Rani Rampal’s treatment shows lingering 'sickness' in Indian hockey
Keeping this modern Indian hockey legend out of the team without giving a reason reflects poorly on coach Janneke Schopmann and HI president Dilip Tirkey
If what has happened in Indian hockey over the last two years – the utter and total banishment, the cold shouldering of an all-time great – had happened in Indian men’s cricket, apocalypse would have arrived. Prime-time TV hollering, social media bedlam, emotional editorials, questions in parliament, ex-players calling for heads to be sent rolling around Eden Gardens.
When I say all-time great, this is not IPL legend, multi-format beast, or two-season flavour essence. This is 24-karat great in GOAT letters, one among “are very, very few of that calibre, their kind don’t come out every day”. What if that athlete of that quality is denied game time, kept on the sidelines and then edged out of a rough cut of even 33 best players in the country.
It’s basically like saying that Sachin Tendulkar was left out of a core group of 33 probables for a big event because of an injury that required that he took a break from the game about, oh, 24 months previous.
It is what has happened to former India women’s hockey captain Rani Rampal; without notice, communication or a squeak over the last two years. Tendulkar is being channelled here to place athletic quality under discussion in context.
Rani has 254 international caps and scored 130 goals, more than any other Indian woman player. But she is not only about the caps and goals – the quote above is former India captain Viren Rasquinha talking about Rani’s calibre. “Playing for the country, they are all good players. But players who transcend the game are very, very few.” In Indian women’s hockey, Rani is transcendent, at this point in history its greatest.
Her skills are technical and spatial. Along with sublime control over movement, tempo and position on the pitch, she has calmness and presence in crisis. In India’s first-ever medal match at a junior World Cup, Rani scored three goals – in regulation, penalty shoot-out and sudden death – versus England. With Rio 2016 qualification on the line versus Japan, she was there in Antwerp and the women were at the Olympics after 36 years. In a clutch group game at 2018 CWG for a semi-final spot. Stopping a resurgent United States in the Tokyo Games qualifier. At the Olympics, she provided the crucial late assist that was deflected in by Navneet Kaur in the must-win game against Ireland.
Rani would make it to every list of India’s modern hockey legends. She will be 29 in December and knows her career is near its end. Post Tokyo’s emotional fourth place, rather than work with her to plan the best kind of goodbye, for the last two years Rani has been systematically excised from the team. She played one of six matches on India’s European leg of the FIH Pro League last June, was left out of the World Cup and the Birmingham CWG squads with coach Janneke Schopmann saying Rani was “not fully recovered from injury rehabilitation”.
We do not know if Schopmann had a chat with Sjoerd Marijne, who coached the women’s team at Tokyo, to get his opinion about the time left for Rani and other senior players en route to Paris 2024. Schopmann had joined Marijne’s support unit as analytical coach in January 2020.
Last October, Rani led Haryana to victory in the National Games, scoring 18 goals, with the entire Indian squad playing across teams. But she still didn’t make the team for December’s Nations Cup. At the time, Schopmann said, “I don't necessarily like to talk about individual players and why they are not in the squad… I pick the team that is competitive and right now the best fit to perform to the best of their abilities. The emphasis is on 'right now'…."
Rani went on the South Africa tour in January, playing four matches against the hosts, scoring three goals, and two of three matches versus Netherlands. In April, after playing six matches across two years, she was cut from a list of 33 probables and asked to leave the camp.
During this time, Rani didn’t say a word. Then, during the men’s Asian Champions League in Chennai this month, introduced as one of two coaches/mentors at an India sub-juniors camp, she was asked whether the new position meant retirement. She said no. “Whatever happened with me wasn’t right in the last two years… I came back from an injury, was top-scorer at the National Games but wasn’t picked. The best person who can answer this is the chief coach or the selectors because I don't know the answer.”
Two days later, she was not among the Asian Games probables of 34 too. A sign that for everything that is seen as upbeat around Indian hockey, there remains an old, familiar sickness. What was once badly broken – the lack of respect for champion players, which HI president and Dilip Tirkey (412 India caps) has himself experienced – has not been mended.
Much gossip has circulated in the meantime – a group of senior players don’t want to play with Rani. That Rani doesn’t fit into Schopmann’s plans. That Rani’s body is not fit for top-flight hockey. None of this is new in elite sport. All of it can be fixed. If the senior group doesn’t want to play with Rani, the coach has to call everyone in, tell them to grow up. On elite sports teams, like an office, you don’t have to love your colleagues. Just get together and get the job done. If Rani’s body is not deemed fit for top-flight hockey, then she has to undertake a fitness test – if she doesn’t make minimum standards then everyone is clear.
If the coach doesn’t want Rani in the team, by repeatedly denying her on-field opportunities, Schopmann doesn’t come across as objective or fair. The smartest coaches know how to make the best talent work for their plans; Rani’s is a once-in-a-generation talent with the added richness of a lifetime’s experience. To find no use for either in what is a short span of time is a sign of extraordinary short-sightedness.
Rather than trying to push Rani out of the sport, Schopmann would have done better by sitting her down on day one and working out how her plans and Rani’s remaining ambition can be put into sync. Some of Hockey India’s selection panel of 17 (with a quorum of 3) should also have been a part of this discussion. The game is bigger than the individual etc., but if the individual involved is the best your game has ever produced, then the least you can do is show them basic respect.
There is another stinker piece of gossip going around. That there are many, up and down the Indian hockey ladder, who are annoyed at the media attention Rani gets. Whoever is chomping down on those bitter almonds is digesting many morsels of pettiness, insecurity and envy. While Rani can’t solve that problem, its solution is simple. As Megan Rapinoe says, be better.