'Youngsters well acquainted with the demands of modern hockey,' says captain Rani Rampal ahead of a new season
Ever since she stormed on to the world stage at the young age of 15, the prodigy from Shahabad Markanda has been at the forefront of women's hockey in India.
A distraught Rani Rampal looked crestfallen as the Indians went down to Ireland at the Lee Valley Hockey Center last August, but the captain was well aware of just how far the Indian eves had come from the time she played her first World Cup.
It was baptism by fire for rank outsiders, India, who were about to face one of their sternest tests ever against the best teams in the world at Rosario 2010. In the very first match, the Indians were up against a formidable Netherlands side who found the back of the net no less than seven times.
Rani creates a sensation at Rosario
Yet, the Indians actually found an equalizer before the Dutch goal fest began thanks to young Rani Rampal who then went on to score a brace against mighty Australia even as the Indians went down 3-6.
It was Rani who found a lone goal for India against the Germans who fired in four in the next encounter, and she also scored against the Japanese - this time, as part of a winning cause with the Indians prevailing with a 2-0 margin.
Rani scored a couple more against South Africa in the classification match which helped the Indians end up on the winning side and finish ninth.
At the Rosario World Cup, Maartje Paumen of the Netherlands was the highest scorer with 12 goals which was no surprise given her outstanding drag-flicking skills.
Second in the list of goalscorers, however, was a name which was relatively new to world hockey, from a country which was yet to produce a truly world-class performer - Rani Rampal with 7 goals to her name made the hockey world stand up and take note.
Today, there is virtually no one in the world hockey fraternity who is unfamiliar with either the name or the spectacular prowess of Rani, who has propelled the game in the country to heights which were hitherto considered unattainable.
A sliver at the Asian Champions Trophy and a quarterfinal finish at the World Cup, followed by a silver at the Asian Games has heralded a new era for the Golden Girls, but neither are they resting on their laurels, nor indeed do they believe that they have surpassed expectations - if anything, there is a hunger to improve as Rani explains.
"Reaching the World Cup quarterfinal was a phenomenal achievement for women's hockey in India, but we could have gone further and are intent on doing even better this year."
What better way to begin the year than to lock horns with the World Cup silver-medalists, Ireland, and bronze-medalists, Spain, in an effort to begin the new season on a high, try out some innovative strategies, and give some promising youngsters a taste of senior international hockey?
In an exclusive interaction with Sportskeeda ahead of the Spain tour, the Indian captain and Arjuna Awardee delves into what the team hopes to achieve, and the kind of composition that will aid the unit to strike the right balance between attack and defence.
The Haryana girl missed out the Asian Champions Trophy last year where Sunita Lakra led the team but was at the helm at Gold Coast, London, and Jakarta. She feels the team has addressed at length the reasons as to why they fell short in spite of a brilliant display on the pitch.
"We played very good hockey last year but the results could have been much better. Our aim was to win a gold at the Asian Games and since we failed in our objective, we have discussed at length about our shortcomings and why we were unable to succeed in our endeavor."
"We have conducted a lot of training sessions to overcome the deficiencies in our game. Our aim now is to qualify for the Olympic Games, and the Spain tour will help us in preparing for the same. We have a chance to implement the various strategies that we have practiced so far in the camp.
"Although we performed extremely well, there are some areas in which there is still room for improvement. We are working harder on how to perform better under pressure and improve our PC conversions."
"Things are a lot more systematic now"
A lot has changed in women's hockey in the country since Rani made her debut and the prolific striker lauds the scientific approach which has brought about stunning results.
"We have experienced a lot of changes in Indian women's hockey since we started. Things are a lot more systematic now as compared to before. Each morning, we have to submit data to find out how much muscle soreness each individual player has which determines how much of a workload the player can take on during the course of the day."
"Fitness is the key and we now train with an aim to grasp the techniques of modern hockey. The players are now extremely keen to fully understand and absorb whatever is being taught."
Mizo livewire Lalremsiami overcame language barriers to cement her place in the side and the teenager now plays an important role up front alongside seniors like Rani and Vandana.
Unkile Siami (as she is fondly called by her teammates), Chandigarh girl Reena Khokhar has no linguistic concerns and speaks English just as fluently as Hindi. The attacking defender made her mark at the World Cup and the Asian Games, and the captain is pleased with the performance of both newcomers.
"I am extremely happy with the new entrants and they have contributed immensely towards the success of the team. Lalremsiami made it to the Indian team at a very young age and made her mark at once. Reena Khokhar too has made an impact pretty soon."
"Right blend of youth and experience"
Rani who took young Siami under her wing, as her roommate, is all set to groom some more youngsters who have made it to the senior side by virtue of their exploits at the junior level.
"We now have more youngsters in the team. The presence of Salima Tete and Karishma Yadav gives the team the right blend of youth and experience."
"Salima Tete is a defender who was the captain of the silver medal-winning side at the Youth Olympics. Karishma plays as a midfielder and the tour will give them some much-needed international exposure. The players understand the game a lot better now and are well acquainted with the demands of modern hockey."
The Indians defended extremely well in every tournament last year and will look to continue the same. Sunita Lakra, one of the seniormost defenders is being rested while the experienced Sushila Chanu who missed the Asian Games, and World Cup has made a comeback.
"Sushila Chanu is a seasoned campaigner and I am sure her return to the team will bolster the unit. Even when she was not part of the team, she has worked very hard after her surgery and I am happy that an experienced player is back in the side," says Rani, but feels the team now need to attack just as well.
"We were the best defensive unit at the World Cup as we conceded only three goals in the tournament, but our focus now will be to keep defending well and also attack a lot more to achieve the right balance between attack and defence."
"We have done a lot of homework on how best to execute this on the field of play."
The Indian girls are now feared by teams the world over, and as Rani explains, the change has come about as a result of a planned and systematic process that began a couple of years ago.
"The improvement you are now witnessing has been part of a process that we have been working on for around two years now. All the same, we cannot afford to slacken and will do all we can to continue to improve in the coming year as well."
"I am pleased with the manner in which the players have groomed themselves and improved on a day-to-day basis, but as a sportswoman, I can never be satisfied as there is always scope for betterment."