Self-goal leaves India looking for a calming gamemaker as Japan seek revenge

Rio de Janeiro (Brazil), Aug.6 - There are two enduring pictures of the Indian women's hockey team that last year clinched a spot in the Olympic Games line-up after a gap of 36 years.

Both frames have one common feature - an agonizing Ritu Rani writhing in pain. At Antwerp, when India overcame the Japanese challenge in the Hockey World League to earn their ticket to the Olympics, captain Ritu was the most outstanding player and game-maker.

She was targeted by the rivals for some rough tackling, that included several sensitive stick blows to her body.

She had to be taken off the pitch for medical attention even as her teammates begun celebrating the momentous day.

Ritu had played her heart out and almost always emerged as the most outstanding player on the pitch featuring the Indian team.

With over 200 international appearance against her name over a decade-long career, the Olympics were supposed to be the crowning glory.

A year later, she was sobbing on television during interviews after being unceremoniously sacked from the team when the final squad was picked.

The glorious Olympic appearance had been snatched away from her by the team management even when there was no player of her caliber on the horizon.

A few days before the team selection, she had been asked to leave the camp since she was no longer part of the Indian game-plan.

Incidentally, there is no one to match her ability in the squad yet, but the team management had made a decision and would not listen to any logic or arguments.

With some players in the young Indian team having played less than 10 internationals, India are now pondering over the key gamemaker's postion even as the same Japanese team is preparing for revenge as the Olympic women's hockey competition begins on Sunday.

Returning to the Olympic lineup 36 years after their only previous appearance at Moscow in 1980, the self-goal by Indian women has been the topic of curious questions from other teams, but new captain Sushila Chanu wants the team to leave all that behind.

Chanu, a defender, is eager to repeat the winning show against Japan to celebrate India's return to the elite arena.

Japan's 10th position in the world rankings is three spots ahead of India, who are placed No. 13. In 1980, India were among the six teams invited to play in women's hockey debut following a boycott of the Moscow Olympic by the western block.

The Indian women went to Moscow with a medal in their sight, but ended fourth after losing their way midway through the event.

A medal being a far-fetched notion, captain Chanu wants the pride of representing the country to reflect in their on-field performance.

"This is our first Olympic appearance, but we have to show the pride of representing the country," said Chanu as all 16 players braced for their maiden outing in the Olympics.

All five opponents in the six-team Group B are ranked above India. Chanu will get ample support from senior players like Deepika, Poonam Rani, Rani Rampal and Deep Grace Ekka and Sushila.

Coach Neil Hawgood, who this year returned from a stint in Malaysia, has been trying hard to overcome the team's inconsistency.

Hawgood is hopeful of converting the confidence gained on the recent tour of United States into their Olympic campaign.

The same coach was in charge when the Indian team won a bronze in the women's Junior World Cup. The youngsters in the Indian side need to combine well with their seniors. They must also not forget when losing the ball to rivals that there is no Ritu Rani to reclaim possession and control.

The girls will need to produce a much improved display than Antwerp's Hockey World League encounter against Japan.

Preliminary pools: Group A: Netherlands, New Zealand, China, Germany, South Korea and Spain. Group B: Argentina, Australia, Britain, USA, Japan and India..

Source: ANI