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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.

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.”
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.”

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