Hurtling down the wings of the hockey field, Anupa Barla and Neha Goyal are a formidable composite force, flinging messages to and fro, “creating gaps, dodging defenders”, as the vociferous Goyal puts it.
Barla, 17, and Goyal, 15, were two of the four forwards deployed by B.K. Subramani, head coach of the Indian team, at the Lal Bahadur Shastri Under-21 Women’s Hockey Tournament held from 8-12 November at the Major Dhyan Chand National Stadium, New Delhi. The team finished third.
Finishing touch: Barla (left) is a prolific goalscorer. Photographs by Pradeep Gaur/Mint
Buoyant and animated on the field, the forwards slip into an uneasy silence as they sit down to talk. Goyal finally breaks the lull with a few words about her hometown, Sonepat, and her first brush with the sport in 2006. “A friend took me to watch a hockey match when I was very young,” she says in a trademark Haryanvi accent. “I liked what I saw.”
The venue was the industrial area ground in Sonepat where a motley group of 60-70 girls would assemble to practise hockey. They would come from all parts of town, almost all of them young and poor, hitching rides on trucks and buses. “Our coach had a railway job and less time to spend with us,” Goyal says. “Pritam didi would give us the hockey sticks.”
She is referring to Pritam Rani Siwach, 37, a former Indian captain who is now an assistant coach with the under-21 team. Goyal and Barla’s respect for her is evident. When probed about her favourite player, even the painfully shy Barla names Siwach without batting an eyelid.
“They look up to me because I have known them for so long,” Siwach says, humbly. She then turns her attention to Barla, prodding her to speak.
Slowly, hesitantly, Barla begins talking about her life. Hailing from Rourkela, Orissa, her maiden encounter with the sport virtually sealed her future. Having never touched a hockey stick before, she was taken to a selection camp for aspirants by her uncle in 2005, trials which would enable the select few to train at the Sports Hostel in Rourkela. She was selected.
Coming through: Goyal is one of the two youngest players in the squad, and excels at feeding the strikers
She’s never looked back. Almost every major junior tournament that followed featured her in the Orissa squad, rampaging through opponents’ halves with a ferocity which is acknowledged by Goyal, a competitor on the National junior circuit.
“I remember a goal she scored against us in this year’s National Games at Ranchi,” she says. “It was a running goal which looked almost impossible when it was scored.”
“Zero angle,” adds Barla with her characteristic precision. “I remember hitting the ball from a zero angle and falling to the ground.”
The girls share a camaraderie which is reflected in their manoeuvres on the turf. A seemingly Siamese connection appears to be at work during their combined runs through the opponents’ half, with their exchanges ranging from the painfully loud to those executed with the twitch of an eye. Subramani labels Goyal a team player, which is quite evident in the manner in which she feeds the other forwards, especially Barla.
“Neha is an attacking player, dangerous in her runs,” says Subramani. “With increasing experience, I see her playing in the senior side soon.”
The bronze medal at 2011’s Junior Asia Cup in Bangkok testifies to the great promise of this team, which Subramani professes to be building for the 2013 Junior World Cup slated to be held in India. Goyal and Barla form the veritable engine of this long-term enterprise.
Assistant coach Narender Saini points to Barla’s weakness in the shooting circle, but lauds her ball control and eye for finishing a move. “She just needs to overcome her fear in the shooting circle,” he says. “Neha needs to be more consistent, for she can play badly for 5- to 7-minute patches during a game.”
The fears that he brings to light were manifest in the numerous chances missed during the crucial game at the under-21 tournament against eventual champions Germany. India lost, taking them out of contention for a spot in the final.
“The more the team plays, the better and tougher they will get,” says Subramani. “They need to learn to tackle two good matches back to back.”
Simply put, they need more experience, more matches, and more tournaments.
Saturday’s match for the third and fourth places witnessed Barla returning to overwhelm the opponents as she scored two goals en route to India’s victory. The veritable umbilical cord of India’s attack that is the Goyal-Barla partnership came to the fore after the brief lull in the Germany game. A goal down twice, India emerging triumphant by three goals to Australia’s two.
Goyal puts in the last word on Barla, “Whenever we (Haryana) play against Orissa, the team talk is all about watching out for her.”