Commonwealth Games 2018: 'We can challenge any team in the world,' says goalkeeper Savita Punia
Savita Punia was the architect of India's win in the Asia Cup tournament where she pulled off some stunning saves against China in regular time as well as in the tie-breaker to ensure that India won the title and qualified for the World Cup.
She has stood like a rock guarding India's citadel against the best strikers in the world thus ensuring that woman's hockey in India has risen to great new heights.
The custodian started out as a reluctant player in school with little or no affinity for the game but was motivated by her grandfather, and her coach, Sunder Singh Kharab.
Her coach once told her father to gift her a pair of goalkeeping gloves as she was remarkably tall and believed she could be India's goalkeeper one day.
The prophecy was fulfilled and the 27-year-old from Haryana has not just donned Indian colors but has done so with pride and distinction.
As the Indian team gets ready to fly to Australia to challenge the best teams in the world in Gold Coast, Sporstkeeda, spoke to the Indian Eves vice-captain.
Sportskeeda: How confident is the team ahead of the Commonwealth Games? England is in India's pool. It is possible that we will meet Australia or New Zealand later. Can India beat all these formidable teams and aim for gold?
Savita: We have trained hard and concentrated a lot on fitness. We have also had a successful tour to South Korea where we performed well.
Our self-confidence is extremely high. All the players feel confident and that is vital from the team's point of view.
Rankings are not important. Maybe, Australia and New Zealand are better than us. China too were ranked higher than us. We did beat them didn't we? We played very well in the Asia Cup.
Our aim is to top the pool. Irrespective of who we meet in the semi-final, we will play our best game.
SK: Since you mentioned China, we have played two vital matches against them. Apart from the Asia Cup final in 2017, there was also the Asia Cup bronze medal match in 2013. The common factor in both matches is that you played a big role for India. Which match is more memorable for you?
Savita: It wasn't just my performance. A goalkeeper cannot win a match on her own but the most memorable match was the Asia Cup final because it enabled us to qualify for the World Cup.
We could not play the World Cup in 2010 and 2014 and it was a huge moment for me and for the team to qualify for the World Cup.
SK: In the Hawke's Bay Cup in New Zealand in 2015, India held mighty Australia to a goalless draw.
It was a great performance from the team and from you as well. What are your thoughts about that match?
Savita: Our mindset has changed now. Before going into a match against Australia, New Zealand, England, or any higher-ranked team, we are not overwhelmed at all.
We are not apprehensive about what the result will be. We are confident that we can challenge any team, irrespective of their ranking.
Sir (Harendra Singh) has taught us something. He says a team which plays attacking hockey can win a few matches but a team which focuses on defence can win a tournament.
Defence is not just about defenders and the goalkeeper. It is about all the players who are positioned between the halfway mark and the goal. Even if our strikers make mistakes, they are confident that the defence will back them up.
Our focus is on defence and we will take it match by match.
SK: India had a weakness before as we did not have a penalty corner specialist. We now have Gurjit Kaur. Can we score from drag-flicks consistently now like the other teams do?
Savita: Gurjit trained in Holland and worked hard on her drag-flicks. I can make out the difference in the power of her drag-flicks now, as I am a goalkeeper.
I keep telling her, "you have no idea how well you are doing with your drag-flicks." We now have a really good drag-flicker and our aim will be to earn as many PCs as we can. It is going to be a huge advantage for us this time.
SK: You were 17 when you made your debut in 2007. Now you are a senior in the team. Lalremsiami from Mizoram is making her international debut and she is 17. How are you guiding her and what experiences are you sharing with her?
Savita: When I started, I didn't know much. I used to just go out and play whatever I could. Now, things have changed. Lalremsiami is a very good striker and is extremely quick.
She does not know much Hindi. The whole team, and me are all very affectionate towards her.
I did not have the good fortune of playing in such a major tournament at her age. She is going to start off with a huge tournament in an important year.
The players ask her, "Do you know what the Commonwealth Games are? Do you know what the World Cup is?" She calls me didi and asks me how she should play in the Commonwealth Games.
I tell her not to worry about whether the tournament is the Commonwealth Games or the World Cup. I tell her to give her one-hundred percent. I tell her that if we win a medal, she has no idea how much love and respect we will earn and what a grand welcome we will get when we return.
There is a lot of difference between players from my time and players now. They search for a lot of information on Google and YouTube.
We explain things to her very slowly, particularly since she does not understand Hindi. We give her as much love as we can.
SK: We heard that Sreejesh spent a lot of time with you in training post his injury. So, apart from Bharat Chettri you have another mentor. What are the important tips he shared with you?
Savita: Chettri is now the goalkeeping coach of both the men's and women's team. Sreejesh did train with us.
Both of them have something common to say. They encourage us to enjoy the game and tell us that only if we do so can we perform well.
They both ask us to relax before a match and not to worry too much, as it can prove counterproductive to do so.
Whenever I got a chance, I used to watch Sreejesh training in Bangalore. He tells me where I am going wrong in the shoot-outs with respect to my positioning.
He says posture is not so important and not to be too involved with that. What is important, he says, is to stop the goal at any cost and block the ball with your body.
I get motivated just watching him train. His aggression is great.
SK: When you started playing in school, when and why did you decide you want to be a goalkeeper?
Savita: (Laughs) I was not too much into sports in school. I didn't know a thing about hockey. My grandfather wanted me to play hockey.
I used to yearn to go home during training and cry at times. My coach, Sunder Singh Kharab asked my father to buy me a pair of goalkeeping gloves. He said my height was good and maybe one day I could play for India.
SK: Do you feel that Harendra Singh has helped to improve the team a lot since he started?
Savita: He has, without any doubt. The players have a lot of self-belief now. He had spent very little time with us before the Asia Cup.
Our focus was to win silver since we had bronze (in 2013). He was very positive, however, and that helped the team a lot. Every player is now confident and that is great for the team.
He inspires us with his passion for the game.