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Within a quarter of upsetting defending champs: The magnificent journey of women's hockey team

Superlatives were invented to describe sporting journeys like this but even those words won't do justice to the journey they have been on since finishing last at the Rio de Janeiro Games in 2016.

Published: 06th August 2021 10:29 AM  |   Last Updated: 06th August 2021 10:29 AM   |  A+A-

Great Britain women's hockey team after winning their bronze medal match against India at the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo

Great Britain women's hockey team after winning their bronze medal match against India at the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo. (Photo| AP)

Express News Service

If Thursday morning was historic, Friday morning was unprecedented. Twenty four hours after the men's hockey team medalled for the first time in 41 years, the women's side were playing in their first ever bronze medal match.

Even reaching the semifinal was considered unthinkable. To put the achievement into some kind of context, this is comparable to Leicester winning the Premier League with odds of 5000/1. It is something like that.

Superlatives were invented to describe sporting journeys like this but even those words won't do justice to the journey they have been on since finishing last at the Rio de Janeiro Games in 2016.

And they came within a quarter of upsetting the defending champions. That's a sentence not many thought was possible before the match. Coming into the game, Great Britain had as many Olympic medals (three) as Indian appearances (three). 

Their magnificent campaign -- affected by COVID-19 before they were scheduled to leave -- had appeared to reach a logical conclusion after Great Britain had gone 2-0 up. They were running rings around the Indian defence but the one thing this team doesn't do is quit.

Battle hardened by unthinkable life experiences -- a lot in this side have had to fight even before taking a stick while some resorted to hockey only to fight their way past innumerable obstacles -- they did the only thing they know. Fight.

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Two penalty corner strikes from Gurjit Kaur -- who scored for three consecutive matches -- and one from Vandana Katariya -- a few days after her family was harassed -- put India into the lead in a second quarter that mirrored India's campaign.

0-2 had become 3-2 in the blink of an eye.  They weren't just going to toe to toe with one of the best women's outfits in the world, they were actually beating them.

At least some of it was down to Savita Punia and Salima Tete. While the former refused to be beaten, the latter's dribbling skills down the flanks was reminiscent of a footballer running at the opposition defence. 

The English defence couldn't handle her and at the halftime break, with the score at 3-2, stuff you wouldn't even see in films was being played out in real life. However for all of India's spirit and mentality, they were routinely conceding scoring opportunities to the opponents.

Skipper Pierre Pearne-Webb put one away to equalise even as the unforgiving heat was beginning to take a toll on both sets of players (there were unscheduled rehydration breaks during the quarters). Both sides exchanged more penalty corners without adding to the scoreline with the match poised. 

That's when Udita's mistake cost the team dear. She brought down an Indian player in the D and earned a five minute visit to the sin bin. Belgium got themselves on the ball and asserted their authority with a string of corners.

A combination of Savita and the defenders threw everything they had to stop three penalty corners but a fourth penalty corner in three minutes was too much and the pressure ultimately told.

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Too compound matters, just as Udita's suspension ended, Sharmila Devi received a two minute suspension. Playing eights in the fourth quaters with just 10 players was too much and they just couldn't mount any sort of sustained pressure. 

Gurjit, four goals to her name, had a late chance to send the match into a shootout but it was deflected to safety. The hooter went soon after, to leave most of the Indian players in tears. They were inconsolable even as both their opponents as well as the Indian support staff tried to console them. 

When the fog finally lifts and the team comes back, they will realise the enormity of what they have done not just in Tokyo but to get there.

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