"I am proud of the way the girls fought in the entire tournament and they have gained valuable experience for the World Cup and Asian Games. Time to sit in the drawing room and chalk out a comprehensive training program and rectify the small mistakes for which we paid the price."
It was in the wee hours of April 14, 2018, a day after India lost to England in the bronze-medal match of the Commonwealth Games that coach Harendra Singh strongly defended the performance of the girls in an interaction with Sportskeeda from Gold Coast.
Following a magnificent show where the Golden Girls beat Olympic champions England and scared the wits out of Australia, before going down narrowly in the semifinals, the coaching staff was all set to return home and begin preparations for a busy and vital season ahead.
Little did Harendra know then that in a couple of weeks' time, he would be asked to take over the men's side who lost their bronze-medal match to England later the same day.
Harendra Singh to Sjoerd Marijne - the Golden Girls continue to impress
Sjoerd Marijne had taken off for a short holiday, and was over four-thousand miles away, at home, in Holland, when a massive storm threatened to engulf the hockey fraternity in India.
After intense speculation for over a week, and frenzied media coverage, it was finally announced on May 1 that Marijne would return to the girl's camp after having spent eight months with the men.
The raging debates have refused to die down to this day as to the relative merits and demerits of the move.
While the Indian girls themselves have been emphatic that they are just as comfortable with Harendra Singh's style as they are with Marijne's, the issue of a perceived language barrier has been raked up time and again - in spite of the presence of the eminent and vastly experienced CR Kumar who assists with translations.
Clearly, the journey has been far from easy for the Dutchman who decided, last year, to come to India to improve the speed and fitness of the girls but inadvertently was asked to take over the men's side and ruffled a few feathers in the process.
Equally intriguing is the fact that the Indians have had foreign coaches for a decade now, but strangely, the issue of language was never brought up before.
So, has the presence of Sjoerd Marijne been good for Indian women's hockey - and how have the girls fared under his tutelage?
Following the coach swap, defending champions India traveled to Korea to play their first match of the Asian Champions Trophy on May 13 - after a sudden change at the helm, the girls looked unfazed as they thrashed Japan 4-1 and made short work of China and Malaysia too before going down to Korea in the final.
After a preparatory tour to Spain in June, the Indian eves geared up for a massive challenge- the Women's World Cup was to be played in late July followed by the Asian Games in August.
Eighteen players with little back-up
Unlike the Indian men's team, the girls do not have a talent pool that is good enough to play at the highest level, and the same 18 players were selected for both the World Cup and the Asian Games.
In the space of 42 days, the 18 Indian girls played a total of 11 grueling matches. A certain amount of fatigue had indeed crept in as the girls desperately looked for an equalizer in the frantic final quarter in the Asian Games final, as Marijne admits.
"It (the fatigue) was not strange because we were the team who played the most matches this year and we could not circulate with 30 girls like Japan. Also, in the final, we did well, and we were close, but you saw that the power had slowly started to fade away from the body".
A silver in the Asian Champions Trophy with some mesmerizing attacks spearheaded by Vandana, Navneet, and Lalremsiami (in the absence of Rani), and some solid and gritty defending at the World Cup were the hallmarks of the Indian team.
"I noticed a lack of depth in the final"
The Indians were on the top of their game at Jakarta too - in fact, the men and women seemed to be on the verge of their first-ever golden double at the Asian Games after both teams had stormed into the semifinals undefeated.
Yet, it was not the Indians, but the Japanese who ended up with their first-ever golden double, and Anthony Farry's victorious side have been invited by the FIH to take part in the final edition of the Women's Champions Trophy to be played in China in late November.
In spite of a series of stupendous shows, the Indian girls lost to Korea in the finals of the ACT, to Japan in the finals of the Asian Games, and to Ireland in the quarterfinals of the World Cup.
So, is there indeed more work to be done for the really big matches? Marijne replies in the affirmative.
"We don’t have that depth, and that is what I saw in the final. We can always do better with the process, but the team must be happy for now. The next step is winning these kinds of (big) matches."
PCs made all the difference against Japan
Two penalty corners in the space of two minutes were the most defining moments of the women's final at Jakarta - while Japanese goalkeeper Megumi Kageyama managed to get a glove on Gurjit's powerful strike, there was little her Indian counterpart Savita could do as two Japanese girls crouched low in an effort to deflect the oncoming flick.
Minami Shimizu ran forward, to the right, as the PC was being taken, and with an outstretched, one-handed stick guided the ball into the net.
Up until that moment, the Indians were looking ever-increasingly threatening as Rani, Navneet, and Lalremisiami all took turns to target the Japanese citadel but playing catch-up was never going to be as easy - since the onus then shifted to preventing a second goal.
Motomi Kawamura scored the winner, again off a PC, at the end of the third quarter, after Neha Goyal had equalized for the Indians in the second.
Gurjit Kaur failed to get another chance - although she had decided to play with a torn meniscus as coach Sjoerd Marijne explained exclusively to Sportskeeda while summing up his team's invigorating performance over the last four months.
Here are the excerpts of the interview
"Gurjit played the final with a torn meniscus"
SK: It has been a busy four months since you took over in May and the ACT was 13 days away when the coaching change was announced. How has the journey been for you and the team?
Sjoerd Marijne: You are right, we had to start directly at the ACT. Luckily, I was already familiar with the team, and Erik Wonink (Analytical Coach) kept the same structure as I implemented, so it did not cost me extra time to change this. That’s why we could build on this in the past four months.
Of course, the WC was a great experience for the team, and it was good we were in the tournament so long. The confidence was big and that helped us in winning matches. Everything starts with belief, and you saw that this changed in the minds of the girls, especially after reaching the quarters.
We had to work hard to keep the team together after losing to Ireland. It was a big disappointment, for all, because we really felt we could have reached higher than the quarters. I think this is a good thing because this behavior makes the team hungry for more.
At the AG, the main goal was to show the behavior that suits the highest-ranked team in Asia. The focus was very good and we played like champions. Also, in the final, we did well and we were close but you saw that the power had slowly faded away from the bodies.
We could have won, and that says a lot about this team because their mental strength has grown enormously in the past year and a half. For example, Gurjit played the whole match with a torn meniscus.
Japan had two PC’s, and they scored 100% and that’s the only thing that they did better than us. The team has taken a big step in the world rankings and also the confidence has become bigger. Last year, we lost without any chance against Japan at the World League, and now we were close to beating them.
SK: We will now have to go through the qualification process for the Olympics. How do you feel the schedule will be for next year?
Sjoerd Marijne: Yes absolutely. I still don’t know what the process will be so we will have to wait and see what will happen. Because we are not participating in the Pro League, we can’t play the top 8 teams in the world and that’s why we need to develop our game.
Quite a few eyebrows were raised when Reena Khokar who did not play the CWG or the ACT and was not part of the Spain Tour, was picked for two of the biggest tournaments - the World Cup, and the Asian Games, as a defender.
Yet, Reena was extremely confident in London and at Jakarta. She scored in the vital shoot-out against Ireland when many of her senior teammates failed to and was effective in defense, as an injector for the PCs, and in an attacking role as well.
SK: You picked Reena Khokhar when she had not played any tournaments prior to the WC and AG. Are you happy with her performance and also with youngsters like Lalremsiami and Udita?
Sjoerd Marijne: Siami is in the team now for a long period, and considering her age, she did very well. It’s not easy to play consistently always and she is growing in that respect.
I felt we needed a defender who also can attack, and in a training session, I asked Reena to play there, and from the first moment, she convinced me she can play there. She has good skills for that position and because she was a striker, it’s not strange for her to also attack. She did very well and needs to now balance more between attacking and defending.
Udita is young and needs time to add something to the team. She can be very dangerous in the circle but outside she has to take steps in the future.
I am happy we had a few good options but I am also happy that Gurjit showed everyone that India must not worry so much about PC conversions because she is one of the best in the world
The Indians have a tour to Australia coming up but have no more major tournaments this year
SK: Personally, are you satisfied with the outcome and how high in the rankings do you feel we can go?
Sjoerd Marijne: Yes, I am happy with the process, and with what we did with the women's team, and for now I am enjoying my holiday.
It will be difficult to go higher in the rankings because there are no tournaments. Japan will play the Champions Trophy (I don’t know why!), and they will go higher in the rankings, so we must wait and see what happens.Published 08 Sep 2018, 21:33 IST