Rani Rampal was a frail seven-year-old, wearing a plain salwar-kameez and nylon slippers, her hair tied up in a braid, when she entered the Shahbad Hockey Academy ground in 2001, accompanied by her parents.

Baldev Singh, the coach at the academy, told her to run, touch the wall at the other end of the ground and come running back. It was the most basic of tests, given to all those who came looking to join the academy. Rampal ran. She stumbled, fell, her legs going in every direction but straight. Baldev Singh, not a man to mince words, told her plainly: “You can’t play, you can’t even run properly!"

Rampal runs just fine now. She is fluid, strong, agile. Her hair is tied in a tight bun, she is big-boned, and runs circles around defenders. She deftly dribbles the ball, her stick swirling a figure 8 on the turf past a defender. Without pausing, she braces her shoulders for a shot and then takes it. The ball flies past the keeper, hitting the roof of the net at a sharp angle.

If the Indian women’s hockey team has managed to qualify for the Olympics after a gap of 36 years—for the first time ever really, if you consider that at the 1980 Olympics, when women’s hockey was introduced, all the teams were there on invitation—then a big part of the reason is the goalscoring machine who goes by the name of Rani Rampal, and the small village of Shahbad in Haryana, where she comes from.

It was a goal by Rampal that opened the route to India’s qualification for 2016 Rio Olympics. She had scored in India’s 1-0 win over Japan in the team’s final match at the Hockey World League semi-finals on 4 July, securing a fifth-place finish for India at the league.

After that, it was a breathless wait for the results from the EuroHockey Championship in London. An Olympic quota was available to the winner of this tournament, unless the winner had already qualified via another route, in which case India would be given that spot (as the highest ranked team in the World Hockey League yet to earn a place at the Olympics).

As it turned out, both the finalists at EuroHockey had already booked their Olympic places, so there was great news for the Indian team.

Rani Rampal at home.
Rani Rampal at home.

She is annoyed that Rampal has given her no notice before inviting journalists over.

“At least I could have worn better clothes," she says, squinting her eyes, her henna-dyed hair spilling in unruly strands from its braid. A cocktail of smells wafts through the house: hay, drying cow dung, freshly washed clothes.

Rampal smiles widely and hugs her mother. Her father used to drive a mule cart till recently, till Rampal began to earn enough to support the family, and her two brothers found work—one in an auto-repair shop, the other as a carpenter.

Seeing Rampal here, it is difficult to imagine her dominance on the turf—when India take the field, she is inevitably the most heavily marked player.

That first encounter with Singh, almost 14 years ago, was hard for Rampal. It had been difficult to convince her parents to take her to the academy in the first place, the swift rejection came as a blow. But Rampal was not one to give up easily. For the next four days, she made her parents take her to the academy every morning until Singh relented.

“Everyone told us we would regret giving so much liberty to our girl," says Ram Murti. “They said now she has started wearing shorts, soon you will see how she brings dishonour on your family."

Rampal blossomed. She did it earlier than anyone—her parents, her coach—thought possible. At 14, before she even played a tournament with the national junior side, she was called up to the senior Indian team. In 2009, in her first tournament for India, she finished as the top scorer. She remembers the excitement of her teammates when they won that tournament. She remembers all the talk back then of its importance—it was part of the qualification process for the 2012 London Olympics. Rampal was left a little baffled; she did not know what the Olympics was.

Now she knows only too well. Before scoring the goal against Japan that got India into a position to qualify for Rio, she had scored both goals in a 2-1 victory in what was a must-win match against Italy in the same tournament.

In between her debut at 14 and leading India to Rio, Rampal has been consistently impressive: In 2010, at only 15, she got into the International Hockey Federation’s All Stars team for the year, after she scored seven times in five matches at the Women’s World Cup (though India exited at the group stage). In 2013, after a year spent recovering from a career-threatening back injury, she led India to a bronze medal at the Women’s Junior Hockey World Cup, a first for India. She was voted player of the tournament, and finished as the top goalscorer.

The Indian team for the Olympics is largely made up of players from the team that won the bronze at the junior world cup.

The Indian women’s hockey team practising at the Major Dhyan Chand Stadium in New Delhi. Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint
The Indian women’s hockey team practising at the Major Dhyan Chand Stadium in New Delhi. Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint

There are plenty of very basic problems that worry Aherns, indicative of the lack of structured development. “You need to stop the ball, and that is one of the weaknesses unfortunately," he says. “The ball comes and it goes, and then you get first touch, second touch, third touch. That always gives time to the opponent, and at the Olympics you can’t allow that."

What does it say of Indian hockey that a team comprised largely of juniors, with some very fundamental flaws still to be ironed out, happens to be the team that has managed to do something no Indian women’s hockey team has done before?

Does it mean that there have been significant changes in the women’s game since their last big triumph, the 2002 Commonwealth Games?

Helen Mary, one of the members of that 2002 team and the goalkeeping coach for the national squad, certainly thinks so.

“You see the facilities when we were playing and you can see the facilities now," Mary says. “For everything there is a specialist now; a psychologist, physiotherapist, doctor, videographer."

Yet the players in the team headed for Rio are affected by a strange mix of exhilaration and dejection.

NO ONE WATCHES WOMEN’S HOCKEY

It was one of the first family trips Ritu Rani took after becoming the captain of the Indian women’s hockey team in 2011. Her mother thought going out with her celebrity daughter would turn out to be exciting, and that they would have to deal with a lot of fans. But as they walked through the crowd at the Golden Temple in Amritsar, Kuldeep Kaur’s eyes kept scanning faces for any signs of recognition.

“It was sad that no one recognized her," she says.

On 15 March, at the Major Dhyan Chand National Stadium in New Delhi, India beat Poland 3-1 in the final of the World Hockey League Round 2. They thus qualified for the World Hockey League semi-finals and eventually, the Olympics, so this was a crucial match. Tickets were priced at 20 for the general stands, and 100 for the VIP section. At 8pm, when the match began, the stadium was more or less empty.

“Most of the Indian supporters in the audience in our games here are people who know us, our family or people associated with the game," says Rani, 23, the most experienced player in the team, and a Shahbad girl as well.

“It’s hard to play before an empty stadium…particularly in your home ground. It’s harder when you think what your parents would be thinking looking at the empty seats," says 25-year-old goalkeeper Savita Punia, who has done for India’s defence what Rampal has done for its attack, making crucial and spectacular saves during the Olympic qualification campaign. “When we go to watch the men’s domestic hockey, I keep wishing we could attract as much, if not more, audience than the boys do."

“If women win, they will get the publicity. But if men and women both win, the women’s victory will be diluted," says hockey historian and author K. Arumugam. In 2006, he points out, the women’s and men’s teams both played in the world cups. The men in the Netherlands and the women in Madrid. There was just a 10-day gap between the two. “The boys attracted reporters from Indian newspapers and channels, but for the women, I was the only Indian reporter because everyone assumed that obviously, the women wouldn’t win," he says.

Former international hockey player Mamta Kharab says women are still considered somewhat of an anomaly in the male-dominated world of sports. “This country is cricket crazy, right? So, how come most people don’t even know who the captain of the women’s cricket team is? The bias is against women in sports," says Kharab, who scored the golden goal in the 2002 Commonwealth Games final against England.

The lack of spectatorship and coverage translate into lack of money too.

The men’s hockey team has the lucrative Hero Hockey India League to look forward to, where they get contracts worth millions of rupees. The women don’t have a league.

The root problem, says sports commentator Prem Panicker, is the lack of an ecosystem for women’s hockey, and it starts with the lack of interest among spectators.

“We tend to look at sports in isolation," says Panicker. “We don’t look at whether there is an ecosystem of advertising, sponsors, media and institutional support in place for the sport to flourish. Also, there has to be continuous, well-advertised, sporting activity."

Hiren Pandit, chief operating officer, SE TransStadia, a sports infrastructure and intellectual property company, agrees: “Sponsors very rarely pick teams unless they have viewership. The performance of a team and the passion with which people watch them is what matters. How many channels are willing to pay for the TV rights of a hockey match? People are not interested. Sponsorship is not a CSR (corporate social responsibility) activity."

As they do for most sports in India, public sector companies give jobs to players who make it to the national squad, though most are given positions at the bottom of the pay scale. Rampal worked for the Indian Railways for five years, earning 12,000 a month. She has recently been offered a job as an assistant coach by the Sports Authority of India as part of a scheme meant to motivate players struggling to earn.

“My shoes alone cost around 10,000," Rampal says. “We don’t get well-paid jobs, no sponsors are ready to sponsor team games, there is hardly any media coverage. What will be the motivation for women who have joined the sport despite all the opposition by everyone around them?"

When they get on to the turf, there is a palpable sense of joy and excitement. Anmol is one of 45 girls in a group of 100 currently training at the academy.

Many more young boys and girls stand watching from the sidelines, leaning on the ground railings, swinging their arms as if they are holding hockey sticks. Their fathers are masons, sweepers, carpenters, fruit-sellers, house painters; they all dream of being hockey players. Anmol is one of the promising students here, says Gurbaj Singh, the current head coach at the academy. “Like Rani (Rampal), she can anticipate when the ball will come her way," he says. Anmol’s father works as a labourer in Kuwait and has not visited his family since they moved to Shahbad two years ago to give Anmol a chance at the sport.

“It’s difficult for a girl here to dream of becoming a doctor or engineer here," says Anmol’s mother. “But at least because of the academy, she can become a player and then get a job."

The evolution of women’s hockey in the town began with Baldev Singh. In 1982, he was posted to the town, in the state’s sports department. Looking for a good hockey ground, he found one in a girls’ school. Since accessing the ground meant allowing girls to play as well, Singh took on the challenge. Challenge, because it was Haryana and because the school was so conservative that even an accidental slipping off of the dupatta was unacceptable. The school administration did not want boys and girls to play together. Reluctantly, and under pressure from the relentless Singh, the school allowed the girls to play. Slowly, the dupatta was replaced by loose full-sleeve T-shirts, and then, hockey clothes.

Last year, Singh chose to shift base from Shahbad to a sports school in Fatehgarh Sahib district in Punjab. He is a disgruntled man. He says he has been overlooked for bigger assignments because he has a reputation for being tough, for making the girls work till their calloused hands bleed, for using expletives liberally.

Rampal says Singh built her as a player. “The good part about Shahbad is that players are prepared for international games. Shahbad has taken away the softness from us. We can do anything." she says.

If India makes a mark at the Rio Olympics, you will have the tough girls of Shahbad to thank for it.

Suprita Das contributed to this story.

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