Women's World Cup 2018: What's at stake for Hockey India, Sjoerd Marijne, and the Golden Girls
For starters, let's admit that the occurrences at Breda seem to indicate that we were all probably wrong, and London may prove the same beyond any reasonable doubt.
The choicest of adjectives which included "hasty" and "infamous" among others to describe Hockey India's coach swap may just have been inappropriate given the way events have panned out. At Breda, the men rose like a meteor to silence their critics and if the girls fight bravely in London, the media and pundits, en masse, will have no choice but to concede that HI possibly got it right after all.
Hockey India's coach swap a blessing in retrospect?
Sjoerd Marijne was at home, in Holland, for a short holiday when the Champions Trophy was in progress. Had it not been for the May Day coach swap, the CT opener would have been quite unique.
The epic scenario of two Dutchmen matching their wits against each other in their home country while guiding their respective subcontinental sides out to battle may well have made headlines. As it turned out, Roelant Oltmans counselled the Men in Green at Breda, while arch-rivals India were under the tutelage of Harendra Singh. Marijne did watch the action, however, and appreciated the performance of his old proteges.
No one was complaining, at least not in India, as Sreejesh's side set off on a trailblazing path as they put Pakistan to the sword, shocked Argentina, held higher-ranked Belgium and Holland, and gave Colin Batch's kookaburras a ripsnorter to remember. As a result of a stupendous show at Breda, the Indians have upstaged Germany to grab the fifth position in the FIH World Rankings.
The Indian men seem well and truly on the path to ascendancy. Can the ladies follow suit?
Baptism by fire for Sjoerd Marijne
The appointment of Sjoerd Woltherus Marijne as coach of the Indian men's side was vilified on the grounds that he lacked experience in a similar role. Yet, it was not the men's team that the Dutchman had opted to coach when he began his India stint.
Not many in India paid much attention when a relatively unknown Dutchman took over the reigns of the women's hockey team from Aussie Neil Hawgood in March last year.
Following coaching stints with Den Bosch club in the Netherlands (who Marijne played for in his younger days), and the Netherlands national women's team, Marijne decided to move to Asia in November 2016. China was first on Marijne's list and he worked for a few weeks on preparing a team for the National Games there.
The hurdles were many as Marijne explained to Sportskeeda before the Indian girls departed for the World Cup. "Every job has its own challenge, as in China I needed a translator for every word, and in Holland, I had to deal with the board."
India had been on Marijne's radar as he felt the Golden Girls were immensely talented and he joined countryman Erik Wonink in Bhopal at the beginning of last year and the two set out to make the Indian eves fitter and faster.
Foreign coaches in India have to, for better or worse, deal with several unique factors, and Marijne acknowledged as much but opined that the Indian experience had strengthened his resolve. "The issues I faced are part of being in India and that makes me stronger as a coach."
Strength is a commodity that the Indian coach will need in good measure as he faces a formidable task ahead of him at London.
"What really matters is what will happen at the end of the year," were the Dutchman's words on the eve of the Commonwealth Games as he reckoned that the Men's World Cup would determine the success or failure of his team. Little did he know then that the litmus test would descend upon him a lot sooner and the venue for the same would be London and not Bhubaneswar.
Can the Indian girls defy the rankings?
A sell-out crowd of 10,000 is all set to pack the Lee Valley Hockey Center on Saturday as hosts and Olympic champions England take on Rani Rampal and the Golden Girls. The hosts will no doubt be wary of their lesser-ranked adversaries following the encounters at the Commonwealth Games.
In the pool match at Gold Coast, the England girls scored first and did so in 35 seconds through Alex Danson. What's more, they led by the lone goal at halftime and it wasn't until the 42nd minute that India restored parity when Vandana Katariya set Navneet Kaur up.
The equalizer breathed new life into the Indian girls as they seized the momentum and almost scored a second as Rani was fouled leading to a penalty stroke. Gurjit made no mistake from the spot and the Indians hung on to register a great win.
Can they do it again?
"No change in the structure of the team from Harendra to Marijne"
Against England, in the bronze medal match too, India did well but goalkeeper Maddie Hinch played superbly. Despite the 6-0 defeat, Harendra Singh defended his team's performance.
"Sometimes, the scoreline does not define the actual game. We missed chances and paid the price and England capitalized on whatever chances they had in hand."
"We missed four sitters," lamented the Indian coach then and also praised England goalie Maddie Hinch for a great performance. Following the match, coach Harendra Singh had mentioned to Sportskeeda that it was time to sit in the drawing room and chalk out a comprehensive training program to rectify mistakes which the girls committed.
Following the swap, it was the Indian men whose mistakes Harendra was asked to rectify, and Sjoerd Marijne believes that although the two did not communicate regarding any changes, the strategies were well in place and the structure of the girl's team never changed.
"Harendra and I did not have any communication as he was busy with the men and I was busy with the women. Also, I did not find it necessary as things never changed."
Quite understandably, the focus is now on the opener, but both higher-ranked USA and lower-ranked Ireland have proven to be tough to beat for the Indian girls. Goalkeeper Savita Punia, however, is optimistic about India's chances.
"We lost to Ireland by a 1-2 margin last year (in the HWL semifinal at Johannesburg) as they managed to score two late goals off PCs in the last quarter. Against the USA, we have always had close matches. The encounters have never been one-sided."
Despite the optimism, Marijne and the Indian girls have an unenviable task ahead in light of heightened expectations. The Indians went down to the USA by a 1-4 margin in the HWL at Johannesburg last year and also lost 0-3 to the American girls at Rio.
Yet, when the Indian girls take the field on Saturday, their bravery at Gold Coast followed by their dominant performance in the Asian Champions Trophy at Donghae has so raised the hopes of a nation that a podium finish too seems within the realms of realism.
Not many expected the Indian men to win silver at Breda and the women now have a chance to capture the imagination of their fans by excelling at London.
Exuding fearlessness and confidence, the Indians may well prove to be the giant-killers of the World Cup as Savita Punia summed up, "I have said before (on the eve of the Commonwealth Games) and I will repeat once more, that we can challenge any side in the world."
On the cards, is a much-needed resurrection for Sjoerd Marijne, due credit to Hockey India for a timely change, and most importantly, an opportunity for women's hockey in the country to scale new heights hitherto unimagined.