Dark clouds hung ominously over the Sunrise Stadium at Donghae and the rain pelted down causing play to be suspended midway through the opening match of the Asian Champions Trophy in May.
Yet, neither a wet pitch nor the overcast conditions were sufficient to dampen the spirits of the Indian girls who scripted a dream return for their former coach Sjoerd Marijne by thrashing Japan with ridiculous ease. Sunita Lakra and her team then went on to get the better of the higher-ranked Chinese, and also the Malaysian girls, displaying an aggressive streak that caught their opponents unaware.
The enthralling show at Donghae was the follow up to an equally determined display at Gold Coast, where Rani Rampal and her team very nearly made it to the podium beating Olympic champions England on the way.
The Indian girls will meet England yet again at the Lee Valley Hockey Center in London in their first encounter of the Women's World Cup competition which starts off on July 21. Sixteen teams divided into four pools will compete for hockey's biggest prize and the Indians find themselves in Pool B, which apart from the hosts also includes the USA and Ireland.
"Gurjit not the only option for PCs, but cannot reveal names"
Skipper Rani Rampal has stressed that the girls will compete hard in the World Cup and not be mere participants like they were at the Rio Olympics a couple of years ago.
Gurjit Kaur's name has been synonymous with PCs as far as the Indians are concerned and she has been instrumental in the team's success in recent times with her powerful drag-flicks, but coach Sjoerd Marijne is emphatic that the team has more than one PC battery.
"I am not going to make the other teams smarter by revealing who the other drag-flickers will be," said Marijne who sounded a wee-bit miffed when pressed on whether there were other options available. "What do you think? We train six days a week. Of course, there are other options."
The emotion is evident and so is the burning desire to show the world what a lower-ranked team is capable of achieving on the world stage.
A preparatory tour to Spain saw the Indian girls honing their skills against a side ranked lower by a single rung, but coach Sjoerd Marijne reckons that the tour was tough nonetheless and that the girls are wiser and better prepared after the Spanish sojourn.
In an exclusive interaction with Sportskeeda, the Dutchman who guided India to a silver in the Asian Champions Trophy, barely a couple of weeks after taking over, laid out his vision for his team and stressed that the pressure will be on hosts England in the opener.
Sportskeeda: What are the biggest positives of the Spain tour? Was the tour only for the experienced players or were you looking for some new players to come through as well?
Sjoerd Marijne: Yes, it was for the experienced bunch to make them ready for the World Cup. Playing against a tactically strong team forced the players to look for solutions and they did well.
We need to be more consistent and show a level of play equivalent to the two matches we won. It’s all about our own effort and how much we put in the match. In the short term, it is important we take that extra step towards our fitness and speed. It’s good but can always improve.
It was not easy against Spain although they are ranked one position below us. In women's hockey things can be very close. Tactically, we made some good improvement and the good thing is that they (the players) saw the improvement themselves. When they see it themselves, they can adjust accordingly in the match and that was a good thing.
The other good thing happened after we lost a match 1-4 (in the 4th test). Following that match, the girls came together and told each other that the same thing cannot be repeated in the last match. They decided to change their mentality and they were really focussed to play that match. We won that match (4-1) and that feeling, we will take to the World Cup.
Sportskeeda: How difficult will be it to be to play the Asian Games right after the World Cup? Will fitness be a concern?
Sjoerd Marijne: It is not easy to play two big tournaments one after another. Both tournaments are really important, especially the Asian Games since we can qualify for the Olympics, but we also want to do well in the World Cup. What we learn in the World Cup, we can implement in the Asian Games.
As far as the schedule is concerned, there is a gap of at least 3 days between the group matches so that will not damage our fitness. If we go further in the World Cup, then the matches are closer to each other. We have to see how far we go in the World Cup, but there will always be a backup plan.
Sportskeeda: Reena Khokhar has been selected, maybe ahead of Sushila Chanu. So, could you tell us what the thought process behind that was?
Sjoerd Marijne: Firstly, I would like to say that Sushila was not convincing enough in the Commonwealth Games and in the Spain tour. Sushila is a great person, so I would not like to disclose all the reasons for her not being selected. Sushila works very hard so this was a really tough decision. It was also tough to tell her (about her omission) as we have a lot of respect for her.
I know Reena for a year now. She has played as a midfielder a lot of the time and she also played in the defense. She convinced us as she has good attacking and defending skills. She can attack as a defender.
"Aim is to first reach the quarterfinals of the WC"
Sportskeeda: Before the Commonwealth Games, the expectations were low but after a good show at Gold Coast they have increased a lot. Do you feel any pressure as a coach as to whether you can live up to the expectations?
Sjoerd Marijne: No, I do not feel any pressure and the reason is really simple. We play the first match against England, the second-ranked team in the world. They are going to be playing a home match in front of a packed stadium. The pressure will be on England - they will feel that they must win that match because they are No 2 in the world and we are No 10.
It is the same for the USA. They are the higher-ranked team. So, it is they who will feel the pressure and not us. We will go there to surprise the world. We will display our best game. Let's see what the score will be after the match. Our first aim is to play well against England and then we will aim for the quarter-finals.
Once we are in the quarter-final, we will set new goals. We want to go as far as possible and that is what we always want. In any tournament, we want to reach as high as we can but the first aim, for now, would be to reach the quarter-finals.
Sportskeeda: You were with the girls before as well but how smooth has the transition been since you took over in May, and are you satisfied with the preparations?
Sjoerd Marijne: Of course, I was with the girl's team before and when I was not, I followed the team very closely and I gave advice as well. So, it was not that I was completely away from them.
The transition from the men's team to the women's was really smooth because we already knew each other. Of course, a few things changed when I was away, but it was easy for me to find out what they were. The girls know how I work and I know how they work too. It's good that we had the Spain tour and the Asian Champions Trophy so we could set the goals together and be ready.
It was a short time, but the time I had was just enough to make the adjustments I wanted to . Having said that, I did not have to make many because they are still playing the way they were when I was with them earlier.