How it happened and why it’s a big deal

What’s the news?

Rani Rampal was not part of the 20-member Indian squad for the FIH World Cup that starts on July 1. Chief coach Janneke Schopman said she was still recovering from the injury that saw her out of action since last year’s Tokyo Olympics. The former captain had made a brief comeback earlier this month during a FIH Pro League match against Belgium but has not played since.

Why’s this a big deal?

For the longest time, Indian women’s hockey meant Rani Rampal. If she was there, Indian were in with a shout, always. This is said with no disrespect to the other players but Rampal was simply a cut and a half above the rest. Having debuted at 14 (wunderkind!), Rampal was the one constant hockey lovers could put their faith in regardless of circumstances. As of 2022, she has 250 caps for India, and has scored 117 goals.

The best example of how she was often a one woman tour-de-force came in 2021. In the qualifier against USA with qualification to the Olympics on the line, she went beast mode. As Sharda Ugra wrote on these pages, ‘It [was] Rani in her parallel universe operating in her own space-time.’

She is what they call captain, leader, legend… and she has been doing it for ages.

Why did this happen?

Firstly, Rampal doesn’t appear to be fully fit. Since the Olympics, she’s only played one game.

Secondly, though, it’s also a belief that the team has stepped up. Prior to the Olympics, even a half-fit Rampal would have been a shoo-in for the squad, her presence a must. Something clicked in Tokyo, though. As they grew from betiyaan to badasses’, the team grew less reliant on Rampal.

During the tournament, and since, goals have come from across the pitch. Vandana Katariya, Lalremsiami, Navneet Kaur and Sharmila Devi (the four selected forwards) have all been scoring for fun. Behind them, the rise of Salima Tete has given the midfield a drive that once came only from Rampal dropping deep.

Taken in that context, Rampal’s exclusion — shocking as it may at first glance — starts making a little more sense.

Who can replace her?

Short-answer? No one. GOATs don’t get replaced with a snap of the fingers.

Long-answer? The four forwards have shown that the strength of the collective can help ease the pain of losing a generational talent and the midfield has stepped up with crucial goals. Not to forget the much improved drag flicking of Gurjit Kaur. That perhaps is the way forward: total hockey, as it were.

What did the team say?

Savita Punia, goalkeeper and now captain: “Of course, a player like Rani and her experience of playing big tournament will always be beneficial. But it’s not like players who replaced her didn’t play good… We can’t compare young players with Rani because she has years of experience. One of the biggest positives of this team is that we function as a team. There’s no significant change to our preparations even if Rani has been not part of the team. You’ll get experience only if you play matches.”

Deep Grace Ekka, vice-captain: “Rani always gives her 100 percent and this is what young players are learning from her. About her scoring positions and how she hardly misplaces the ball. She has been an exceptional player for us.”

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