After Steven Bradbury won a gold medal at the 2002 Winter Olympics, “doing a Bradbury" entered Australian colloquial lingo. The speed skater’s famous victory came in the most unusual of circumstances. In the semi-final as well as the final of the 1000m event, all his opponents fell over at the last corner, leaving the underdog, who was trailing the field, to pick up an improbable win.

The story of India’s hockey women’s team and their coach Harendra Singh is somewhat similar, at least as far as perseverance and beating the odds go.

When the Indian women’s team boarded the flight to Japan for the 2017 Asia Cup on 23 October, a top four finish was considered a realistic target in a field that had China, Korea and Japan—all ranked higher than then No.12 India.

Around two weeks later, India had beaten Japan in the semis and China in the final on 5 November to win their first Asia Cup in 13 years. The feat, accomplished without losing a single match, lifted the team to its best-ever FIH (International Hockey Federation) ranking of No.10.

“Until I don’t think of Mt Everest, I won’t be able to climb Kanchenjunga." That’s how Singh began his new job, after successfully guiding India’s junior men’s team to a World Cup victory last year.

What such confidence can do reflects in goalkeeper Savita Punia’s words. “We never thought there is less time or that the Asia Cup is so close," she says, referring to Singh taking over just a month before the tournament. It was Punia's save in the sudden death shootout against China that gave India the title.

India gained a World Cup ticket after South Africa’s victory in the African Cup of Nations opened up an extra slot. But by winning the Asia Cup, India will now enter the World Cup next year as champions of the Asian continent.

“Self-respect means a lot. It’s a different confidence to qualify on merit. We have succeeded in what we planned as a team," says Punia .

The road ahead

As he did with the junior men’s team, Singh likes to set targets and help the team rise to them. With the women, his first target is “Mission 2018".

“The first day (as coach), I set up a ‘Mission 2018’ WhatsApp group for the team. We want to directly qualify for the (Tokyo 2020) Olympics with Asian Games gold. Once we achieve that, the name of the group will change to 'Mission 2020'," says Singh.

Three major sporting events—the Commonwealth Games (CWG), the Asian Games and the World Cup—are slotted for 2018, making it a critical year for both men’s and women’s hockey. 

“It (next year) will be the stepping stone for the women’s team. Before the CWG, we may play some Test matches against higher-ranked teams. David John (high-performance director) and I will discuss and decide the plan," adds Singh.

Punia, too, is looking ahead. “All of us feel we have celebrated (the Asia Cup win) enough. Let’s look forward. We have to focus on the next (training) camp, especially our fitness and strength."

In drag-flicker Gurjit Kaur, skipper Rani Rampal and goalkeeper Punia, India now have players who can assert themselves on the field and not get bogged down by the might of fitter and quicker opponents.

“We are working on that. Improved fitness features as one of our primary objectives, and it’s already getting better," says Singh.

Both the men’s and women’s teams have vanquished all those doubting their Asian supremacy. The competition outside the continent, however, is cut-throat.

“Now there are no ifs and buts. We have to set our targets high. Of course, it should be realistic. But once the determination is there, every goal can be achieved," says Singh. “I want to take this team to a stage where we can say 'Hum kisi se kum nahin' (we are no less than anyone)."

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