India were within seconds of a bronze medal, conceded a penalty stroke, then had to go through the agony of a second shootout in three days. They had lost to Australia in controversial circumstances in the semi-final, but dug deep and eventually won that medal easily.
And it was Savita Punia – captain, goalkeeper, leader, who always said she lives for the shootout – who delivered the biggest performance of her career.
Five shots: three saves and one forced wide.
Earlier, though, it had been all India. In the first half, for thirty minutes, they’d out-pressed, out-passed, out-played their opponents but nothing was giving. It was a familiar frustration, and you could feel nerves starting to fray, even with half the match left. This team, Coach Janneke Schopmann had said after their narrow semi-final loss to Australia, needed a medal. They were on the right track, following the right process, playing good hockey; but they needed something to show for it. Something tangible.
Then Salima Tete happened.
The goal was beautifully worked. Another attack down the right, another lovely bit of combination play from the Indian forwards inside the New Zealand circle, another save by Grace O’Hanlon… but the ball deflected out to a free Tete, cleverly positioned at the back stick. It was a tight angle, but a textbook reverse hit took care of that.
Tete, and every other outfielder, had been running her socks off the whole half, but when the moment came realized the value of staying still, her decision not to follow the ball into the crowd at the near post creating space where there had been none previously.
It had looked, for the longest time, like that would have been enough. India continued to create chances, and miss them. New Zealand got the ball in the net once, but it was ruled out for a 5m infringement. Everything seemed to be falling into place.
Then with 28 seconds to go, and the ball cannoning around in front of the Indian goal, Navneet Kaur kicked out at the ball. Penalty stroke. Duly converted. 1-0 turned into 1-1 in the blink of an eye. The Penalty Shootout. The dominance of Savita Punia. From betiyaan to badasses in Tokyo. From badasses to medalists in Birmingham. The next step in this brilliant team’s evolution. And it is a brilliant team, littered with great characters throughout.
There was the childhood-best-friend pair of Nisha Warsi and Neha Goyal controlling midfield. Nisha sat back in her own half, roaming the area in front of the defence, prompting attacks from deep and covering counters. Neha was everywhere, dribbling the ball out of her own circle one moment, whizzing past the left back the next. Nisha’s calm and Neha’s dynamism hold the midfield together. There was Salima Tete, Lalremsiami, Navneet Kaur taking turns to run at the New Zealand defenders down the flanks, cutting in balls at the byline, wreaking havoc in the circle.
There was Vandana Katariya, de facto leader of the forward line in the absence of the enigmatic Rani Rampal, living between the lines, apparating into space behind defenders.
That forward line was also India’s first line of defense – Schopmann making that old cliché come to life: her forwards creating as much from forcing turnovers high up the field as from controlling play themselves.
Then there was Savita Punia. Even in a game where her team controlled play she was called on to make crucial saves; the pain and controversy of the semi-final forgotten temporarily. There had been major doubts about the team’s ability to hold their nerve in the absence of Rampal, and abject failure at the World Cup last month had added even more weight to the questions. Those were emphatically answered; Savita, quieter than the average goalkeeper, leading with action. Handle the shootout like a boss. Winning India the bronze medal.
There are weaknesses, of course. Winning penalty corners – modern hockey’s most potent avenue of goalscoring – remains problematic. Scoring from them even more so. Gurjit Kaur is the team’s only drag flicker and while she did her day job of defending well, when she’s not on her flicking game, no PCs work out. The late collapse in defense will worry Schopmann. But all that is for another today.
Today… today, they have bronze around their necks and songs in their hearts.