The Indian women’s hockey team is in Bhubaneswar for a two-week preparatory camp at Kalinga Stadium . They will play Olympic qualifier matches against the US team on November 1 and 2 at the stadium. Altogether 22 Indian players are taking part in the coaching camp, where 16 will be picked for the hockey Olympic qualifiers. The two back-to-back matches will decide on aggregate which of the two teams will be going to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics . We caught up with Team India captain Rani Rampal for a chat on their plans and the state of women’s hockey in India. Excerpts:
How are the overall arrangements and atmosphere here at the preparatory camp?
We will be play matches at Kalinga Stadium for the first time. We had once come here in 2015 for a coaching camp. Bhubaneswar is a beautiful city. And itne bade home crowd ke samne toh pehli baar khel rahe hain. We have seen men’s hockey events here and people here are very passionate about hockey. Whether it rains or it’s too cold, people here love hockey and come to watch in large numbers. The love of people for hockey here is Odisha’s biggest strength. That’s why so many players come from this state. The facilities at the stadium are top-class and there’s nothing to complain about. The state government has put really good efforts and have made great arrangements. Playing in such a big stadium amidst so many fans will give us a different kind of energy.
You had recently visited Great Britain. How would you rate the team’s performance there and how prepared is the team for the qualifiers?
We played five matches in Great Britain. We won one, lost one and three were drawn. I think our team performed well and we played quite consistently throughout the tournament. We knew at the back of minds that we would be playing against the US and have to prepare accordingly. So, we prepared there and the final preparation is on here. Our team is more than ready now; we are just waiting for the matches.
Do you remember any good moment after you took over the reins of Indian women’s hockey?
I think in the past two-three years, women’s hockey has improved a lot. We have won some good tournaments. The team is fit. Since the Rio Olympics, we have improved a lot in various aspects. For the qualifiers, we have done our homework. USA is not an easy team. We will play according to our strengths.
In a cricket-crazy country, how popular do you feel women’s hockey is?
Cricket is definitely the most popular sport here, but of late, people have started following other sports too. Women’s hockey especially has started gaining popularity and people have started recognising the sport and its players.
Can we say that the sport gained popularity after the film, Chak De! India ?
I would rather say humari ladkiyan achhi kheli tabhi toh hum pe film bana aur fir logon ne dekha. During that time, our women’s hockey team won gold at the Commonwealth Games and won medals in other events. That’s when people started recognising women’s hockey.
There’s no women’s hockey league. Don’t you think it’s the need of the hour?
Yes, I feel there should be a hockey league for women too. I also know efforts are on to start such a league. If that happens, hockey will grow.
How did you start playing hockey?
I come from Shahabd Markanda in Haryana . There, there’s a hockey nursery and above 60 women from that area have represented Indian hockey till date. When I started playing, nine players from the nursery were already playing for India. That inspired me to take this sport seriously.
How do you communicate with players who are from diverse backgrounds and from various states?
Our common language is hockey. As a captain, I ensure that there’s unity among the players. We try to let everyone express themselves. Ultimately, we have to remember that we represent India. Regarding communication, yes, there are players who fail to communicate with other, while there are some who easily mix with others. Coaching camps help a lot in breaking those barriers. Every player is given the freedom to communicate during the camps and mix with others. We try to solve each other’s problems, which gives us confidence and helps in team bonding.
Now, we have a foreign coach for the women’s team. What differences do you see between a foreign coach and an Indian one?
Indian coaches are good in a way that they know about our culture and the background of the players. Foreign coaches, on the other hand, have a different approach to training, which is also good for us. But whether it’s a foreign coach or Indian, they all teach us hockey. The basics of hockey is same for all — how to stop the ball, how to pass the ball, how to score a goal and prevent a goal.
Like your home town, Sundergarh in Odisha is also a cradle for hockey. Have you ever been there?
I had once gone there in 2005 to play a junior-level tournament. It’s a quite a good place with several hockey turfs and hostels. That’s the reason several hockey players have come from that place. Besides, the Odisha government has been doing a lot of good things for sports and trying to develop sports infrastructure in the state, which is a welcome step.