Posted by Sarit Ray

After 36 years, the Indian women’s hockey team has qualified for the Olympics. And there is no better place to understand what that means than in Shahabad?—?a little highway town in Haryana that’s been the nursery of women’s hockey for over a decade.

How did we made it back? How did we find ourselves with a Olympics berth again? More importantly, where does this long, 36-year road back to the global stage begin? It begins in a sleepy little highway town off NH1.

The story of one academy, the so-called ‘Nursery of Indian women’s hockey’, is nothing short of a fairy-tale.

Three hours away from New Delhi, off National Highway 1, is the modest iron gate of the Shahabad Hockey Academy. Drive too fast and you’re likely to miss it. Inside, though, 70-odd girls practice on the lush AstroTurf of a hockey academy credited with consistently producing the most talented players in Indian women’s hockey.

Conversations in sleepy Shahabad invariably revolve around them, so much so that their rigorous twice-a-day, everyday hockey practice sessions are part of Shahabad’s routine. Thanks to this gruelling regime, an obscure Haryanvi town has produced 30 international women’s hockey players in the last 15 years. It’s an impressive statistic, one that stands testament to the sporting talent hidden in small-town India.

In a state with a notoriously skewed sex ratio, this is nothing short of a miracle.

“Those who would have never gone to Delhi are now going to America. Hockey also brought with it sports-quota government jobs. And as one batch of girls got fame and money, they served as role models for the next,” says Coach Baldev Singh.

 

Fame and money are, of course, relative. And unless the sport you play is cricket, the perks are small.

Consider, for instance, the case of Rani Rampal. The 18-year-old is India’s top striker, and was named in the International Hockey Federation’s All Star Team in 2010. To use an analogy would be to call her the Virat Kohli of Indian women’s hockey. But while Virat has a cool Rs 1 crore a year BCCI contract?—? endorsements and IPL aside ?— ?Rani’s job as an Indian Railways clerk in nearby Ambala earns her Rs 10,000 a month, besides a Rs 4,000 scholarship. 

Coach Baldev Singh doesn’t like media attention. He looks at us with a healthy measure of suspicion. The 62-year Dronacharya awardee runs the training academy like a military boot camp. A former player and men’s national team coach, he founded this academy and has run it since the mid-’80s. In Shahabad, this man has earned the respect reserved for the gods. This is because his efforts have turned these girls into celebrated heroes.
Coach Baldev Singh doesn’t like media attention. He looks at us with a healthy measure of suspicion. The 62-year Dronacharya awardee runs the training academy like a military boot camp. A former player and men’s national team coach, he founded this academy and has run it since the mid-’80s. In Shahabad, this man has earned the respect reserved for the gods. This is because his efforts have turned these girls into celebrated heroes.
The government-run school is the only one in Shahabad, and it shares a wall with the hockey academy. Here, the hockey-playing girls are the cool kids. “Rani didi” is the hero the kids look up to, and there’s a picture of her in a Team India jersey in the principal’s room, hung higher than the plaque with the school toppers’ names.
The government-run school is the only one in Shahabad, and it shares a wall with the hockey academy. Here, the hockey-playing girls are the cool kids. “Rani didi” is the hero the kids look up to, and there’s a picture of her in a Team India jersey in the principal’s room, hung higher than the plaque with the school toppers’ names.
Rani Rampal, India’s ace striker, lives in one of the most modest houses in the town. It’s just a room, really. and it is full of trophies, medals and badges that Rani has won at tournaments all over the world. Most of the medals hang off a portrait of Rani’s late grandfather who encouraged her to play. Right below it is a photograph of Rani with her childhood icon, Argentine midfielder Luciana Aymar. This wall is a microcosm of the Shahabad story.
Rani Rampal, India’s ace striker, lives in one of the most modest houses in the town. It’s just a room, really. and it is full of trophies, medals and badges that Rani has won at tournaments all over the world. Most of the medals hang off a portrait of Rani’s late grandfather who encouraged her to play. Right below it is a photograph of Rani with her childhood icon, Argentine midfielder Luciana Aymar. This wall is a microcosm of the Shahabad story.
Navneet Kaur is one of the youngest members of the Indian women’s squad. Her father, Buta Singh, runs a TV servicing shop. Singh played cricket as a kid. He says, “I didn’t understand anything about hockey until Navneet came back from school and said she wanted to play.”
Navneet Kaur is one of the youngest members of the Indian women’s squad. Her father, Buta Singh, runs a TV servicing shop. Singh played cricket as a kid. He says, “I didn’t understand anything about hockey until Navneet came back from school and said she wanted to play.”
It’s 5 am on a midsummer morning. Girls, aged seven to 17, ride in on bicycles. It’s time for the morning practice session. There will be one more in the evening. The daily ritual starts with them watering the ground with sprinklers, washing the balls in a little pool of water, and then starting exercise.
It’s 5 am on a midsummer morning. Girls, aged seven to 17, ride in on bicycles. It’s time for the morning practice session. There will be one more in the evening. The daily ritual starts with them watering the ground with sprinklers, washing the balls in a little pool of water, and then starting exercise.
Sports?—?such as wrestling, archery and kabaddi?—?has long been a modest ticket to a better life for small-town India. For the girls of Shahabad, that ticket is hockey. Jasjeet Kaur, 25, followed sister Rajwinder into hockey, and at 17, got a job with the Indian Railways. “If it wasn’t for hockey, I wouldn’t have a job, even if I’d been a brilliant student.”
Sports?—?such as wrestling, archery and kabaddi?—?has long been a modest ticket to a better life for small-town India.
For the girls of Shahabad, that ticket is hockey. Jasjeet Kaur, 25, followed sister Rajwinder into hockey, and at 17, got a job with the Indian Railways.
“If it wasn’t for hockey, I wouldn’t have a job, even if I’d been a brilliant student.”
Twelve-year-old Udham Singh has taken a knock to the head from a stray, powerfully hit ball. The seniors check for serious injuries. But the only consolation Udham now gets, silent tears streaming down his face, ice pack clutched to his head, is: “Sher ko chot nahi lagti (A tiger doesn’t show pain)”.
Twelve-year-old Udham Singh has taken a knock to the head from a stray, powerfully hit ball. The seniors check for serious injuries. But the only consolation Udham now gets, silent tears streaming down his face, ice pack clutched to his head, is: “Sher ko chot nahi lagti (A tiger doesn’t show pain)”.

If you prefer text over images, read the same story in long form here: Inside Shahabad: The Nursery of Indian Women’s Hockey Where Stars Are Born

Sarit Ray edits the lifestyle supplement, HT48Hours at Hindustan Times, Mumbai. He tweets as @saritray2001. All images belong to the writer and photographer Sarit Ray

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