With top guns failing to fire, penalty corner a concern for teams

The ongoing season of the Hockey India League (HIL), has seen teams going more and more for field goals. The reason has been two-fold: that every field goal counts as two vis-a-vis penalty corners and, the fact that some of the biggest names in drag-flick have not been able to reproduce the form expected of them.

This year, with almost 3/4th of the HIL season over, the only one who has made any impact in set-pieces is German legend Moritz Fuerste.   -  Biswaranjan Rout

For quite a few years now, international hockey has revolved around scoring through mainly penalty corners. Most top teams build their strategies around earning PCs and having world-class specialists to convert them and score.

The ongoing season of the Hockey India League (HIL), however, has seen teams going more and more for field goals. The reason has been two-fold: that every field goal counts as two vis-a-vis penalty corners and, more importantly, the fact that some of the biggest names in drag-flick have not been able to reproduce the form expected of them.

Consider this: last year, three of the top-five scorers in the HIL were penalty corner experts, getting their goals from set-pieces. This year, with almost 3/4th of the season over, the only one who has made any impact in set-pieces is German legend Moritz Fuerste.

The rest – Ashley Jackson (England, Ranchi Rays), Gonzalo Peillat (Argentina, UP Wizards), V.R. Raghunath, Rupinder Pal Singh and even Fuerste's teammate Gurjinder Singh – have been disappointing in their conversion rates. And there are several explanations floating around.

Ranchi coach Harendra Singh admits it has made a difference to his team's scoring rates. “There are several reasons for it. For one, most of these big players have not been in action competitively since the Olympics.

"How so much you practice in training, match practice is something different. If you see, both Harmanpreet Singh (Dabang Mumbai) and Mink van der Weerden (Jaypee Punjab Warriors) have been in active competition, Harman with the junior Indian side at the World Cup and Mink was actually touring with the Dutch side when he was called up as a late replacement.

“It makes a lot of difference. An average conversion rate of 28-30 percent is considered good but we have only 5-6 percent here. Jackson isn't firing and I think it's more to do with a combination of too much top-level hockey for the first half last year and then almost none in the later part,” he said.



Trying variations

The players themselves insist there wasn't much wrong in their efforts but admit the results aren't as expected. “Yes it is a disappointment, more so since my defensive duties haven't been affected. There are some variations that I am trying. Not scoring is something I am concerned about but this is also a platform where you can try new things and then try and use them with the national teams.

"Everyone does that, I guess that's also one of the reasons," admits Rupinder. The Player of the Tournament in 2016, he has scored just once so far – as has Peillat and Jackson. Raghunath has managed two but failed a lot more. Others, like Trent Mitton and Jeremy Hayward, haven't got any so far.

Mumbai coach Jay Stacy believes it's got more to do with improved penalty corner defences. "I don't think anything is going wrong with those who are attempting PCs. I think the defence is getting a lot better, there is more focus on that area now.

"Also, a successful PC includes three people – the pusher, the stopper and the flicker. Maybe the push wasn't right, maybe the trapping was sloppy, maybe the flick went off trajectory. I think the lack of scoring is because of grouping a lot of things together, there is no one cause," he reasons.

The team that has suffered the most is UP Wizards. With both Raghunath and Peillat in its ranks, the team has the strongest battery of PC experts but hasn't made it count so far. Peillat, in particular, has been nowhere close to replicating his form from the past two years, when he repeatedly ended up as the top-scorer at major competitions including the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympics.

Raghunath feels the defence has reduced margins for the flickers. “The question of PCs has come in the past few games because Punjab has been winning solely on that. Before, teams were going all out for field goals. At the same time, goalkeepers have studied very well and it is not easy,” he said.

While Harendra believes players like Harmanpreet and van der Weerden are still not as well known as the others, Stacy differs. "Just because Harmanpreet is young in age doesn't make him an unknown quality. He has been to the Olympics and everyone has studied him, they know his game.

"Same with Mink, who has been around for quite a while now even if his name isn't as popular as the rest. So that definitely isn't a reason,” he claims. Both Harmanpreet and van der Weerden have scored five goals apiece.



Improved defence

“PC defence has changed a lot. The first rusher has become very good in every team. The scoring angles have been cut down drastically,” explained goalkeeper PR Sreejesh.

The one player oblivious of it all is Fuerste. The German veteran, who quit international hockey after winning bronze at Rio, has been on-target with amazing accuracy for Kalinga Lancers.

“That’s because he is not as regular a flicker as the rest and his style also is very different to others. It’s the regular specialists who are struggling, the second-line scorers are doing OK,” both Sreejesh and Raghunath say.

And India coach Roelant Oltmans feels Fuerste has the added advantage of his experience. “He is not a regular and not as fast as some of the others, but he is a very, very clever player. And of course he has this huge experience behind him,” Oltmans said.

For the rest, however, it is time to get their act together.