IN less than 24 hours starting Sunday evening, a desperate search that had lasted for decades ended in Tokyo — not once but twice. On Sunday, the Indian men’s team entered the semifinals of the Olympic Games for the first time since 1972; on Monday, the women’s team made it to the semis too, for the first time. Thus, for the first time since 1980, India’s hockey teams of both genders are guaranteed a finish among the top four. India’s men had won gold in the 1980 Moscow Olympics, when the women had finished fourth.
The Indian women deserve praise for beating the formidable Australians, who had won all five of their preliminary matches in Group B. India had barely made it to the quarterfinals, with only two wins in five matches in Group A. However, after losses to the Netherlands, Germany and Great Britain, the women showed great character in winning the last two matches to remain in contention. Against Australia on Monday, they had a mountain to climb — the Aussies had scored 13 goals in the group stage and conceded only one and were expected to dominate India. Australia started on a strong footing, too, but India replied in the same coin. Soon after three fine saves by goalkeeper Savita, India earned a penalty corner and Gurjit Kaur scored — making it 1-0 in the 22nd minute. At half-time, India had had greater ball-possession and only two circle penetrations less than Australia. The Australians came back hard, but the Indian defence line stood firm, and Savita was outstanding. The Haryana girl made an astonishing nine saves — seven off penalty shots and two off field attempts. Maintaining a clean sheet against Australia is a very fine achievement indeed.
Since the men’s team failed to qualify for the 2008 Olympics, persistent attempts have been made to rejuvenate hockey; one notable contribution has come from Odisha, which has set up excellent sporting infrastructure in Bhubaneswar, hosted top tournaments and has also been the sponsor of the national teams for the last few years. A medal in Tokyo would be fine payback for the lover and backers of hockey in India.