Women's hockey coach Sjoerd Marijne: 'We are getting closer to the top of the world'

Marijne feels that the Indian women's hockey team is pretty close to beating teams like World No. 2 Argentina. Hockey India

Barring the fleeting landscape during their bus shuttles between hotel and stadium, the Indian hockey women managed to see little of the bustling city of Buenos Aires, which is known for its bistros, parks and plazas. What they did get to see though is where they stand against the No. 2 side in the world, less than six months ahead of the Tokyo Olympics.

The Indian players are coming off four weeks and seven matches against the Argentinian junior, 'B' and senior sides, which they wrapped up winless - with four defeats and three draws.

Coach Sjoerd Marijne calls attention to the changed attitude of the girls in facing a higher-ranked team as a significant takeaway from the tour. Against the Argentinian senior team, the Indians played out two losses and one draw. "This was our first competitive experience in over a year and we wanted to know how we matched up to a side like Argentina," he says.

"In the first two matches, we gave opportunity to young players in the core group who haven't had a great deal of international experience, so in the future it's easier to close the gap. For the last three matches, against the Argentinian senior team, we played our strongest side and did very well. In all matches, the score could have very well been the other way around and that means we are getting closer to the top of the world. There is a big difference in the attitude of our players now when playing a top side. In the past, our players went into these matches telling each other to keep the score difference as low as possible but now they are trying to go for a win and were really disappointed when they couldn't do so."

Goalkeeper and senior member of the Indian side Savita Punia seconds the switch in mentality. "Earlier, against Argentina. we would largely stick to defensive play and they would end up being largely one-sided matches. This time we had a hunger for attack. After losing the first two matches against the senior team this time, we told ourselves ek match toh jeetna hi jeetna hai (we have to win at least one match). Our third match was abandoned because of rains but we managed a draw in the fourth. We felt disheartened at not having a win, but the good thing was we had gotten better with every match. Our circle entries have improved. We were trying out different players in varied roles during this tour to have a better idea of who fits where and results weren't always great."

In the 2017 World League semi-final against Argentina which India lost 0-3, Savita made as many as four saves in the first fifteen minutes.

The Indian defence line cracked early in the final match of the tour which ended in a 1-1 draw, conceding two penalty corners within the first three minutes of the first quarter. "Less PCs is something we need to keep working on," says Marijne, "We are used to adapting to the situation so this will not be different."

With the Asian Champions Trophy in March - which was supposed to be the first major tournament for the women's team - being indefinitely postponed, there is no competitive event on the horizon at the moment. It is understood that Hockey India is in talks with federations of Japan and Netherlands for exposure trips in the months ahead. Plans, however, will be subject to the Covid scenario in the weeks ahead. Currently, Japan has declared a state of emergency, with bans on entry of foreign travelers running up to March 7. On their part, the Dutch too have lockdown restrictions and curfew in place at the moment.

"We are working on playing other matches in that period, but it's still uncertain right now," says Marijne, "If we can't play these matches, then we will keep training like we did last year. At least we now have a benchmark after this tour and we know where to work on to win these matches. We know we are pretty close."

The crucial factor, Punia says, has been the team's fitness levels through the months of no competitive play last year. "I don't think we can make excuses for not having any matches. We had the rare opportunity of being in camp almost for nine months. I don't think any other team in the world had that. It's the reason why our fitness level didn't drop even though we had no matches."

The team is now on a week's break before they regroup on February 14 for a four-week camp, including a week's quarantine. They were tested twice during the course of a month - before they left for Buenos Aires and after the tour concluded. Their hotel in the Argentine capital even arranged a separate dining room for their activities and team meetings.

"The vegetarians in our side went there mentally prepared to have little choice in food but the hotel staff had made arrangements to follow our trainer's brief and fulfill our dietary requirements. We left them a thank you note when we left," says Punia.

"Barring the no handshakes and no contact, it didn't feel like we were trapped in a bubble. Of course, we usually go for shopping and long walks when we travel abroad, which we didn't do this time. Before we left for the tour, our trainer would joke that he would have to play cop to ensure we follow protocols. But once we got there, it was good to see all the girls, even the new ones, grow a lot more responsible. We knew that anything silly we did would put the entire team in risk and place future tours in doubt. No one wanted to take a chance."