The Indian women's hockey team has qualified for the Olympic Games after a gap of 36 years.
You must have heard of the above sentence innumerable times. And if you're an Indian, your heart must have swelled with pride, beset in the expectation of them going 'Chak De'!
When the team captained by Ritu Rani, a talented women’s hockey player from Shahbad, Haryana, demolished Poland 3-1 in the second round of the FIH Hockey World League last year, they quietly qualified for the Summer Games. The last time the Indian women's team reached the Olympics was way back in 1980.
10 months later, when the teams were announced, Ritu Rani did not find a place in the team.
If we go by stats, there's no reason why the stalwart cannot find a place in the squad. The team qualifying under her after 36 years shows how much potential she had as a captain.
When Ritu was 15 years old, she became the youngest ever player in the Indian senior team that played that year’s Hockey World Cup in Madrid, Spain. At the 2009 Champions Challenge II in Kazan, Russia, where the Indian team emerged victorious, the Haryanvi ended up finishing as the top scorer with eight goals.
After her appointment as the captain at the age of 19, she has led the team to even greater heights. Two bronze medal finishes at the 2013 Asia Cup in Kuala Lumpur and the 2014 Asian Games in Incheon are prime examples of her leadership skills.
From scoring tons of goals for her side from the front to controlling the midfield expertly, Ritu has done it all.
In the summer of 2015, when India hosted the second round of the 2014-15 FIH Hockey World League, the team finished on top to qualify for the next stage. Next, at the World League semifinals held in Antwerp, the team finished in fifth place. But the best part was that they got the better of higher-ranked Japan in the classification match.
A great strategist on the field, Ritu had her very own ideas on the field which worked so well that the Indian team suddenly started doing wonders in the last couple of years.
Let's look past the numbers though. Ritu is the most experienced player in the team with 213 caps to her name. Sushila Chanu, the captain of the side for the Games, has gone on to wear the blue Indian jersey with pride and distinction 112 times, while vice-captain Deepika Thakur, another experienced campaigner, has 172 caps to her name.
All these years, Ritu lent all-round solidity to the Indian women’s hockey team, almost like Sardar Singh has done for the Indian men’s team. She scored goals for her side upfront, controlled the midfield and also rushed back to assist the defence whenever required.
She is excitable, emotional and fiery at times. On the field, she appeals fiercely to the referees and celebrates with child-like gusto.
When Sportskeeda met her, she had said qualification for the Olympics was a huge boost for the team and that she does not intend to return empty-handed. For her, winning is all that matters.
A few days before she was sent home from the preparatory training camp in Bengaluru, Ritu got engaged to Patiala-based Punjabi singer Harsh Sharma. Ever since she got engaged, questions were raised by the management about her focus on the game.
But how can focus be an issue for a player who has represented the country for the last 10 years, with the most important tournament just ahead?
“For someone who has been playing for a long time now, blaming focus is not right. I was only focused on my game and Rio at the camp also," said the former captain to The Hindu a couple of days ago.
The manner of her removal, first from her position, and then from her captaincy, and finally followed by exclusion from the team altogether, has rankled the nation.
Maybe it was a classic case of a clash between two strong egos. Both the management and captain believe they are absolutely correct in what they do, in what they think. Both wanted to improve the performance of the team in different ways.
Admittedly, Ritu was never consistent. That is why it became easy for the selectors to single her out for her 'immature behavior'. Captain Rani can rise to the occasion and lead her team like a true captain on her day. But there are days when she can be erratic as well.
She was proud of the team. Any why not? This team under her did what all other teams could not.
When the team qualified for the Summer Olympic Games after a gap of 36 years, it was like a fairytale. Nothing she achieves will be a surprise to hockey fans any more.
This might seem like a far-fetched comparison since Ritu is just 24, but I can't help but feel there is something in common between her and Sourav Ganguly. Both were brilliant and erratic, and both will be remembered for their temperamental flare-ups in spite of having a 'cool as a cucumber' approach.
The toughest challenge lies ahead. In Rio, the teams will come hard at India and the blue turf will test the players’ skills. If not for Ritu's unceremonious sacking by the management and selectors, the Blueskirts under her could have climbed even higher peaks.
We owe Ritu Rani an apology and a salute for her contribution.Published 12 Jul 2016, 20:56 IST