India will be playing a two-legged Olympic qualifier against U.S. in Bhubaneswar to earn their place at the Tokyo Olympics on Friday and Saturday. However, striker Vandana Katariya believes they should never have needed to play these qualifiers.
That's because Vandana had two chances to score in India's 2-1 defeat against Japan in the Asian Games final in Jakarta last August -- the first, saved by an inspired Megumi Kageyama in goal for Japan, came minutes after Vandana's counter attack had set up a Neha Goyal equaliser.
Closer to full-time, a pass down the middle had Vandana and her captain Rani Rampal bearing down on goal, but neither player was able to control the ball, as gold slipped out of India's grasp, and with it, automatic qualification as continental champions.
"We should have won gold, and I should have scored that goal. It stayed on my mind and gave me sleepless nights," Vandana would tell ESPN this January. "Some of the senior players like Savita [goalkeeper Savita Punia] and Rani reminded me this happens in sport. They said it could not have been my fault alone, because it depends eventually on the entire team."
A virtual regular in the Indian team since her debut on a tour of Italy in August 2007 at the age of 15, Bhubaneswar represents Vandana's best chance to bury any unpleasant memories of Indonesia. Those that have played alongside her and coached her know she will not take a backward step.
Vandana was one of eight children born to Nahar Singh Katariya, himself a wrestler, and spent her early years in Roshanabad near Haridwar, and then Meerut. "It's a backward village, and all the neighbours used to say, 'ladki hai, baahar mat bhejo (she's a girl, don't let her step outside)'. There were people who doubted me, but my father's support was always there," recalls Vandana, who didn't know until recently that while her father wanted all the children to pursue sport, her parents had to forego certain comforts to ensure that young Vandana had access to camps and training.
As with most sportspersons from Uttar Pradesh, dedication to the sport only began when she enrolled at the Government Sports Hostel in Lucknow in 2006, and in six months, she found perfect role models in national team campers, who were always popular among their peers. One of them -- midfielder Deepika Thakur -- was Vandana's hero and went on to play alongside her for a full decade. Incidentally, her 2007 debut makes Vandana the earliest member of the current team to have put on an India jersey, a few months before Rani.
A snapshot of the next eight years or so perhaps tells the story of both Vandana the player, and India as a team in women's hockey. They were peerless when pitted against weaker opposition, racking up big score lines with players scoring for fun, but failed to step up against bigger teams like Australia, Netherlands, England or Argentina.
Teams like U.S., Japan, China and South Korea also caused them problems. When India qualified for the Olympics in 2016, their appearance in Rio - after a 36-year hiatus - began with a 2-2 draw against Japan, but then they lost four in a row, scoring just once and conceding 17. That included a 3-0 defeat to U.S.
Going into the Olympics, coach Neil Hawgood had called Vandana an "exciting talent" whose "emotion and passion" had to be tempered. "If she gets on a roll, you can't stop her, and our job is to get her on that roll for as long as we possibly can," he would say.
That momentum just never came to be -- not just for Vandana, but for the rest of her teammates too.
Since the Rio Olympics, things have fallen in place for the Indian women, most of it through careful planning and some through happenstance.
For instance, when they face up to U.S. for the first of two matches on November 1, 10 of the 18 Indian players will be the same who went to Rio, while the Americans will have just three players from the 16-member squad they had in 2016.
Under coaches Sjoerd Marijne and briefly Harendra Singh, India have become a fitter team as well. Vandana herself has evolved massively as a player in these three years.
"When we came in, we used to be fearless. Dodge maarna hai, ball khelna hai, try maarni hai (The idea was to dodge, keep possession and go for a try myself)," she says. "Now with experience, you learn to play other players in, and teach other players things. If you are inside the circle, you need not always shoot at goal -- sometimes winning a penalty corner is good enough."
Vandana has also added versatility to her game. When she started off, she principally preferred playing down the left, cutting inside to her forehand side to create scoring opportunities. Marijne and Harendra have employed her more often on the right, and even in deeper positions.
It helps that the current team has younger strikers like Lalremsiami, Sharmila Devi, Navneet Kaur -- each of whom brings different qualities to complement Rani and Vandana, according to Marijne -- and that allows the two senior attacking players to set up games more often. Marijne also arranged for former Australian striker Glenn Turner to spend some time with the forwards at the beginning of the year, and he gave them tips on how to work with space in congested areas on the field, and the importance of making eye contact without calling out when moving forward in attack.
Harendra observes that Vandana has also improved significantly in her tackling, which automatically makes the Indian team a more difficult side to break down than before.
India missed playing the Pro League this year, but the team's form in 2019 has been encouraging -- a recent drawn series away to Olympic champions Great Britain (only three of five matches were official) came after victories in the FIH Series Finals in Hiroshima, and the Olympic Test event, both at the expense of Japan in the final.
A constant presence in the Indian squads, through thick and thin, has been the slight frame of Vandana. She is probably not scoring as often as she once used to, but that has given way to consistency in varied roles across the pitch.
"What stand out are her self-confidence and her philosophy of playing for the team," says Harendra. "She's got very good speed, and puts in the hard yards on the pitch.
"Don't go by physical appearances -- she's a fighter."