A player for crunch moments, Rani Rampal leads the Indian women’s hockey team by example.
The FIH Hockey Olympic Qualifiers over the last weekend saw the Indian women’s team give their fans more than a few anxious moments before sending them into delirium by sealing their place at the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo.
Having struggled to make it to the quadrennial event for 36 long years before their breakthrough at Rio 2016, the Indian eves will - at the Tokyo Games - mark the third occasion where they will compete for the biggest prize on offer. And their journey so far has been nothing short of a gripping tale.
Struggling to cope with the superior gameplay of the United States of America in their first match of the two-legged tie in Bhubaneswar, the Indian side seemed confused in the opening half. While they were solid at the back, thwarting the incessant waves of attack from the opposition, the dearth of chances in the attacking third was proving to be a cause of concern for the side.
It was here that their skipper Rani Rampal decided to take things into her own hands.
With just over a few minutes to go for the half-time hooter, the Indians did well to earn a penalty corner but a missed trap by Sushila Chanu somewhat took the sting out of the attack. The halfback, however, was smart to get the ball under her control and feed Rampal on the edge of the circle with a hope that her skipper would make something of it - and the leader did not disappoint.
With three defenders closing her down, one would have thought that Rampal would play it back to hold on to possession. But the 24-year-old had other plans. With her back to the goal and without a second glance, Rampal locked the ball to her stick and turned over to beat the marking and feed Neha Goyal, who played it across the face of the goal for Lilima Minz to tap in India’s opener.
That goal opened the floodgates for India as Rampal and her girls went on to pump five more before conceding one to take a huge lead into the second leg a day later.
And if that wasn’t enough, the team would once again require their star player to come up with something special to push them over the line.
Leading the tie by four goals, the Indians were expected to hold the American onslaught in the second match. But Kathleen Sharkey and her team were determined to make life difficult for the Indians.
Having created numerous opportunities to score in the first match, the Americans once again stuck to a similar plan, with Sharkey dictating the play in the middle, while Amanda Magadan, Linnea Gonzales and Alyssa Parker tried to penetrate through the Indian defence.
While they were let down by their poor finishing in the first match, this time, the Americans had no such trouble as India’s four-goal lead soon vanished by the half-time mark. Team USA seemed pumped to go on and get a few more while the Indians saw their shoulders drop as they began to contemplate a possible shocking exit.
However, with Rampal still on the field, there still lingered hope of an unlikely comeback. Whether it was due to head coach Sjoerd Marijne’s half-time pep talk or the team’s realisation that missing out on the Olympics could set women’s hockey in the country back once again, what transpired in the second half was soon to make history.
A goal in the fourth quarter by Rampal and some purposeful defending in the dying moments meant the Indian team will be Tokyo-bound in 2020.
For someone who was part of the team that suffered a 0-4 loss to the same opponent in their quest to qualify for the 2008 Olympics and then pushed her team to the 2016 Games - their first in close to four decades - Tokyo 2020 will be a special one.
But for now, Rampal will have to ensure that her team produces a far better show than what they did four years ago. Based on the lead-up so far, that doesn’t seem at all outside the realm of possibility this time around.