Olympic Qualifiers: 'Youngsters well-equipped to deal with home pressure,' says Vandana Katariya
The Indian girls got the better of World Cup medal-winners like Ireland and Spain on tour matches - and gave Great Britain a run for their money as well - but apart from beating Japan and Chile in the FIH Series Finals, Asia's top-ranked team have not been involved in any nervy knockouts to prepare them for an event like the Olympic qualifiers.
Two make-or-break matches in as many days against a world-class side like the USA for a team who have yet to play a world-class tournament this year - sounds intimidating?
Well, maybe, but a tete-a-tete with one of India's seniormost forwards gives one the impression that there is no apprehension whatsoever in the camp - and that the girls are soaking in the atmosphere of Bhubaneswar before their maiden international appearance on the pitch of the Kalinga Stadium.
Vandana Katariya knows more than a thing or two about the best hockey venues the world over after having been part of the Indian squad that took London by storm at last year's World Cup.
The ace striker was also part of an emerging unit who failed to make their mark at Rio 2016 but have been on the ascendancy ever since - and the 27-year-old from Uttar Pradesh was emphatic that the facilities at the Kalinga Stadium are second to none.
"The facilities at the stadium are extremely good - not to mention the fact that the home atmosphere adds a special touch to everything."
In an exclusive interaction with Sportskeeda, before the crucial matches that will determine whether or not the Golden Girls make it to Tokyo 2020, Vandana Katariya exudes a sense of calmness and conviction that emanates from a level of preparation that is nothing short of meticulous.
The Indian girls have not had the good fortune of playing a tournament at home since the 12th South Asian Games back in 2016 - and have not hosted any Test matches since March 2017 when the Belarus girls visited for a five-match series.
"Youngsters have played the Youth Olympics - will not feel pressure"
The unmistakable joy of performing in front of a vociferous and ever-enthusiastic Odisha crowd may well need to be counterbalanced with an ability to maintain focus and stick to the game plan amidst the passionate chanting in a stadium that is expected to be packed to the rafters.
Can the juniors in the team hold their nerves?
"I feel we are well equipped to handle the noise and have worked on those particular aspects. The youngsters too have played in huge stadiums - like at the Youth Olympics in Buenos Aires last year and it will not be a first-time experience for anyone in the team to perform in front of a huge crowd."
"If anything, the atmosphere in the galleries will boost our spirits on the pitch - our psychologist has helped us learn to cope with pressure and the truth is we that feel no pressure whatsoever."
"The youngsters are on par with the seniors in the side and have the freedom to express themselves in every possible way. We just do not use the senior or junior tag anymore - we are part of the same team."
"We are calm before the final examination"
The two back-to-back encounters against the USA will be the biggest matches that the Indian eves will be playing this calendar year with Olympic qualification at stake - but Vandana likens the event to a final examination where the key to being calm the night before is the level of preparation beforehand.
"We have prepared for the matches in every possible manner - now it's time for the final examination - we are calm as we know we have done our homework."
"We have worked a lot on our fitness, strength, skill and stamina - we are a much-improved unit as compared to before. The individual blemishes have been done away with at the practice sessions and we are just raring to go. Our preparations have been meticulous."
At the Kalinga Stadium, on Friday and Saturday, the Indian girls will take the field before their male counterparts do - and have an unquestionably tougher task on hand than the men who face Russia - but the self-belief in the ranks is inspiring to say the least as Sjoerd Marijne's fearless team sets out to enthrall their ardent supporters in Odisha and beyond.Modified 21 Dec 2019, 00:53 IST