Three defeats in the span of five days to begin the Olympics, and the demons ought to have arisen once more. The voices of all the naysayers the Indian women’s hockey team dealt with throughout their lives returning once more to haunt them. Memories of Rio, where the team finished last, patronising pats-on-the-back waiting in store for them at home.
Were this an ordinary team, blame-filled fingers would have been pointed in all directions in the dressing room. This team should have crumbled. Indeed, plenty have.
30th July 2021: Ireland 0-1 India
Fourteen penalty corners went a-begging as India pummeled the Irish goal in a desperate bid to stay alive in the Tokyo Olympics. Three minutes away from an ignominious exit, with the team searching for solutions as their tired minds and bodies looked to have given way.
The critics were lying in wait, sharpening their knives. Having fought against said critics for almost the entirety of her career is perhaps what galvanised captain Rani Rampal, who seemed to concentrate all her frustrations into a tomahawk aimed at the left post. Navneet Kaur’s instinctual flick of the wrists deflected the ball into the goal, and India had their first win in 41 years at the Olympics.
31st July 2021: South Africa 3-4 India
The South Africans just kept coming. Every time India took the lead with some clever variations in penalty corners, their opponents responded by levelling soon after. In the sweltering 35-degree heat of Tokyo, India needed the win to keep their quarter-final hopes alive. Yet, as though pressure was an emotion alien to them, they kept their minds and continued to rely on what worked.
Another deflected goal off a penalty corner, and Vandana Katariya had written herself into the history books – the only Indian woman to score a hat-trick at the Olympics. India had their victory, and after Great Britain did them a favour against Ireland, a place in the quarterfinals was assured.
2nd August 2021: Australia 0-1 India
And then… history.
No one gave them a whiff of a chance. India faced top seeds and three-time champions Australia, who had won all five of their previous games while only letting in a solitary goal.
And that’s all it took – a solitary goal. Gurjit Kaur, finally, finally getting the drag-flicks on target and into the net in the 22nd minute. Yet, what followed was… the stuff of legend.
For thirty-eight agonising minutes, India held on. The players putting mind, body and soul on the line as they kept the Australians at bay. Savita Punia, ever so shy off the pitch, cajoled and corralled her defence as she saved all nine of the attempts the Aussies sent her way. Back home the entirety of India watched on, scarcely believing what they were witnessing. The hooter buzzed, and this team reached their first-ever Olympic semifinal. A medal was tantalisingly close.
4th August 2021: Argentina 2-1 India
6th August 2021: Great Britain 4-3 India
Sport, like life, can be cruel. After a narrow loss to Argentina in the semifinals, India’s hopes for a medal rested on their performance against a team who had already bested them 4-1 ten days prior. A 2-0 deficit in the 24th minute and you would think it was probably game over. But this team dug deep into their bottomless reserves of whatever it is that makes champions once again, and in the span of five incredible minutes had taken a 3-2 lead.
Six minutes of euphoria followed, as India dreamt of their first ever medal in women’s hockey in only their third Olympic appearance. Hollie Pearne-Webb’s strike in the 35th minute shattered a billion hearts, with Grace Baldson applying the finishing blow in the final quarter.
Tears were shed, unashamedly. Not just by the players, but by many back home. Because if there ever was a team that deserved a medal, it was them.
Sixteen stories of overcoming familial pressure, overcoming a society that never afforded them a chance, overcoming economic hardships, overcoming casteist slurs, overcoming every single handicap that can be handed to a sportsperson in India, and they came ever so close to a medal.
Yet, in tragic defeat there was a victory all the same. Like 1983 inspired millions of kids to pick up cricket bats, 2021 inspired scores of girls to pick up hockey sticks. There will be a medal for the Indian women’s hockey team in the years to come. When it does come, we’ll know that it all started in an incredible fourteen-day spell in Tokyo.
And that legacy, is perhaps worth more than a medal.
Remember their names:
Navjot Kaur, 26, Kurukshetra, Haryana
Gurjit Kaur, 25, Miadi Kalan, Punjab
Deep Grace Ekka, 27, Lulkidhi, Odisha
Monika Malik, 28, Gamri, Haryana
Sharmila Devi, 20, Hisar, Haryana
Nikki Pradhan, 28, Hesal, Jharkhand
Savita Punia, 31, Jodhkan, Haryana
Nisha Warsi, 26, Sonipat, Haryana
Vandana Katariya, 29, Roshnabad, Uttarakhand
Udita Duhan, 23, Hisar, Haryana
Lalremsiami Hmar, 21, Kolasib, Mizoram
Navneet Kaur, 25, Shahabad Markanda, Haryana
Sushila Chanu, 29, Imphal, Manipur
Rani Rampal, 27, Shahabad Markanda, Haryana
Salima Tete, 19, Simdega, Jharkhand
Neha Goyal, 25, Sonipat, Haryana
The Indian women’s hockey team, our Team of the Year.
LONDON — Manchester City have shown themselves to be in a league of their own, so the Premier League should be thankful that Chelsea and Liverpool are still able to keep us all entertained. Sunday’s 2-2 draw at Stamford Bridge helped neither team and only consolidated City’s vice-like grip on the top spot, but football is about jeopardy, risk and overcoming flaws, and when it all comes together, you get an unforgettable game like this one.
Even before City moved 11 points clear at the top of table with a 2-1 win at Arsenal on Saturday, this second-versus-third clash was always a case of both sides needing to win to maintain faint hopes of catching Pep Guardiola’s winning machine. City’s win at the Emirates was their 11th successive Premier League victory and they have all been won with such monotonous ease, scoring 33 goals and conceding just seven, that every three points is now met with little more than a shrug of inevitability.
Barring an unlikely collapse in the second half of the season, City will win a fourth league title in five years and you will struggle to count on the fingers of one hand the times they have had to dig deep into their reserves to overcome adversity during that period. Guardiola has built one of the all-time great teams in English football history during his six years at the Etihad, but they may simply be too good to contribute to games like this one.
Chelsea and Liverpool gave us such a pulsating encounter because they both have weaknesses that can be exploited by their opponents. And as a result, they both had to take risks in an attempt to secure a crucial victory.
And they also had to go into the game with unwanted distractions hovering over both clubs.
City, in contrast, have enjoyed a remarkably serene run of successes since losing to Crystal Palace in October, which is why they are free-rolling to another title. But the Premier League is regarded as the most exciting in world football because of games like this, and teams like Chelsea and Liverpool and the drama they create.
Christian Pulisic, playing centrally in the absence of Lukaku, wasted a golden chance to open the scoring on seven minutes when, with only stand-in keeper Caoimhin Kelleher to beat, he was indecisive and allowed the youngster to smother the ball. It proved a costly miss when, two minutes later, Mane took advantage of his lucky escape from a sending off by pouncing on a mistake by Trevoh Chalobah to score.
Chelsea were in disarray and Liverpool looked like the team that won the title in 2019. When Mohamed Salah made it 2-0 on 26 minutes with a stunning near-post finish after gliding past Marcos Alonso, it seemed as though Liverpool were about to give Chelsea the kind of hammering they inflicted on Manchester United during a 5-0 rout at Old Trafford earlier this season.
Liverpool were unable to score a third, though, and two Chelsea goals in the space of three minutes at the end of the first half turned the game on its head.
When Kelleher punched Alonso’s in-swinging free kick clear on 42 minutes, the keeper looked to have done well to deny the Chelsea defender. But the ball dropped the Mateo Kovacic on the edge of the penalty area and, as he was backpedaling, the midfielder somehow guided a volley beyond Kelleher and into the net. It was a spectacular display of technique by the former Real Madrid player and it gave Chelsea a foothold back into the game.
And it took them just three minutes to score the equaliser when Pulisic atoned for his earlier miss by latching onto N’Golo Kante‘s pass before beating Kelleher with a precise left-foot shot past the Republic of Ireland international. As the chaos continued on the pitch, Mason Mount almost put Chelsea 3-2 up in first-half stoppage time with a scuffed volley that bounced just wide of the post.
When a game is so eventful in the first half, it rarely delivers a second half of the same quality because of coaches plugging the holes that had led to the earlier excitement. But while the goals stopped flowing, the entertainment didn’t.
Salah forced a crucial save from Edouard Mendy with a 25-yard lob on 57 minutes and Mane was also denied by the Chelsea keeper. Kelleher, not to be outdone, then produced a stunning save to prevent Pulisic from scoring his second of the game.
In total, there were 25 chances over the 90 minutes, with both sides registering six on target. Neither could find a winner, though.
“For the outside world it was quite a good game to watch, but we came here for three points and didn’t get them,” Liverpool defender Virgil van Dijk said.
Even if one team had done enough to claim all three points, it’s difficult to imagine they would have been able to close the gap on City, who are destined for another title. And the challenge facing both chasing clubs only grows more daunting in the next month, with Salah (Egypt), Mendy and Mane (both Senegal) now heading off to the Africa Cup of Nations in Cameroon.
But the Premier League still knows how to excite, even if the title is already a foregone conclusion.
Doncaster’s Lightning Novices’ Chase could be next on the agenda for Do Your Job following his creditable effort in defeat at Kempton over the festive period.
Runner-up to My Drogo and Belfast Banter in Grade Two and Grade One novice hurdles in the spring, Michael Scudamore’s stable star made a successful start to his chasing career at Warwick in November.
The eight-year-old fell at the eighth fence when stepped up in class for the Henry VIII Novices’ Chase at Sandown, but bounced back to finish second to Edwardstone in the Wayward Lad last week.
With Scudamore keen to avoid a rematch with the winner, who is seemingly bound for the Kingmaker at Warwick, Do Your Job could instead bid for Grade Two honours at Doncaster on January 29.
Reflecting on his Kempton performance, the trainer said: “I was very pleased. He jumped well and travelled well and did everything right, he was just beaten by a better horse on the day.
“The main objective was a clear round really and maybe if we hadn’t fallen at Sandown we might have pressed on a bit more and made it more of a staying race.
“The most important thing was to get a clear round under his belt and get some more experience over fences for him.
“I think we’ll stick to novice races while we can and we might look to the race at Doncaster. That is what we have pencilled in at the moment, anyway.
“It would certainly be Plan A to try and avoid Edwardstone and I was very pleased to read he was going to go for the Kingmaker. Hopefully they stick to that plan!”
While Do Your Job looks set to remain in novice company on his next start, Scudamore admitted is considering a step into the handicap arena for the Grand Annual at Cheltenham – a race he won with Next Sensation in 2015.
He added: “I’m sure he’ll have an entry in that. He also ran very well at Aintree last year, so there’s that to consider as well.
“He looks like a horse that could have the right sort of profile for a Grand Annual and we’ll see nearer the time.
“In some ways it might make more sense to go for a handicap now, but as we saw at Kempton some of these novice events don’t have a lot of runners in them and there’s some decent prize-money on offer, so it seems silly to pass them over when you’ve only got one chance to run in them really.”
Lito Adiwang was booted out of ONE Championship strawweight rankings after coming up short against Jarred Brooks. ‘The Thunder Kid’ is already itching to step back inside the cage and hopes to fight a ranked fighter next.
Of the fighters in the ONE Championship strawweight division rankings, the 28-year-old Filipino seeks to score a date with No.2-ranked Yosuke Saruta.
“I want a big comeback. I still want a big name. I want to challenge Yosuke Saruta. Maybe if ONE allows it, and he wants it, then I’ll take it. Saruta is someone who I really want to test myself against,” said Adiwang in an interview with ONE Championship.
The 28-year-old admits it is a dangerous fight and a huge risk to take. The high-risk, high-reward scenario is something that Adiwang would like to take as he seeks to put his name back in the rankings again by beating a former champion.
“It’s a big risk for me because I’m coming off a loss, but I want a great comeback and a big name in my return so I don’t fall far off from the rankings.”
Lito Adiwang seeking for a better year in 2022 at ONE Championship
Adiwang now holds a professional record of 13-4 and has been competing in ONE Championship since October 2018. He won his first five fights before receiving his first loss against Koha Minowa via a split decision two years later.
The Benguet-based fighter had three fights in 2021. However, he also suffered his second loss in ONE Championship against Jarred Brooks.
Still in his prime, Adiwang goes back to the drawing board and seeks to polish his MMA skills in 2022.
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“I have to check my mistakes inside the Circle, but I also have to check my mistakes outside the Circle. It has to be a balance. Sometimes, I forget other personal obligations and those are the things that I have to work on. I have to balance things out based on last year. I have to correct this in 2022.”