For all those who regard Haryana and Indian villages as merely hotbeds of toxic misogyny and patriarchy, the story of Savita, the veteran custodian of Indian goal-post in women's hockey provides a much-needed corrective.
In this exclusive interview with Akshay Saraswat of International Business Times, India, the Jat lass reveals her incredible story of turning from a shy teenager with no knowledge of hockey to an Arjuna Award-winning goalkeeper of the national side.
For hockey fans of your age-group, the Indian women's team's victory in the 2002 Commonwealth Games and 2004 Asia Cup were very memorable events. Were you also inspired by them to take up hockey, especially, since many players in that team were from your state, Haryana?
Savita: I was aware of the Indian team winning the medal because my father had knowledge of sports. But I had absolutely no interest at that time and had no knowledge of hockey since I belonged to a village. Also, I wasn't from a modern family but a middle-class family so we didn't get to watch that much television. My mother's health was also not good so most of my time after school was spent in helping her.
Then how did you get involved with hockey?
Savita: I belong to a village called Jodhka in Haryana's Sirsa district. In 2003, the brother of a football coach who used to train youngsters some distance away from our place, came to our house. He informed us that trials are about to take place for a sports nursery – in those days government organised sports nurseries to train youngsters – and asked my parents whether they would like to send their kids to it. It was around one year after my mother's health started deteriorating due to arthritis and she had to be on complete bed rest. So, my parents decided to send me to the trials, away from home, as they thought I would get stuck at home and won't become anything otherwise.
At that nursery, there were three sports being played – Judo, badminton and hockey. First, the physical trial took place. I went through it while wearing salwar suit and fleet shoes as I didn't know much about running at the time.
But I chose hockey because of my grandfather. In my house, girls are very highly respected and loved because of my grandfather. There was no discrimination against girls. If anything, girls were given preference. He had, in his time, seen hockey matches in Delhi. He had told us about hockey. So, when we told him that there are three sports available at the nursery, his wish was that I should play hockey.
It was in 2004 that the trials took place. In the beginning, I didn't know the ABCD of hockey. So, first, you have to learn the basics. It was at the end of 2005 that I turned into a goalkeeper.
How did that come about?
Savita: I had absolutely no knowledge of hockey. But in my family, everyone, including my father, possess good height. When my father came to meet me, my coach said that if you want to see your daughter play for India soon, then I will have to make her a goalkeeper. But you will have to buy the goalkeeping kit. My father felt that nothing could be better than his daughter playing for the country. But I strongly insisted that I don't want this kit because, I felt, at that time, that I would return home after 1-2 years.
Initially, I was very happy to come to the camp because it was in a city. My father's sister used to live in a city and whenever we visited her, it would make me very happy. So, I was very excited to move to the city from the village.
But then, once I had moved, I was feeling very homesick. I used to get to talk to my family only once in a week, on Friday. I used to cry while talking to my mother and tell her that I am not feeling happy and want to return. But when my father purchased the kit for me, it was a huge burden. Earlier, we used to buy clothes just once in a year. So, to suddenly buy a kit worth Rs 18,000 put pressure on me. I would think, "Why has my father invested so much money on me?" If I had interest in this game, it still would have been fine as I could have earned a return for him. But, I didn't even have interest in hockey at that time!
But this act of my father brought about a change of mind in me and I felt that I have to stay here and achieve something. I spent two years at the academy situated in Maharaja Agrasen senior secondary school in Sirsa. My coach, Sunder Singh Kharab, made the decision that he would make me a goalkeeper. Then I was under the tutelage of Azad Singh Malik at Sports Authority of India (SAI) centre at Hissar. Though he wasn't a coach of SAI but of a university, still we used to train under him.
Did you have any role models that you looked up to after becoming a goalkeeper?
Savita: No, not at all. As I said, when I first joined the camp, there were seven goalkeepers there. I used to feel very happy training with them. It was there that I came to know of the value of an Indian player and felt very happy.
I was also, always, deeply attached to my family and ours was a joint family. Unfortunately, we were going through a very bad time as my uncle and my mother expired and there was a great deal of sadness in our house. I felt that if, because of me, there is happiness on their face – especially my grandfather was feeling very happy – that is great.
It was after 2009 that I finally realised the value of a goalkeeper. Before that, we only knew of Mamta Kharab didi (former India captain) because in Haryana, she and Surender Kaur were the most well-known players. Since Mamta Kharab is a Jat and I am also a Jat, she was talked about in our house. My family members would ask whether I would be able to succeed like her.
Since you are among the senior-most players in the team, have you been given the responsibility to guide youngsters?
Savita: Absolutely. We are given that responsibility but it's also something that comes naturally. Of course, I and Rani (team captain) have been asked to play that role. Our coach is very supportive on this front. He believes that while Rani is the captain in the team, I should look after the second group of younger players so that she can take care of the junior-most members of the squad.
The sense of responsibility comes by itself because when we were junior in the team, we knew how our seniors could boost our confidence and motivate us. So, we know, if somebody isn't able to play well or has a weakness, how to treat them. Rather than going up to a player and saying: "you have this, this and this flaw."
There is a better way in which you can talk to them nicely and explain that this part of your game is good but that could be made better. Our current coach has also paid a lot of attention to this. Earlier, what used to happen is there was too much criticism. What that automatically leads to is less focus on what is good in a player and more on her weaknesses. Even in our psychology class, we are taught how we can communicate without hurting someone. We have to say the same thing but our way of saying should be such that the morale remains high. Even if we say something strong during a match, after the game is over, we sort that thing out quickly so that the player doesn't feel herself insulted.
Since me and Rani are senior players, vice-captain and captain respectively, we have to guide the whole team. But we have other senior players as well. For example, Nikki Pradhan, Monika, Deep Grace Ekka, etc. It's their responsibility also to watch over youngsters.
Last year, your team lost the World Cup quarterfinal against Ireland in a penalty shootout. The entire team, according to Rani, was deeply saddened. For you, it must have been even more painful since the match ended in a shootout.
Savita: Indeed. Because prior to that match, whenever a game went to the shootout, we would usually win it – maybe due to luck or benefit of experience. In a shootout, luck is also a factor. You may be having a good day or a bad day. That was certainly a bad day. Those two days, our morale was so down and I had such strong negative thoughts that my body pained. I personally felt that everything is finished for me. Also, my coaches really trust me, whether it is Bharat Chhetri or Sjoerd sir. So, while I play first for the country, I play for them also. That's because after the 2016 Olympics, I had felt that my career is over. My performance in that event wasn't what it should have been as a goalkeeper. But, under Sjoerd sir, since 2017, when I played again, I realized that playing as a goalkeeper is so great. You can enjoy it so much!
Did you get weighed down by pressure in the match against Ireland, since it was a World Cup knockout game?
Savita: Pressure is always there but with experience, you learn how to handle it. Still, whenever it comes to shootouts, the focus is entirely on goalkeeper as she needs to make the save for her team to win. So, yes, those thoughts are there in the mind. But, as I told you, this wasn't the first time we were in this situation. We had won in the Asia Cup through a shootout and had also qualified for the 2016 Olympics in 2015 by beating Italy in a shootout.
The only thing I can say is that, of course, there is pressure. But with experience, we can remove the word 'pressure' from the mind. We had undergone a lot of training before that game. So, there was confidence and we believed we could win. Unfortunately, that didn't happen.
In the Asian Games final, one of the two goals that your team conceded was through a very unique penalty-corner variation. Were you left surprised by that?
Savita: No. With the Japanese team, we knew that they don't use drag-flickers that much. They have good variations. We were well-prepared and, on that day, we played really good hockey as well. But our PC defence wasn't very good. Still, every experience is a lesson and we have to take that lesson and go forward. That opportunity isn't going to come back.
It was the same in the recent FIH Series Finals final. We knew that Japan would use variations more and were prepared for that and ended up being successful.
The next big tournament is the Olympics next year. Have you already started preparing for it, at least in terms of mental preparedness?
Savita: Indeed. Since the start of this year, our body language and our coach's meetings with the team and his preparations are aimed at the Olympics. In a way, all of us are keenly waiting for playing in the 2020 Olympics. 2016 Rio was a very bad experience for all of us. You can call it a bad experience or maybe, a case of getting over-excited due to being on that stage for the first time. As a team, our game was so good that we shouldn't have done that badly.
Presently, our coach and our trainer, Wayne Lombard, have worked a lot on our fitness, strength and basic hockey skills. So, our strengths – PC attack and defence – is what we focus on.
As a goalkeeper, you must be happy with the new system of penalty shootouts as it gives the goalkeeper a better chance. How much do you practice for that?
Savita: A lot. Usually, it's part of our training. Today, it's an 'easy day' for players. On such days, we do some basic training, then penalty corner attack and defence practice, and then shootout practice in the end. So, in a week, we have penalty shootout training on three days. But in recent times, we have worked even harder on this aspect of the game because we have a very good side. It doesn't matter which team we are facing, we have the strength to take the game to a draw and therefore, a penalty shootout.
You mentioned psychologist. In penalty shootouts, you could often face situations where you have to stop your opponent from scoring, otherwise, your team would lose. How do you deal with such situations mentally?
Savita: Yes, in all these things, psychologists provide a lot of help. But as an experienced player, you are likely to have faced such a situation before, so you can easily get out of it. For instance, in the 2016 Olympics, it was my first appearance at that event. Perhaps, there was more pressure on me.
Even though, we have to play the same as any other tournament, the name of the event changes the state of your mind. But I have always said that experience teaches you everything. The more experience you have, next time you are in the same situation, you can easily handle it while being calm.
You have played hockey for so long. In all these years, who are the goalkeepers that have impressed you the most?
Savita: Well, among women, if you talk about two years ago, I really used to like Maddie Hinch and her game. And among men, I have always admired Sreejesh bhaiya and also Jaap Stockmann (of Netherlands). In today's time, every goalkeeper is very good. In years gone by, only a few teams had goalkeepers who were top-class. But these days, the standard of goalkeeping has really gone up, in every team, be it men's or women's.
And who is the most difficult striker that you have faced in your career?
Savita: There are some very good strikers in the Netherlands team but we haven't had too many matches against them. Even Argentina have strikers who possess great skills like Indians do.
Currently, I feel very happy looking at our team. Earlier, our attack was anyway good but Sjoerd sir has focussed a lot on defence as well. We are as focussed on defence as we are on attacking. Defence isn't just the four people standing at the back. Defence starts from the striker's line and also includes mid-field.
So, it's easier for the goalkeeper. Now we know which ball we need to come out to and charge and which ball we should remain still against. We also know what the position of our defenders is. For example, in the World Cup – such a big tournament – was something only a few of our players had played in before. For most, it was their first World Cup because. Despite that, we conceded only 2-3 goals in the tournament. That was also due to good defence.
You mentioned the great support you got from your family. Is Haryana a leading state in sports because there is great passion for it among the general populace?
Savita: Absolutely. I can say that even though I don't know much, in Haryana, people believe in sending their girls out as well, not just the boys. Of course, there are families which may put restrictions upon their daughters, whether it's related to their dress or their going out of the house. But in current times, many people have changed their mind-set and don't consider their daughters inferior to boys. In many cases, the government also lends great help. Haryana government gives good rewards to the players. Everybody wants their child's future to be secure and sports provides good jobs and cash awards. So, everybody seems to be changing their mind.