The brand new astroturf at the National Institute of Sports (NIS) in Patiala gleams even under a dull lead-grey sky. The thwack of hockey sticks hitting the hard white ball rings through the air insistently. It’s a welcome sound for the Indian women’s hockey squad, a break from the equally insistent noise generated by scandals, controversies and organizational chaos that saw the players retreat into a media blank-out.
The first blow came on 19 July, when Th. Ranjitha Devi, a player from Manipur, accused Maharaj Kishan Kaushik, then chief coach of the women’s team, of sexual harassment. The allegations were made in a letter to Hockey India, the sport’s governing body at the time, and had the signatures of 31 players. A video showing the then team videographer M. Basavaraj with prostitutes during a foreign tour was leaked as well.
As the scandal exploded, the women’s team quietly left for Busan, South Korea, for the Asia Cup. Kaushik resigned. Despite the circumstances, the team won bronze at the Asia Cup, beating World No. 3 China, 10 places above the Indian team—and it’s this kind of professionalism that the team hopes will stay with them as they prepare for the biggest prize of all, the Hockey World Cup, which begins on 29 August.
Sticking on: (clockwise from top) The Indian women’s hockey team is preparing for the World Cup and Commonwealth Games at a camp in Patiala; coach in charge Somesh; and captain Surinder Kaur. Photos: Pradeep Gaur/Mint
“Look, our girls are smart enough to know that they need to forget these incidents,” says Mamata Kharab, the former captain who missed a place in the squad owing to a knee injury. “It’s been a difficult time for us, but the World Cup is ahead of us, so is the Commonwealth Games—we’ve got two new coaches and we’re doing our best to cooperate with each other.”
Add to the sex scandal a good dollop of political chaos: The Union sports ministry tried to dismantle Hockey India (HI), saying it’s a private body and thus can’t represent a national sport, while the International Hockey Federation maintains HI is the only body it recognizes. You have all the makings of a tragedy here.
These issues still weigh heavily as the women prepare for the World Cup in an 11-day, hastily arranged camp at NIS—the body language is weary, their conversations measured and evasive. But preparations are now going ahead full steam. The days in Patiala always start early—at 6 in the morning the women’s hockey team is already out, running around the sprawling, 268-acre campus. Coach in charge Sandeep Somesh, in his white India jersey and baseball cap, has a quick chat with the women before they begin their 2-hour session of skilled training and set pieces. There is usually another 3-hour session in the evening, where they play practice matches.
Somesh, a former men’s international player, was part of the coaching staff under Kaushik. Two former captains of the women’s team, Pritam Siwach and Sandeep Kaur, were called up at the last minute to join Somesh on the staff for the World Cup and the Commonwealth Games.
“I got a call on Friday evening (6 August) asking me to join the team in Patiala on Monday,” says Siwach. “I was surprised, though somewhere in the back of my mind I knew I might be called up because they were looking for women on the staff after the scandal.”
Siwach adds their focus is mainly motivation, since the camp is too short to really make much of a difference in training and strategy.
“I had a few meetings with my team to try and put all the controversies behind us,” Somesh says. “I tried to hammer in the fact that we must be as professional as possible. Hopefully they have responded to these talks, but only the results can tell you that.”
Kaushik, who worked with the Indian women’s team for over 15 years, revolutionized it, taking the team from being no-hopers to international medallists. “He (Kaushik) led the way, there’s no doubt about that,” says Somesh. “We are fine-tuning systems put in place by him, he is the boss who put the women’s team where it is now.”
Under Kaushik, the team won gold at the 2003 Afro-Asian Games and 2004 Asia Cup, and silver at the 2006 Commonwealth Games, among others—an unprecedented run of success.
Kharab feels this momentum can be maintained. “He was a fantastic coach, and I’ve won many medals under him as captain,” she says, “but the work was put in by the girls, and the systems are in place—the set pieces, the game strategies—and I believe we can do well with that.”
The team’s captain, Surinder Kaur, believes that even for the World Cup, where the team is ranked 13, the preparations are on track. “Though the camp has been short, we’ve been preparing through the year,” she says. “We went to tour New Zealand, which is in our pool at the World Cup, and then we played Australia, which is also in our pool, at the four-nations tournament in Germany. So we are heading in the right direction.”
Kaur, though, feels that the real focus will be on the Commonwealth Games in Delhi. “We will be playing at home, in front of home crowds— any which way we are going for gold at the Commonwealth Games,” she says.
It’s a dream the rest of her battle-weary squad shares.