How Lalremsiami fought language barriers to become India's rising star

Lalremsiami celebrates a goal with her teammates. Hockey India

One of Lalremsiami's most precious possessions is tucked between her clothes in the cupboard. It's not a hockey stick, or a medal or a family photograph; it's a Hindi-Mizo dictionary, which helps her negotiate the difficult world of the Indian national hockey team.

Fondly called 'Siami' by teammates, the teenage forward was one of the brightest spots in her side's runners-up finish at the Asian Champions Trophy in Donghae, Korea over the weekend. In a total of 31 minutes she spent on the field across five matches, Siami scored two goals, including the equalizer in the crucial final round-robin match, winning the tournament's 'U-21 rising star award' for her effort.

It wasn't an easy start for Siami, who began playing the sport in school. Originally from Kolasib, around 80 kms away from state capital Aizawl, she spent five years at the Thenzawl hockey training centre before moving to the national academy in New Delhi in 2016. "I didn't know Hindi or English. All I could say was my own name," says the 18-year old. "But now my Hindi is a little better and my teammates help me in breaking down words and understanding concepts. As long as they're talking about hockey I can try to catch up but once the discussion moves to other topics, I go completely blank."

The feeling that language was holding her back stung Siami the hardest during the Asia Cup in November last year. It was the team's first major tournament under former coach Harendra Singh. He'd reeled off a batch of instructions during half-time, unaware that the team's youngest member had not understood a word. "I'd told the girls to go for a full press (closing down all passing options for the opposition). Siami nodded, went into the field and did the exact opposite of what I'd asked her to do. We ended up conceding a penalty corner and I was furious. Once she came off the field I gave her a piece of my mind. It was only after the other girls in the team told me that I got to know that she didn't have a good grasp over Hindi."

To circumvent the language obstacle, Harendra, under whom she also played the Commonwealth Games, then started using bullet points and gestures to convey what he wanted her to do on the field. And she quickly latched on. "She's a very intelligent girl. When she doesn't understand something she'll just smile. That's our surest signal that we need to simplify and explain further."

Harendra picking out team captain Rani Rampal as her roommate also helped turn things around. "I think Siami has the best retackling in the team," says Rani. "Just seeing her work so hard pushes me to do even more. In many ways she reminds me of my own early days in the sport and joining the senior team when I was just 15."

'In every way she's a complete player'

As Siami swiftly picked up Gurjit Kaur's dragflick that had rebounded off the goalkeeper's pads, and flicked it into the goal, watching it with a certain sense of pride back home was the man who foresaw the day -- junior women's coach Baljit Singh Saini.

"Very few players would have picked up that rebound like Siami did," Saini told ESPN. "I first noticed Siami on a visit to the national hockey academy in New Delhi two years ago. Because all she knew was Mizo, I got one the girls from her state in the senior camp to attend our meetings, sit beside her and relay to me what she said. I picked her for a couple of camps, after which she made the squad for the Under-18 Asian Youth Olympic Games qualifier and was one of my best players." India finished runners-up behind China in the tournament, with Lalremsiami scoring seven goals in five matches. "She's a fast learner and one of the very few strikers who's also a brilliant first defender. In every way she's a complete player and hopefully she'll again be a part of my squad for the Junior Women's World Cup."

Saini has great belief in the teen's future and he was in fact one of the first people she dialed after she'd learnt with disbelief and a faint heart of being picked for the Commonwealth Games. "During the junior camps I would encourage her to speak whatever little Hindi she could manage. It was hilarious but I had given out strict instructions to all the other girls to never laugh when she tried to speak. Most players from the north-eastern region are skillful and physically fit, but lack tactical knowledge. Language barrier holds them back from asking questions and that affects their growth in the sport. But Siami was willing to fight her biggest fear and that's what's brought her so far. I can tell you if she grows at this pace she's definitely captaincy material for the future."

These days, Siami refers to her Mizo-Hindi dictionary sparingly.

It's not to say that she's acquired complete mastery over a largely alien language. It's about her continuing to scale that high wall and making a difference in a team where no one speaks her tongue.