Fitter, improved India confident ahead of qualifiers against U.S.

Rani Rampal in action during the 2019 FIH Series Finals in Hiroshima. Hockey India

Rani Rampal takes a short pause when reminded of a 3-0 defeat at the hands of U.S. -- India's opponents in the 2020 Olympics qualifiers in Bhubaneswar on November 1 and 2 -- during the pool stages of the Rio Games in 2016.

"That was three years ago, and our team was not at the same level it is now," she says. "We have come a long way in terms of our fitness and game awareness. All of us were experiencing the Olympics for the first time, and we realised that to maintain ourselves at that level, how much physically and mentally stronger we needed to be."

Two summers on, India and U.S. met at the World Cup in London, with the latter needing a win to stay alive in the competition, while a draw would ensure India's passage to the crossovers. "I think we defended really well, but what we could have improved on was in creating more scoring opportunities," recalls coach Sjoerd Marijne. "We could have finished the match off early, but we knew a draw was enough. That makes it a bit different, and this [the qualifiers] is again something different."

Marijne draws strength from the fact that a slew of younger players have come into the senior team over the past year -- Lalremsiami joined Rani in the forwardline in 2017, and Sharmila Devi, 17, made the grade this year. Sharmila is the one of two teenagers, along with the versatile and speedy Salima Tete, who has become a frequent starter in 2019. "The more these girls play, the better they will become. They will make mistakes, but they will learn to adjust better," says Marijne. "Of course, they cannot play well without the solidity the seniors around them provide."

"Rani herself can do amazing things. She's dangerous inside the circle, and she's strong on the ball. We also have [forwards] Navneet Kaur, Vandana Katariya and Navjot Kaur -- each has different qualities and amazing skills. They make it difficult for opposition teams to focus on Rani alone."

At 24, Rani is the undoubted fulcrum of the team, not least because the matches in Bhubaneswar will mark her fourth Olympic qualifying competition. "To be honest, there are no easy games in world hockey today," she says of ninth-ranked India's chances against the World No. 13. "Any team that plays well on a given day can come away with a win. We have to play to our strengths, and not focus too much on the opponents."

U.S. have lost some influential players from the batches of 2016 and 2018 in the course of the past year. Among the notable retired players, midfielder Melissa Gonzalez and striker Katie Bam had combined for the goals against India in Rio.

Marijne, however, believes their younger crop of players will have benefited from the Pro League, where U.S. finished bottom of the table, but took Argentina and Olympic champions Great Britain to shootouts in away matches. "Netherlands are probably the absolute best, but all the other teams are much closer by," says Marijne. "These will be tight matches, and we have to first be concerned about ourselves. I know it sounds boring, but that's what's been working for us lately."

Marijne is also aware of the importance of playing at home -- he had shown the team clips of the Men's World League Final from 2017 at the Kalinga Stadium to motivate them ahead of the Series Finals title clash against Japan, where a win virtually ensured a home draw for India based on world rankings. "A lot of the girls have never played at home, and it will be an experience they will never forget," he says. "We know all the people will shout, when we are over the 50 [half-line], but if we keep running every time, then we keep playing against ourselves. We have to find a balance."

For the moment, the Indians travel to England in 12 days' time to face Great Britain in a five-Test series starting on September 27.

"They are the Olympic champions, and we can measure up our qualities and identify areas to work on," says Rani. "The team is very excited about playing [the qualifiers] at home. We have to keep calm and stay focused on converting everything we have done in training on to the playing field. Any player's ultimate dream is to be at the Olympics, and to win a medal there while representing your country. We just need to remember that."