The year was 2002. The Commonwealth Games were on in Manchester, England. A nail-biting hockey final was being played out between the women’s hockey teams of favourites England and underdog India. England had defeated the reigning world and Olympic champions Australia to reach the final. India had come from nowhere to defeat stronger teams like New Zealand, South Africa and South Korea to meet England for the decisive match on England’s home ground.

Picture the scene now. Hosts England play a fast game from the word go – “attacking” game as sportswriters put it. But the first goal is scored by Indian striker Mamta Kharab in the first half. Then Sita Gossain scores one more goal. India is jubilant. However, before the first half ends, a determined England captain Sarah Banks puts in a goal.

As the second half begins, England’s Jene Smith scores a goal. England and India are tied at 2-2 and they remain so till the end of the second half. The match has to go into extra time. The excitement is unbearable.

As extra time starts, England looks very dangerous and it seems will score the goal that will make it the winner of the tournament. One especially forceful shot is saved just in time by the slim built Mamta Kharab in front of the goal.

Then, as the first session of extra time is about to end, India is awarded a penalty corner. Striker Mamata Kharab pushes the ball and Sita Gossain hits it powerfully. England’s goalkeeper dives and stops it. At the same time the ball falls out of her hands and an alert Mamta pushes it in. The Indian women’s hockey team has won its first ever gold medal in the Commonwealth Games with a 3-2 win! For those who have watched Chak De! Does this sound familiar?

In the 2006 Commonwealth Games, reigning champions India lost to hosts Australia and secured a silver medal. But the Indian women’s hockey team had the distinction of being the only team to score against Australia in the entire competition. A team that most competitors refer to as a super race from outer space!

The latest news is that well known Netherlands coach Herman Kruis is going to train the current Indian women’s hockey team, to prepare it for the prestigious Asia Cup in September 2007, not to mention the Beijing Olympics next year. Kruis was the chief coach of the Dutch national indoor team that won the World Cup in Vienna this year (hockey played indoors in cold countries as opposed to field hockey that we are all familiar with and refer to as simply hockey). Kruis recently watched Chak De! India with the Indian women’s national hockey team training in Lucknow.

Truly stars of the game

The star of the 2002 win was 20-year-old Mamta Kharab with the never say die spirit. Mamta was born in a very ordinary family in Givan village, near Rohtak town in Haryana. She was the sixth girl child in a family that was supported on her father’s school teacher’s meagre salary. Mamta’s mother told Frontline magazine that they had thought of naming Mamta Ram Bhatheri. It is a common name in families with many girls and few sons.
Mamta’s elder sisters Sushma and Poonam showed the way by playing hockey at the national level. But Mamta’s success as the golden girl of Indian hockey has ensured that the family has finally been able to build a house of its own.

The fact that Mamta and fellow players from Haryana and Punjab have been able to make a mark is very important. In both these states girls are not seen as equal to boys in society. People want to have sons, not daughters.

Bravehearts from the tribal regions

Take a bet about the kind of names you will find in the national level women’s hockey team. There will be some names from Punjab and Haryana, a few from some other states.

But a large number of musical sounding names tell a story that is always ignored whenever we talk about India’s achievements. For these names belong to sportswomen from the tribal regions of Jharkhand, Orissa, Chhattisgarh and the north-eastern states. In many of these areas there is great poverty and not enough facilities for even basic things like water and education, let alone sports. The rest of the country does not know, and does not want to know, anything about people from these areas.

Some of the well known players from Jharkhand and Orissa in recent times have been Jyoti Sunita Kullu, Sumrai Tete, Marystella Tirkey, Helen Soy, Adeline Kerketta, Ferdina Ekka, Masira Surin, Annarita Kerketta, Binita Toppo, Binita Xess, Asunta Lakra, Suniti Kispotta and Poonam Toppo. Surja Waikhom from Manipur captained the gold medal winning side at the Commonwealth Games of 2002, while Samggai Chanu of the same state has showed her talents time and again. Sumrai Tete of Jharkhand captained the team at the Melbourne Commonwealth Games last year.

What is the secret of success of these women from tribal areas? Well, the tribes of Manipur have been playing a game very similar to hockey for hundreds of years. It is called Khong Kangjei and is played with curved cane sticks and a ball made of bamboo root. Sometimes wrestling too is part of the game. Secondly, physical activity has always been central to the lives of tribals surrounded by nature. They have always placed great importance on doing things together – like folk dances and team games. Of course, some are always better than the others but their societies were never divided into those who play and those who don’t. So, despite the lack of facilities, tribal regions always throw up great talent. The challenge is to nurture it properly.

The secret of success of hockey players from Punjab and nearby states is also interesting. The British introduced the game of modern hockey in the army. Areas from where the British Indian army recruited its soldiers developed an interest in hockey. So players from Punjab have dominated Indian hockey for a long time.

Make your map of India with a hockey stick

Among the list of probables for the Asia Cup in September are names that will now seem familiar to us. Would you be able to draw a map of India from these names?

• Goal-keeper: Marita Tirkey, Poonam Toppo and Jasdeep Kaur

• Defenders: Suman Bala, Rajwinder Kaur, Nilima Kujur and Binita Toppo

• Mid-fielders: Mukta P. Barla, Asunta Lakra, Subhadra Pradhan, Ranjita Devi and Joydeep Kaur

• Forwards: Saba Anjum, Surinder Kaur, Kirandeep Kaur, Mamta Kharab, A. Manorama Devi, Rosalind Ralte, Anuradha Devi, Jasjeet Kaur, Deepika Thakur, Ritu Rani, Rijuta Mullick and Binita Xess

Most of these players have been given jobs by big government organisations like Railways as well as private companies. Many of these sportswomen are often the support their families have. However, only those players who play at a national level get benefits in cash and kind. But these benefits are nowhere near the awards and rewards that Indian cricketers get on winning tournaments.

All the more is it necessary to tell all the brave women who have played their hearts out, Chak De! Women.