates after the WC crossover against Italy
Modified 31 Oct 2018

A week after the Golden Girls were back in camp following a Spanish sojourn in June, the Indian team for the Women's World Cup was announced. Rani was retained as captain, and Rajani who had missed the Spain tour would be joining Savita as the second custodian.

The 18-member squad comprised names that were by and large familiar and did not throw up any big surprises - barring one relatively inexperienced member.

India's richly experienced and ever-resolute defence consisting of Sunita Lakra, Deep Grace Ekka, Gurjit Kaur, and Deepika Thakur, would no doubt be making it to London, but alongside the rock-solid quartet, was a relatively unknown youngster.

Who is Reena Khokhar?

Quite a few eyebrows were raised at the unexpected inclusion since the player in question had not been part of the Spain tour. In fact, she had not been part of the squad that had won silver in the Asian Champions Trophy just after Sjoerd Marijne had taken over, nor even in the Commonwealth Games team when Harendra Singh was in charge.

So, why then, was a player who had not seen any international action in 2018 (not even the Korean tour in February) chosen for the all-important World Cup?

When Sportskeeda sought clarity from Sjoerd Marijne a day after the squad had been announced, this is how the head coach justified the inclusion of the Chandigarh defender.

"I know Reena for a year now. She has played as a midfielder a lot of the time and she also played in the defense. She convinced us as she has good attacking and defending skills. She can attack as a defender."

She attacked just as well as she defended in London as well at Jakarta. In the crucial semifinal of the Asian Games against China, the Indians had the upper hand but nothing to show on the scoresheet and were seemingly running out of ideas in an attempt to break the deadlock.

Towards the end of the final quarter, Reena took it upon herself to up the ante, as she rushed forward, and dribbled her way past a couple of Chinese defenders and let loose a scorching shot which was slightly off target.

Although the ball failed to find the back of the net, the sudden attack infused some much-needed energy into the Indian ranks, while serving to pin the Chinese girls back in their own territory. The sustained pressure paid off as Gurjit Kaur scored the winner off a PC with eight minutes left on the clock.

The move exemplified Reena's skill up front and displayed her innate self-belief which is so very evident in the manner in which she sums up the performance of her team and the qualities of her mentor, with a maturity that defies both her age and her experience.

In an exclusive interaction with Sportskeeda, the young talent who likes being called an "attacking defender" describes her experience of playing at the World Cup and explains how the London tournament prepared her for the Asian Games which followed immediately after.

"My confidence got a huge boost after playing in London. I told myself that if I could perform against the top teams in the World Cup, then surely I could do even better in the Asian Games."

"All the players were spurred on after the quarterfinal loss to Ireland in the World Cup and were more than eager to make amends in the Asian Games. There was an infectious energy in the squad and all of us were fired up. Our coach did not want me to restrict myself to a defensive role and his encouragement helped me to play up front as well."

The World Cup was Reena's first major tournament but she rarely displayed any signs of nerves whatsoever. In the big quarterfinal against the Irish, Reena managed to score in the shootout after Rani, Monika, and Navjot had failed to get past Ayiesha McFerran.

"It felt good to have scored under pressure in the shootout"

How did the inexperienced defender manage to get the ball past the most successful goalkeeper of the World Cup?

"The senior players did their best as well but were unable to score, and luck did not favor them on the day. Our coach had told us not to get stressed if any of us missed the first attempt, and had also told us not to put ourselves under pressure to score - but to focus on our skills before taking the penalties."

"He (Marijne) was emphatic that all we needed to do was to execute whatever we had learned in practice and employ our skills in the shootout. It felt good to have scored under pressure and it was a great experience."

Unlike a few of her teammates who faced stiff opposition at home, in their quest to pursue hockey, Reena's parents were extremely supportive and encouraging, and her father was at the Bangalore camp to wish her well before the team left for London.

So, was home support the driving force behind her self-assured and sanguine nature, - and what did her family feel about her performance in the two biggest tournaments of the year? Reena does give a lot of her credit to her family for helping her achieve her dreams but makes no secret of the fact that coach Sjoerd Marijne's support was just as vital.

"I was nervous for sure but pleased to be there all the same, as not everyone can be part of an event like the World Cup. So, I managed to overcome the nerves and inject some confidence in myself ahead of the huge contest."

"My family assisted me a lot. They were well aware that if they attempted to push me too hard, I would possibly end up being overawed by the occasion. All they told me before the tournament was to do my best."

"My coach was equally supportive - not once did he reprimand or belittle me even when I made mistakes, in practice, or on the pitch. He allowed me to learn for my mistakes and knew how best to utilize my services in the defensive unit of the team."

At Jakarta, the Indian eves cruised through to the final but were unable to overcome a steely Japanese side, and as a result, failed to earn an early ticket to Tokyo. Reena's folks at home who watched the proceedings keenly opined that in spite of the defeat, the women's team had indeed come a long way.

"As a team, we were definitely not happy as we failed to achieve our objective which was to qualify for the Olympics. The aim was definitely to win the title, and there is no way that a silver can make up for the loss of a gold medal. We felt shattered after the match."

"My family was of the opinion that, as a team, we have improved by leaps and bounds but the pressure of the final (at the Asian Games) got to us. They do notice when I make a mistake or two on the pitch, so a compliment from them is always welcome."

For a girl who was not particularly inclined towards hockey as a child, things have come a long way indeed - and the 25-year-old stresses that she is proud to be part of a unit that is on a path of ascendancy.

"I was not particularly interested in the game as a child but picked it up as I was growing up, so much so, that it slowly became a passion. Now, it is virtually impossible to separate me from the game of hockey."

"I feel lucky to be part of a really good team which is continuously improving. I feel really pleased that my parents are proud of me and so is my country."

Although there are no tournaments scheduled this year, the rigors of Olympic qualification will begin in 2019 and the girls will, of course, need to brace themselves for a busy season ahead.

The FIH has confirmed the pools and venues for the FIH Hockey Series Finals which will be the route to Tokyo, and the Indian girls have been drawn alongside Chile, Fiji, Japan, Mexico, Poland, Russia, and Uruguay.

"Right, now there are no major tournaments coming up, so the focus of the camp is on fitness. We are also paying very close attention to what went wrong at London and in Jakarta before we begin the Olympic qualifiers next year."

Published 31 Oct 2018
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