Penalty corner specialists have struggled this HIL season and have two days to get it right
For quite a few years now, international hockey has revolved around the penalty corner (PC). Most top teams base their strategies on earning PCs and converting them through world-class specialists.
The ongoing season of the Hockey India League (HIL), however, has seen sides pursuing field goals. The reason is two-fold: every field goal counts as two; more importantly, some of the biggest names in drag-flick have struggled.
Consider this: last year, three of the top five scorers were penalty corner experts. In this edition, with the league phase done, the only one who has made any impact 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 disappointed. The highest scorer among the recognised specialists is junior India player Harmanpreet Singh, with seven goals.
There are several explanations floating around.
“There are many reasons,” says Ranchi coach Harendra Singh. “For one, most of these big players have not been in action competitively since the Rio Olympics. However much you train, match practice is different. I think Jackson isn’t firing due a combination of too much top-level hockey for the first half last year and then almost none in the next.”
The players themselves insist there isn’t much wrong with their effort, but admit the results haven’t followed. “Yes, it is a disappointment, more so since my defensive duties haven’t been affected,” says Rupinder. “There are some variations I am trying. Not scoring is something I am concerned about, but this is also a platform where you can try new things and use them with the National team. I guess that’s also one of the reasons.”
The player-of-the-tournament in 2016, Rupinder has scored just four in the league phase. Peillat has managed to convert just one, as has 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 has 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 now,” he reasons.
The team that has suffered the most is Uttar Pradesh Wizards. With both Raghunath and Peillat in its ranks, the team has the strongest battery of PC experts but couldn’t make it count. Peillat, in particular, was 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 2016 Olympics.
Raghunath feels the margins have reduced for the flickers. “Goalkeepers have studied us very well and it is not easy,” he says. Goalkeeper P.R. Sreejesh says, “PC defence has changed a lot. The first rusher has become very good. The scoring angles have been cut down drastically.”
The one player oblivious of all this is Fuerste. The German veteran, who quit international hockey after winning the bronze in Rio, has showed amazing accuracy at Kalinga Lancers. “That’s because he is not as regular a flicker as the rest and his style also is very different to others,” both Sreejesh and Raghunath say. “It’s the specialists who are struggling.”
India coach Roelant Oltmans feels Fuerste has the added advantage of experience. “He is not a regular and not as fast as some others, but he is a very, very clever player. And, of course, he has this huge experience behind him,” Oltmans says, adding that while one-in-three is acceptable in international competitions, with improved defence at the highest level, sometimes even one-in-four — or 25% — is par for the course.
For the rest, however, it is time to get their act together. Saturday’s semifinals and Sunday’s final will prove unforgiving otherwise.