The sight of Rani Rampal darting past opposition defenders to score a goal or create an opportunity in the striking circle was a regular one for her teammates over the years.
Ever since her debut in 2009, the forward has carried the mantle of the Indian women’s hockey team on her shoulders, guiding the team through several major events in her 13-year-old long journey on the artificial turf. The venue and colour of the pitch kept changing but Rani’s role as the nucleus and pillar of the team didn’t.
Each time the team appeared to be in trouble after conceding a goal, it was Rani who often provided the spark, that burst of energy which re-energised the outfit. It was the same spark that ignited India’s hot run at the Tokyo Olympics.
But Rani’s hamstring issue, coupled with some other injuries, has kept the 27-year-old on the bench for almost a year. She made a comeback last month against Belgium—her 250th international—but the striker was rested for the rest of the European leg of Pro League matches.
“We are monitoring her progress. She’s not able to play consecutive matches. She has to work on her fitness. As a player you want to participate in key tournaments. I know she’s working really hard to get back but it was the hamstring after Tokyo and then there were a minor setback in April with some other muscle related injuries,” said India chief coach Janneke Schopman.
Due to the injury, Rani missed out on the bronze medal-winning performances at the Asia Cup and Pro League (barring that one match). And now, she’s been left out of the squad for the World Cup as well as the Commonwealth Games—the first time Rani will miss out on major events after she became a regular in the Indian team.
“As a player you want to be fit and healthy. She’s working really hard to get there. I am trying to give her the opportunity to get her to where she wants to go. Unfortunately, time ran out and the World Cup was too close by,” said Schopman. “I don’t know (when she’s going to make a comeback). For me it is very hard to do predictions. I want to give her the opportunity to do what she loves—that’s playing hockey. When you’re a player you want to play but your body is not doing what you want it to. It’s very frustrating. But it is what it is.”
And it isn’t easy for the team either. Rani would draw defenders, she would make runs and was physically stronger than her teammates. In essence, she would make things easier for those around her. But with her missing, the team has to work that much harder.
“Of course, it (Rani’s absence) can be troublesome for the team. She is an experienced player. It was a good time when he played together,” said Vandana Katariya, who has worked in tandem and shared the forward line in more than 200 internationals with Rani.
But since Rani has been away for close to a year, the team has slowly gotten used to playing without her, trying out different players and tactics in national camps and tournaments. The results in the Pro League show that the solutions have perhaps helped them bridge the gap but in the big moments, against the big teams, Rani’s presence will be missed. For now, though, it is just another challenge that this Indian team will have to overcome.