No risks with drag-flicks

The Dutch hero in his prime…Floris Bovelander takes a penalty corner in a match against Argentina during the 1990 World Cup. Bovelander had set off a penalty corner revolution of sorts with his thundering shots to the boards.-THE HINDU PHOTO LIBRARY

“Wild reverse hits during play are more dangerous than a penalty corner attempt. Experienced forwards have control, so when they attempt to whack the ball in, it is a controlled shot. The danger to players defending at the goalmouth comes from hits by players at the lower levels,” says Floris Jan Bovelander in a chat with Nandakumar Marar.

Floris Jan Bovelander believes moments such as the penalty corners are necessary to infuse life into hockey. The penalty corner specialists are counted as assets, while each save made by the goalkeeper is a cause for celebration in the goalmouth and the dugout.

Penalty corner conversions can also hurt those in the firing line, as the ball rockets towards the cage. With so many big-made players as drag-flick specialists, does hockey face the risk of a serious impact injury, even as cricket is still coming to terms with the Phillip Hughes casualty? Is hockey going down that risky path by glorifying its drag-flickers instead of putting in place safety measures to protect the brave, sometimes reckless rushers and gutsy defenders on the goal-line?

Bovelander did not think so. He was of the view that reverse-hits can be more fatal.

“Wild reverse hits during play are more dangerous than a penalty corner attempt. Experienced forwards have control, so when they attempt to whack the ball in, it is a controlled shot. The danger to players defending at the goalmouth comes from hits by players at the lower levels; the ball travels anywhere,” said the Dutch penalty corner maestro and member of the 1996 Atlanta Olympics champion team.

“This mismatch in levels creates problems, not drag-flickers in hockey. When experienced teams play, movements are controlled, but when youngsters attempt reverse hits, you don’t know what can happen,” said Bovelander. “A raw batsman not used to (playing) pace will be in awkward postures while facing quality fast bowling.”

The Hockey India League pits domestic talent against international stars from India and other nations signed up by various franchises. “In the anxiety to prove himself, a young Indian player may try something which can prove risky for himself, and sometimes for other players,” said Bovelander during a Hockey India League game involving Dabang Mumbai at the Mahindra Stadium.

This mismatch needs to be addressed in order to curb injuries instead of looking at rule changes, the Dutchman asserted.

“Have you heard of hockey deaths from penalty corners? How many bouncers were bowled before one batsman became a casualty? Death on a cricket pitch is unfortunate, don’t get me wrong. (Phil) Hughes was unlucky. At the same time, not every bouncer hurts batsmen. So is the case with penalty corners, so why talk of curbing them?” he said.

The players rushing out to narrow down the angle, as the drag-flicker gets into action leads to complications. “Rushing during penalty corners creates problems for those behind. Their view is blocked by the rushers, reducing the reaction time to deal with deflections. With face masks and teeth protection mandatory in hockey, facing a drag-flick is not life-threatening; goalkeepers are also padded and protected,” said Bovelander.

Isn’t there a possibility of the rusher being injured?

“Ball contact with any player rushing will be below knee-level; the deflected ball can travel anywhere. I feel instead of tampering with the penalty corner rules, cut out the rushing,” said the 49-year-old Dutchman, who was in Mumbai recently with Teun de Nooijer, another Dutch great, for a hockey clinic conducted by Dabang Mumbai for local coaches and kids.

“I didn’t like to wear those dentures, but in The Netherlands now, school kids playing hockey wear gum shields,” Bovelander said.

The conversation with the Dutch ace gradually turned into how the game benefited from the penalty-corner. Bovelander, in his heyday, had set off a penalty corner revolution of sorts with his thundering shots to the boards. Now the role has become a specialist job.

“Defenders become heroes. Usually, forwards get credit for scoring match-winners, but due to penalty corners in hockey, defenders do step up and get their names on the score-sheet. Penalty corners present a good situation for the spectators. Music is on, and there is a break in play. The public knows what to expect. There is noise all around in anticipation of something about to happen,” said Bovelander.

Talking about Dabang Mumbai’s hockey clinic, Bovelander said that a start had been made. “It is just the beginning. There are no instant results in hockey. A process has started, a structure will come up next, and from there talent will emerge,” he explained.

The burly Olympian, who is involved with coaching in The Netherlands, added: “India is doing okay at the top; it is the layer just below the top that needs attention.”

He was of the view that the performances in the Hockey India League can create openings for more Indians in the European clubs, since international stars and foreign coaches working with different franchises deal with local talent first-hand.

The Dutch club, HC Bloemendaal, had signed up India captain Sardar Singh. This is considered a big breakthrough for the player since Bloemendaal is one of the most successful clubs in The Netherlands. The club has also won two Euro Hockey League titles and two EuroHockey Club Championship Cups.

“I am sure foreign teams and managements will be watching the Hockey India League. We learnt a lot from (Sardar) Singh by just watching him play. I am sure he must also have learnt a lot by playing for Bloemendaal and against other clubs on how to deal with better-structured defences. We have players from various nations, India, Pakistan and South Korea from Asia in the Dutch league. It is a learning experience for all,” said Bovelander, who was one of the leading players of HC Bloemendaal.