When did we believe? At which point did we imagine it was done?
Surely not when Gurjit Kaur nailed her first goal against Australia early in the second quarter, her light-sabre special drag flick stick, from a company called Flash? There were still 38 minutes to go and for Indian hockey at a big event, apocalypse always lay waiting around the corner. Gurjit of the 100 drag flicks a day gives us the adrenalin to jump off the sofas, but is that the full reveal of the magic to follow? Maybe not so early.
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Should we have seen it even earlier, minutes into the match actually?
Sharmila Devi – a frail-looking speed devil who eats up space on the wings like it were candy – somersaulted over the Australian goalkeeper, landed on her back, walked off to get the kink straightened and returns a few minutes later. Are super powers being distributed in that dugout? After all, with five minutes to go, Navneet Kaur is hit in the face near the Indian goal mouth, puts her hand up to alert the ref and when ignored, is back on the move, the ball snatched back under her control. Wait, wait. Breathe.
What about at the very end, with around three minutes left, when a penalty corner referral was made for what didn’t look like an illegal tackle on an Australian attacker by Udita Duhan? It takes forever, paint dries, teeth lose enamel. But Udita’s senior colleague Deep Grace Ekka is hanging around her clearance line shooting the breeze.
As if defending against Australia, scorer of 13 goals, is cool beans. Done with one hand on the stick and the other in the pocket. Goalkeeper Savita Punia is calming Udita, forward-turned-defender following a 2019 knee injury, with many koi-nahis (it’s okay, no problem) patting her back.
Savita’s face is uncreased, another day at goal, wearing god knows how many kgs of equipment (in the old days, 7.5), five penalty corners saved. Big deal, bring on five more. Coach Sjoerd Marijne and captain Rani Rampal are exchanging chitter-chatter on the sidelines, smiling, smiling. Like a nice practice session had ended. Do they know what is at stake? At the humongous-ness of what could either happen or come crashing down?
It is enough to fry the brain, as sports jargon began to whirl about. Maybe that’s what the Zone looks like. Or Zen. The Indians are playing the world’s competitor beasts, Australia, world No. 2 to their No. 9, Olympic No. 1 seeds to India’s whocaresaboutseeding. At the anthems, the Aussies are smiling, laughing, chatting. Each of them is a head taller than the Indians, carrying visibly a pound for pound weight advantage over their opponents.
They have conceded only one goal in Tokyo and the English commentators are talking them up so much it is as if they had never watched the Indians play. Or knew that they drew Australia 2-2 in the 2019 Tokyo Test event. Sure, going by pure numbers against the stronger teams – 1-5 to Netherlands, 0-2 to Germany, 1-4 to Britain – the Indians look like lightweights and pushovers. Except in every match, the Indian women had been painfully punished for their tactical errors and loose play. But on their faces and through their bodies, in the determined set of jaw and chin and how they carried themselves on the field, it felt like something else was simmering underneath the surface. When the opportunity came, it could erupt.
It was visible two days ago in Vandana Katariya’s fist pumps as she scored goal after goal against South Africa, even as the Indian defence was leaking panic. On Monday, it was found in every Monika Malik tackle and clearance against Australia’s nine penalty corners. In the finger-wagging confidence with which she questioned the referee over why the PC was being awarded to Australia, only to then claim an incorrect referral. It didn’t matter.
In Tokyo, let it be said, even while getting hammered, no one on this Indian team was going to lose wondering whether they’d done enough. Pushed enough, hustled enough, harangued enough, run harder, faster, more fearlessly. Three times they had been showed their place on international hockey’s pecking order, soundly beaten, but they had refused to be defeated.
To defend for seven minutes short of three full quarters requires more ice than fire and as time passed, the Indians turned glacial. Before the final quarter, the Australians are egging themselves on, chanting on their way out. Even the most angelic and cherubic of the Indians walks to the field, faces blank, business-like. Job to do, let’s finish this.
It is like the entire team’s attention, energy and experience have coalesced onto that single patch of turf in that corner of the world at this point in time. All they want is control. Of emotion, of their game, of the clock. The midfielders are confidently nicking the ball off the Australian forward line, earning turnarounds, the defenders extracting the ball out of a huddle of sticks, legs, bodies with a surreal calm in the final cluster of penalty corners.
We are wobbling, we are spent. What are these women made of? The more the English commentators call for the Australians to rally, the Indians’ instincts appear to sharpen, to the point where all they can see is a gleaming finish line. One pass at a time, one second at a time. When the hooter goes, we finally meet them as they are.
“We are wobbling, we are spent. What are these women made of? The more the English commentators call for the Australians to rally, the Indians’ instincts appear to sharpen, to the point where all they can see is a gleaming finish line”
Young women with soul and energy and desire and ambition. Shouting, shrieking, crying, like all of us. Among them is the core of the first Indian team that won a women’s junior hockey World Cup bronze medal in 2013 and have grown up together dreaming of doing grander things. Last year’s Olympics postponement put the older players under more pressure from their families to quit and ‘settle.’ One among them has lost a father but couldn’t return home to say goodbye. More than half a dozen contracted Covid-19 a few months before Tokyo and were sequestered in quarantine for two weeks in their hostel rooms.
Frustrated, angry, impatient as the strength and fitness built up over months for Tokyo leaks out of them. When they get up and go again, they know for many, Tokyo will be their last chance.
On Monday, they made it count, pulling off arguably the biggest upset in modern hockey history. It takes them to their first Olympic semifinal, with two shots at a medal, and informs us emphatically, that we are witness to a golden generation of Indian hockey. All through the Olympics this team has been given names, meant to be chivalrous but are mostly patronising. Eves, maidens, ladies, girls or the supremely nauseating Bharat Ki Betiyaan (daughters of India).
Just call the Class of Tokyo 2020 legends. From this day on, that’s who they are.