In theory, this isn’t a return to the ice after the Olympics, but for all practical purposes, India’s women’s hockey team will be playing in the Asia Cup versus Malaysia on Friday, marking their first event since their ground-breaking performance at the Tokyo Olympics.
India competed in the Asian Champions Trophy in South Korea last month. The team kicked off its new cycle with a 13-0 thrashing against Thailand. However, following a Covid-19 incident in the group, the remaining players were compelled to spend the rest of their time inside the hotel, forcing them to withdraw from the competition. Coach Janneke Schopman, who described the experience as “scarring,” will be hoping for an easy journey at the Asia Cup, which will be hosted in Muscat. With a World Cup berth on the line, the team will not be able to afford to miss this match.
In retrospect, the Asia Cup was where India’s turnaround really began. They were crowned champions in 2017 and qualified for the 2018 World Cup, where they came agonisingly close to making the semifinals for the first time in their history. They carried that confidence into the Asian Games, where they won silver, before qualifying for the Olympics (for the first time in back-to-back years) and finishing fourth.
The Asia Cup, which kicks off the new season, will kick off a busy 2022 for the defending champions, who have been short on competition. On January 31, three days after the Asia Cup concludes, India will play China in the FIH Pro League for the first time (in Muscat, likely due to travel restrictions imposed by the epidemic).
The Pro League closes on June 22, while the World Cup, which India must qualify for by finishing in the top four at the Asian Cup, begins on July 1 in the Netherlands and Spain. The team will go to Birmingham for the Commonwealth Games less than two weeks after the World Cup ends, and then to Hangzhou for the Asian Games, where a spot in the Paris Games will be up for grabs.
The two regional competitions at the start and end of the season – Asia Cup and Asian Games – will be crucial in terms of qualifying for the two greatest games, the World Cup and the Paris Olympics, respectively, for Schopman, who was the team’s analytical coach at the Tokyo Games. The Asia Cup will provide an indicator of how well the team will perform at the Asian Games, while the World Cup will often provide an indication of the squad’s preparation for the Olympics.
The same philosophy applies. Schopman has no intention of departing from former coach Sjoerd Marijne’s playing philosophy. The team’s conditioning had improved noticeably under Marijne’s leadership, allowing them to play fast-paced give-and-go hockey. The squad was able to exceed expectations at the Olympics as a result of this, but Schopman is aware of the realities and the actions that must be made to build on the Tokyo performance.
Before going for Muscat, she commented, “If we look at the data from the games, we still have some advances to make to be in the top six of the world.” “I believe the Olympics have instilled in us the idea that we can compete at the highest level in the world of hockey.” However, we must improve and continue to develop.”
The team worked on their off-the-ball manoeuvres during their camp in Bangalore. When the players get the ball, Schopman wants them to be aggressive and create more scoring possibilities while keeping the defence tight. This balance has often been absent in the past.
Schopman has been with the squad for almost three years, which helps. However, the remainder of the coaching staff has changed, including Wayne Lombard, the team’s strength and conditioning coach. The South African was praised with improving the players’ conditioning. After the Olympics, he resigned and was replaced by compatriot Taren Naidoo, who had previously worked with him.
The playing group has remained relatively constant, despite the absence of captain Rani Rampal, who is rehabilitating from an injury. Savita Punia, the goalkeeper, will lead the team, which appears to enjoy the pressure of anticipation. Schopman says, “They (the players) want to be right there with the other top teams.” “They don’t want to be one-hit wonders,” says the narrator.
Menezes is stationed in the Japanese section.
There will be Indian interest in other places as well. Jude Menezes, a former India goalkeeper, is now the coach of Asian Games gold medalists Japan, who are in the same Asia Cup group as India. Menezes was mostly in charge of the defensive players and goalkeepers during his long tenure as a coach with the New Zealand women’s team, and was a key part of the coaching staff at the Rio and Tokyo Olympics.
He had an immediate impression with Japan, winning the Asian Champions Trophy in his first assignment with the club last month. Menezes will be looking to duplicate his success this week, despite the fact that the tournament was diluted due to the Covid infection among teams. In fact, his team may be the most difficult obstacle for India to overcome.