Coach Sjoerd Marijne heaped praise on his players for training in a steadfast manner while being far away from their loved ones, but for many of the Indian girls, the Sports Authority of India campus in Bangalore is now home and their teammates are no less than family.
SAI is home for the Indian girls
The affinity for the SAI hostel is not surprising since it is here that the girls spend a greater part of the year playing, working out, honing their skills, and sharing their joys and sorrows with those around them.
A lot of the girls have been acquainted with each other long before they donned the national colours and the camaraderie has developed by living and travelling together over the years.
For quite a few of the players who train at the Bangalore camp, the journey began in a town on the banks of the Markanda river which has served as a cradle of hockey talent and produced stalwarts like Sandeep Singh. The Shahabad Markanda Hockey Academy has been witness to the growth of many prodigies, who are today an integral part of the national team.
The list is endless and includes skipper Rani Rampal and striker Navneet Kaur. Also, at the Shahabad academy was Navjot Kaur who burst on to the international scene in 2011 as the leading scorer in the U18 Asia Cup in Bangkok.
"We do like going home, but start getting bored after three or four days as all the friends we have are in the team here in Bangalore," says Navjot Kaur, who likes being described as an attacking midfielder.
Navjot scored the vital opening goal in the final of the Asia Cup against China last year and is justifiably proud of her team's triumph in Japan, as a result of which India qualified for the upcoming World Cup
"All the players were very excited as it was a big final against China. I did score the first goal, which was important as it helped us take the lead but the goal was a team effort," says Navjot as she reminisces about the landmark event.
Incidentally, Navjot's goal was the only one which India scored during the regulation time, which was cancelled out by Tiantian Luo in the final quarter. A tense shootout followed in which Navjot was one of the girls who scored again as the Indians overcame the Chinese via sudden death.
The Haryana girl feels it was a proud moment for the entire team but finds it a wee-bit funny that the Indians had to wait for such a long time (thirteen years) to regain the crown. Rankings, she believes matter little in modern hockey.
"Our performance in the CWG has made it amply clear that rankings matter very little in modern hockey. All that matters is how a team performs on the day of the match."
In an exclusive interaction with Sportskeeda, the lively 23-year-old, who is now a key member of the side, relives her most memorable moments and exudes remarkable confidence ahead of the World Cup. She also makes it clear that every player in the team is special, irrespective of where they come from, and that Mizo girl Lalremsiani adjusts well because the language of hockey is universal.
Here are the excerpts of the interview:
Sportskeeda: You play both as a midfielder and a striker. Which position do you prefer and how well do you think the Indian girls combine in the circle as compared to the best teams?
Navjot Kaur: Over the last year or so, we have started combining very well. Whenever we enter the opposition circle, we try to make it count. Our first aim is always to give our team the lead to release the pressure.
I used to play as a midfielder in the team but played as a striker in the Asia Cup and a few times since then. I have played as a striker in the past as well when I started playing the game. The first time I joined the Indian team I was given the responsibility to play the role of a midfielder. I feel more midfielders score goals than strikers do.
As far as scoring is concerned, both midfielders and strikers have an equal opportunity to put their names on the scoresheet.
"Winning bronze in Jr World Cup was special"
SK: Which tournaments have been the most special and memorable for you?
NK: The most memorable tournament for me was the U-18 Asia Cup in 2011 (at Bangkok) where I was the top scorer. I didn't know much about how foreign teams played and it was the first time I was abroad. At the time, I didn't even have a phone of my own. I was really excited to play that tournament. The results were good too so I was overjoyed.
In 2013, was the Junior World Cup tournament (in Mönchengladbach, Germany) where we won bronze. The first match was against Australia which we lost 1-6, but our coach (Neil Hawgood) told us very clearly that the tournament wasn't over. He wanted us to focus on the next match against New Zealand.
The very next day, we beat New Zealand 2-0 to came back strongly and thus strengthened our chances in the tournament. We made good progress following that match. (The Indians beat Russia 10-1 and Spain 4-2 but lost to the Netherlands in the semifinal).
We beat England in a shootout in the bronze medal match. I cannot express in words the emotion we felt at that moment. Until then we had excelled only at the Asian level. There is a vast difference in standards when one plays at the world level and there is a different kind of excitement as well when we play in a global tournament.
Rio 2016 also was memorable although we didn't do too well. There was a lot to learn, however, and we soaked in the atmosphere of playing the Olympics.
SK: What was the mood like when you returned to your village after winning bronze in Germany?
NK: When we returned from Germany following the Junior World Cup, the welcome we received in our village exceeded our expectations by a fair margin. I was with Rani and Navneet and all three of us were felicitated in the Shahabad hockey ground. We were welcomed with drums and the entire town was there to celebrate the moment.
It felt good that my family too were accorded a pride of place there because of our feat. My parents felt proud and I was happy for them.
"Getting pushed by opposition players is no longer a concern for us"
SK: In the past, the Indian girls used to struggle against sides likes Holland and New Zealand with regard to strength and fitness. Also, we seemed to be cowed down when the opposition played a rough game but that is no more the case. How much has the team worked on that aspect?
NK: There used to be a discernible difference in standards with regard to fitness before when the Indian teams played against the best sides as you mentioned. Also, there were teams who used the height advantage to their benefit.
Wayne Lombard our trainer from South Africa has put in a massive effort in this regard. In the Commonwealth Games, I am sure everyone noticed that with regard to strength and fitness, we are second to none. Getting pushed by players who are physically stronger is no more a concern for us.
I do not feel that there is any difference in strength and fitness between us and the Europeans. On the Spain tour, we did encounter a physical game initially but we learned a lot too, and over the past couple of weeks or so we have worked on several areas which will help us at the World Cup.
SK: How difficult is it for a player like Lalremsiani to integrate into the set up given that there are not many girls from her region in the team?
NK: I am sure it must have been tough for her initially. Siami did have a problem with Hindi, but the language of hockey is universal.
She has been Rani's roommate since she joined us and Rani has helped her a great deal. When one stays with the captain or with a senior player, one can learn a great deal. All the players have supported her a lot.
SK: How do you motivate yourself after a bad day on the field and what role do your parents play in strengthening your resolve?
NK: "You love didi (elder sister) more than us," is something my younger siblings often tell my mother. My mother explains to them that the extra affection for me is due to the fact that I stay away from home for significant periods of time. It is a great feeling to return home as an achiever.
When I am dejected, I pick up the phone and speak to my mum or to my dad. I also watch videos of Sandeep Maheshwari. He and my dad are my sources of motivation.