Junior Hockey World Cup: Goalkeeper Bichu shows promise as a future guardian of India’s hopes

When Romen Singh Kharibam heard about his youngest daughter’s heroism during India’s U21 World Cup match on Sunday, he had a whiff of emotion that was unlike anything he had experienced before.

“I was in tears,” Kharibam says. “Ek Oanh mein khushi ka tha, ek dukh ka (in one eye there were tears of joy, in the other of sorrow).”

‘Khushi’, he says, because ‘Binchu’ – as they call her at home but known as Bichu in the hockey world – had shown why she is seen as the next big prospect in Indian hockey. ‘Dukh’ because he was not able to see her growing appearance. “No one in the family has actually seen her play. It is not affordable for the family to travel to see her play even in India. And we are not so tech-savvy to watch the games on the phone, ”says Romen, 52.

Had he seen her play, Kharibam would have understood the buzz around the 21-year-old goalkeeper and why she has been quickly tracked into the senior lineup.

Against Germany – a team ranked higher than India in the seniors and considered superior technically – Bichu’s acrobatics between the posts, her ability to stay in the right position to cover goal-scoring angles and her fearlessness to get her body behind Germany’s hard, assured cannonball-like shot a 2-1 win for India and thus a place in the quarter-finals.

It’s tempting to describe India’s performance as a one – woman show, but in truth it was not the way it unfolded. One of the hallmarks of the Indian senior women’s side over the last year or so has been that multiple players contribute to a win instead of just one prominent player, as sometimes happened in the past. The juniors seem to be following in their footsteps.

The back line – consisting of vice-captain Ishika Chaudhary, Baljeet Kaur, Lalramnghaki Marina and Akshata Dhekale – did their job by sucking in Germany’s relentless pressure, while skipper Salima Tete and senior India star Lalremsiami used their pace to give shock to India’s attacks.

Still, there were times on Sunday when it looked like one-on-11, especially in the final stages of the match, when Germany, in desperation to reduce a deficit by two goals, took their goalkeeper out for an extra outfielder .

Bichu made nine saves, each apparently better than the other. She, with the help of the defenders, blunted eight German penalty corner corners and displayed midway through the second quarter an incredible agility to dive right from a stationary position, swinging the stick to keep the ball out of a penalty kick.

Her ability – to move fast – was one of the reasons she was appointed goalkeeper a decade ago, just when she had come to the Sports Authority of India’s center as an intern, says Romen.

Bichu made nine saves, each apparently better than the other. (Credit: Hockey India)

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Hockey was not Bichu’s first choice. No one in her family practiced the sport – her father is a small farmer and older twin brothers work as drivers. Her village, Charangpat in Manipur’s Thoubal district, adds Rome, is full of peasants like him, while most others strive to join the security forces. There are some who play hockey, but no one had advanced to the state level.

Bichu, who made his senior debut in India earlier this year, was noted for his athletic abilities during the Yaoshang Festival, the week-long affair celebrated alongside Holi. “For five or six days during that week, several sporting events are held, and Binchu always participated in distance running, which she often won,” says Romen.

The secretary of a local club suggested that Bichu, who was in grade 7 at the time, enroll in the SAI Center, where she could use her skills better. After seeing how sport has been a tool for lifting people out of poverty, Rome immediately embraced the idea. But still, hockey was nowhere on their radar.

“We originally thought of boxing,” says Romen, adding that club leaders were also convinced that it would be a logical sport for her to practice. A straightforward choice, it might seem, given the sport’s popularity in Manipur, the accessibility and agility that Bichu had shown. But Rome says it had nothing to do with these factors.

“I wanted her to play an individual sport where her fate did not depend on others,” says Romen. “In team sports, even if you play a perfect game, there’s a chance you’re still paying the price for a mistake someone else might make.”

The technical staff at SAI felt different. Bichu, her father says, was selected on the basis of her endurance (“she survived other potential trainees when asked to run during their competitions”), and the coaches felt her agility and explosiveness would come in handy as a goalkeeper in hockey.

Rome let the coaches do their thing without interfering in sporting decisions once. His role, he was aware, was to create a support system that would not hinder Bichu’s progress. So he started doing small jobs to supplement his meager income from agriculture.

“There were times when I even had to borrow money for courier documents after she moved to an academy in Chandigarh,” Romen says. “It takes a lot to raise an athlete. Not just financial commitment, but also patience, especially when you have very little income and have to take care of four children.”

The Roma do not quite know how the family coped. “But it’s all worth it. She’s the only reason we live our lives with dignity,” says Romen. “I just wish I could see her play.”

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