“We were outsmarted,” says hockey coach Janneke Schopman

Janneke Schopman, Head Coach, Indian Women’s Hockey Team (Image: Hockey India)

Bharath Ramaraj in Ranchi 

As New Zealand took a 2-0 lead over Italy in the FIH women’s hockey qualifiers for the Paris Olympics in Ranchi on Saturday, something caught the eye of this writer. It was a hockey fan sitting in a stand next to the media box. It felt like he was following every minute detail related to the match. 

A little bit of inquisitiveness made me ask him a question or two. Who is your favourite Indian player? By how many goals will India win today? “I’m a casual hockey fan, I don’t know much about the game, I have just come here to enjoy,” said the fan.

 A ‘casual fan’ being enthralled by all the happenings in a game that didn’t even involve the home side, serves as the crux of how Ranchi has become one of the big centres for hockey in India. Three hours before the start of the home team’s match against the United States of America, the stadium was jam-packed. 

When the Indian players made their way out to the middle of the pitch, there was a cacophony of sounds. Moreover, every single time India got an opportunity to take a penalty corner, emotions hit fever pitch. So much so that it felt as if India must have scored a goal. Unfortunately for the fans, India couldn’t get that elusive goal as they slipped to a heartbreaking 0-1 loss.

So, what went wrong for India, then? The hosts took a bit of time to get into their groove. Perhaps, some were a touch nervous. Whatever it was, USA dictated terms in the first quarter, with the 20-year-old Abigail Tamar slamming the goal. The initial shot was saved by the ever-agile Savita Punia. But Tamer was alert enough to ram the goal from in-between the legs of the goalkeeper.

ALSO READ: India women waste penalty corner chances, lose to USA in Olympic Hockey Qualifier

After that setback, India regrouped to an extent and created some pressure on the USA defence. However, the USA defence was adept at double-teaming: For each Indian player, there seemed to be two from the visiting side in order to put some stick pressure and win the ball back. India did show a bit of promise on both flanks. Just that the USA invariably probed India to ensure the hosts wouldn’t get a field goal. 

India also had seven penalty corner opportunities. Three of them came in a single minute in the second quarter, but India couldn’t convert any of them. The USA had studied more than enough of Deepika’s strengths and weaknesses as a drag-flicker. India not having other penalty corner options made USA’s task easier. India did try a variation while taking the penalty corner but the execution of the strategy was poor. 

The opponent’s main focus was to play defensively after taking the lead, and it worked to perfection. Meanwhile, a disappointed Janneke Schopman, India head coach, said in the post-match presser: “I know we are a good team, we weren’t the lesser team even though we lost. We were outsmarted. We created chances but did not have composure and confidence on the ball that I am used to seeing in training and in matches previously.”

India’s task only gets tougher from here on. New Zealand, their next opponent, are quite good at converting penalty corner chances. In fact, all their three goals in their opening match came via PCs. The Black Sticks can also wear different hats — defence to offence and via versa. 

The hosts have to up their game in relation to passing and converting penalty corners. In a group comprising just four teams, losing the opening fixture could be a debilitating blow. Another defeat, and India could be looking at making an early exit just two days into the tournament. But hope springs eternal. As the sun peeks out to signal the start of another day, the Savita-led side would have the belief of making a comeback.

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