Is dribbling passe?

Master dribblers... Australia's Jaime Dwyer (pic left, getting the better of Holland's Taeke Taekema) and Floris Evers of the Netherlands.-AP, RAJEEV BHATT Master dribblers... Australia's Jaime Dwyer (pic left, getting the better of Holland's Taeke Taekema) and Floris Evers of the Netherlands.

In modern hockey where tactical plays and defensive systems dominate, dribbling has lost its significance. However, the experts are divided on the relevance of the old sub-continental style. Y. B. Sarangi takes stock.

Is dribbling, an art that can breach the best of defences on the field and win many hearts in the stands, passé in hockey?

In the recent World Cup held in Delhi, one could not find many practitioners of the art in which the players from the Sub-continent were the masters, from the days of Dhyan Chand.

India and Pakistan ruled the roost in the sport for a long time. The players' major strength used to be the artistry of controlling the ball with their magical stick-work and their ability to dodge past the rival defenders while surging ahead.

Modern hockey, where tactical plays and defensive systems dominate, has seen the decline of the ‘dribble' and it may soon become ‘extinct'. Experts and critics dub it as outdated and useless.

Now, the main aim is to relay the ball across the length and breadth of the field through accurate passing. After all, everyone agrees, the ball travels faster than the man. If the idea is to reach the other end, then pass, and pass quickly. But then, this is easier said than done. The Australians can pass the ball around with precision, as they showed against India in the league match of the World Cup. But they do have good dribblers in captain Jamie Dwyer and Desmond Abbott, and to a lesser extent Glenn Turner.

Nobody disputes the beauty of dribbling and no one who saw Dwyer, Holland captain Teun de Noojier or the Spanish skipper, Pol Amat, during the World Cup could have said that the ‘dribble' is extinct or useless in international hockey. Teun de Nooijer continues to be devastating with his dribbles. He, however, says dribbling should be used as per the situation and according to the team's needs.

Another Dutch player, Floris Evers, also an expert dribbler, says he likes the Sub-continental style of hockey because of the exhibition of deft stick-work. “I like to watch Indian and Pakistan teams play. My idol is Shahbaz Ahmed (the renowned Pakistani forward of the 1990s); I like the way he used to dribble,” says Evers.

Amat says, “Dribbling is not the most important thing” in modern hockey. The Spaniard, however, was seen dribbling his way through the length of the pitch in the match against India which Spain won comfortably.

“The crowd comes to see the artist,” says Mohammad Shahid, one of the best dribblers Indian hockey has seen. “Just remember (in football) how the great Maradona used to dodge past five or six opponents. Those were the moments to cherish,” he adds.

Another exponent of the art, who figured prominently in India's solitary triumph in the World Cup, back in 1975, Ashok Kumar, also misses the sight of a player dribbling his way past a horde of defenders.

“Ball-control and dodging used to be the key components of dribbling. That used to bring a lot of excitement to the game,” he says.

“Today's game is not the brand of hockey we used to play,” he adds.

But is dribbling relevant in today's hockey?

“Yes,” argues Shahid. “I played three Olympics on astro-turf… The Europeans were strongly-built. We could beat them by relying on our skills,” he says.

Today, when penalty corners have become so important, and when India struggles to get a penalty corner in a crucial match at a difficult stage, old-timers invariably recall the days when a Shahid or an Ashok could get a PC almost at will.

Shahid says at least India and Pakistan should not dump their strengths in their bid to adopt the Western methods. “We are playing their (European's) game. Rather, we should play our own style of hockey,” he stresses.

Australia still mixes the Sub-continental style with its own brand of ‘aggressive hockey'.

The Dutch and the Spaniards showed that the ‘dribble' was still an effective weapon if there were able practitioners like Teun de Nooijer and Pol Amat in a team who can not only dribble and strike but can set up goals for their team-mates with equal efficiency.

It is when an Indian player dribbles a long way only to lose the ball in the opponent's 25-yard or to pass wrongly that the critics wail, “oh, but why can't he pass the ball?” The dribble is then dubbed as the most outdated art.

When the attempt in India is to learn the best from the West, International Hockey Federation (FIH) Coaching Manager Tayyab Ikram's advice to adopt a balanced approach looks to be the best for Indian hockey.

Mercifully, Chief Coach Jose Brasa has attempted just that, a mixture of European hockey coupled with old Indian style dribbling and passing.