Rajat Sharma

How our brave girls have laid the foundation for a world champion hockey team

akb fullMonday was a day of pride for all Indians, a day when every Indian was proud of our daughters. We salute our girls who scripted history on the hockey field in Tokyo Olympics. For the first time, our girls reached the Olympic hockey semi-final by defeating World No.2 Australia in the quarter final. By doing so, they won the heart of every Indian. Nobody expected our girls to do wonders against the mighty Australian team, but our girls did the unprecedented. They entered the hockey semi-final for the first time in 40 years.

It was heartening to watch the Indian commentator weeping in joy. It was a wonderful moment. This, from a team of players, who hail from poor and rural background, who had faced numerous obstacles in life, before touching the pinnacle of glory. Watching them play warms the cockles of the heart of every Indian.

In my prime time show ‘Aaj Ki Baat’ on Monday night, I tried to reveal details about the family life of some of our women hockey players, who hail from nondescript villages of Jharkhand, Odisha, Haryana, Punjab and Manipur, and reached Tokyo to display their speed and skill. This was nothing but a moment of magic. Some of these girls, in their early life, did not have shoes or hockey sticks to play with. One of them used bamboo stick for practising hockey.

Some of the girls had their mom and sisters working in big cities, who used to send them money for training. One girl’s father drove auto to purchase a hockey stick for his daughter. The father had tears of joy in his eyes on Monday. He did not know the name of the team her daughter will face in the semi-final. He said, he only knew this much: My daughter has brought accolades for my nation.

I am narrating some of the details about the family life of these brave girls here.

First, the star of the day, 25-year-old Gurjit Kaur, who hails from Ajnala near Amritsar, Punjab. In the eighth minute of the second quarter, her drag flick scored the solitary goal that brought the Australians on the backfoot. Normally, she plays as defender, and her main focus is connectivity, that is, passing on the ball to the forwards. You will be surprised to know, Gurjit’s village, Miyadi Kalan, lacks transport connectivity, even today. None in her family every played hockey, and her family members only knew the bylanes going to the fields.

Gurjit was firm in her aim to learn hockey, and her father had to admit her to a boarding school in Taran Taran. His father sold the lone family motorbike to fund her training and purchase a hockey kit for her. Gradully, Gurjit made her mark in hockey and she got her first chance to join the National seniors hockey camp in 2014. She could not fine a place in the national team, but three years later, in 2017, she was inducted into the national team.

Salima Tete plays as defender in the Indian women’s hockey team. Her family lives in a hut in Badkichapara village of Simdega district of Jharkhand. Since childhood, Salima practised hockey with a bamboo stick as his father Sulakshan Tete, a former hockey player turned farmer, could not afford to buy her a hockey stick. She has five sisters and a brother. In order to send her funds for practising hockey, her brother and sister went to the nearby town to earn money as labourers.

This was Salima’s first exposure to Olympics. In 2016, she was included in the Indian junior team and was made vice-captain of the Under-18 Indian girls’ hockey team. In 2018, Salima was the captain of the Indian girls’ hockey team at Youth Olympics held in Argentina, and her team won a silver medal. On her return, Prime Minister Narendra Modi met her and blessed her for a bright future.

There is a story about Salima, who did not have a trolley bag when went to the World Championship. Somebody gave her an old bag. She had no pocket money for sustenance. A Facebook appeal brought in pocket money for her. Salima has not got a government job. Her younger sister Mahima also tried her hand at hockey, but could not move ahead. Mahima says, her wish is that Salima should bring home a gold medal from Tokyo.

There is another daughter from Jharkhand in the team, Nikki Pradhan from Khunti district. Her father was a police constable, now retired, who gave her all assistance to go ahead and achieve her goal. Since her father was in the police, he could not give much time, and her mother helped Nikki. Her mother recounts an incident when she was not allowed to enter a stadium in Ranchi, where a state level hockey match was going on, and her daughter was playing. She told policemen guarding the gates that her daughter was playing inside, but nobody listened. On Monday, Nikki’s mom had tears of joy in her eyes when she saw the team trouncing Australia on TV.

There are nine girls from Haryana in the women’s hockey team. Foremost among them is “the wall”, Savita Punia, one of the best female goalkeepers of the world. Players from Haryana are better placed economically, compared to the girls from Jharkhand. Moreover, Haryana government has provided better infrastructure to players to excel in hockey, boxing, wrestling and several other disciplines. Thirty year old Savita hails from Sirsa. She qualified for national team when she was barely 17. Her father bought her a hockey kit for Rs 20,000.

Savita is experienced. She has played more than 100 international games till now. She took part in Junior Asia Cup in 2009 and in the Women’s Asia Cup in 2013. In 2014, she was part of the team that won the bronze at the Incheon Asian Games. In 2016, she withstood a barrage of penalty corners from Japan, to help India hold on to a 1-0 lead and qualify for Rio Olympics. In 2018, she took part in the Asia Cup and World Cup.

On Monday, Savita Punia stood like a wall and saved India from seven penalty corners from Australia. She also stopped two field goals. The Australians were dominating the last two quarters, but our defence stood rock solid and foiled all their attempts. There was celebrating at her house in Jodhka village in Sirsa, when the team entered the semi-final.

The women’s team captain Rani Rampal hails from Shahbad Markanda of Kurukshetra district, Haryana. Twenty seven year old Rani’s father was a rickshaw puller earning Rs 80 a day. Her brother was a carpenter, while her mother used to work as a maid in several houses. She started playing hockey from the age of six. Initially, her family was hesitant in allowing her to play hockey, because her parents had no money to pay for her diet and training. Even her community objected to her playing in shorts. She started practising with a broken hockey stick and then used to borrow old hockey sticks from senior players.

At a time when Olympians work on a fixed diet, taking care of carbohydrates, fats and calories, Rani used to carry roasted black grams in her pockets to satiate her hunger. During practice, every player was told to consume at least half a litre of milk daily. Rani’s family could not afford this luxury. Rani used to take 200 ml milk, mix it with water and drink. In 2020, she was awarded Padma Shri and Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna, the highest sporting honour in India.

Hockey forward Vandana Katariya is 29 years old, and hails from Roshnabad near Haridwar, Uttarakhand. Though her family is well-off now, during her childhood, she used to break a branch from a tree, and used it as a hockey stick. This was the girl who scored three goals against South Africa during the qualifying round, thus becoming the first female player to score a hat trick in Olympic hockey. Her beginning was quite difficult. Her mother and siblings opposed her playing hockey, but her father Nahar Singh stood by her.

Three months ago, Nahar Singh died, and he was not there to savour the moment of joy on Monday. During her father’s death, Vandana was at the hockey camp in Bengaluru and she could not attend his funeral. Her family members said on Monday that she is now playing to fulfil the wishes of his father. Vandana has played more than 200 international matches. She was part of Team India that won a bronze at 2014 Asian Games. She was the top goal scorer at the 2013 World Cup Junior Hockey tournament.

Monday’s win brough memories of the hit Hindi movie ‘’Chak De! India’, made in 2007, in which super star Shahrukh Khan played a stellar role. The difference is: the movie was a scripted one, but what happened on Monday, was the real one. Nobody had written the script, but the stories of the girls playing hockey, both in the movie and in real life, were similar to a large extent.

In the film, coach Kabir Khan’s team goes to Australia for the World Championship, loses badly in the opening matches, but makes a startling comeback to win the Cup. At the Tokyo Olympics, our team lost the first three matches to Netherlands, Germany and Britain, and when hopes were receding, Dutch coach Sjoerd Marijne showed the players a movie for inspiration, gave a motivational speech, and then the players bounced back with vigour. They beat Ireland and South Africa, to reach the quarter-final, where they met the Australians. The rest is history.

There is no doubt that our women’s hockey team played like champions on Monday against Australia, which had won the world championship thrice. When Gurjit scored the lone goal in the 22nd minute, the Australians had 38 minutes with them to level the score, but our gallant girls stood like a rock, led by Savita Punia. Our girls also played attacking hockey and gave no space to the opponents to equalize.

Monday’s win was not a fluke, it was a well-deserved victory for our girls. At the end of the game, the Australian girls were shocked, they did not know what hit them. For decades, we shall never forget the historic visuals of our girls rejoicing after the win, while the Australian girls were returning to the pavilion, with tears in their eyes.

On Wednesday, when our team will face Argentina in the final, they will be carrying the wishes and prayers of more than a billion Indians with them. It does not matter the least, whether our team returns with an Olympic medal or not. The girls are already ruling the hearts of Indians. Monday’s win has laid the foundation for a future world champion Indian team, which will emerge as unbeatable in the years to come.

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