The only time Harmanpreet Singh has found the backboard in the World Cup was when the goalkeeper was not on the pitch.
On Thursday, with seconds left in the match, Wales decided to take off their custodian Toby Reynolds-Cotterill for an extra outfield player. Searching for an equaliser, they instead ended up conceding a penalty corner – for the seventh time in the match.
Wales had defended the previous six with aplomb. However, with no one but four defenders to beat, Harmanpreet kept it simple: straight, low and down the middle. It was India’s third goal from 16 penalty corner attempts in the World Cup, poor returns for a team that invests so many resources and time in the set piece.
But India aren’t alone.
The art of drag-flicking seems to have abandoned some of the finest exponents, as teams have struggled to make the most of what was once a reliable goal-scoring method for them. Consider these:
* Germany naturalised a former Argentine international mainly because of his exploits from penalty corners. However, they have converted just one out of their seven corners before Friday evening’s match against South Korea, with Gonzalo Peillat yet to get off the mark.
* Belgium have one of the best drag-flickers around – Alexander Hendrickx. But like Harmanpreet, he too has scored just once so far while the reigning world champions’ record from corners is worse than India’s – only two goals from 18 attempts.
This reflects a larger trend. Before Friday’s games, only 32 goals were scored from penalty corners at this World Cup out of 195 chances. Coaches normally hold a conversion rate of one in three penalty corners as par for the course. At Odisha 2023, that average has doubled – one in six penalty corners are successful, making it one of the lowest conversion rates ever at a World Cup.
‘First rusher saving more than goalies’
The coaches, in one voice, seem sure about the reason for this decline. It isn’t anything to do with the quality of drag-flicking, they say. Instead, it’s the improved defence. More specifically, the first rushers.
First rushers are perhaps the most courageous bunch in hockey. As the name suggests, they are first off the blocks from the four-man defence, excluding the goalkeeper, during short corners, running straight at the ball that’s often flicked at a speed of more than 100kmph.
The rusher’s job is to sprint the 12m from the goal line – where he is positioned – to the top of the D – from where the flick is taken – within seconds and close down the angle. React slow, even if by a hundredth of a second, you either put yourself in peril or your team.
Gregg Clark, India’s analytical coach, cites the top quality running by former captain Manpreet Singh against England and Belgium’s Victor Wegnez as examples of ‘incredible’ rushing and ready to put their ‘bodies on the line’.
Netherlands coach Jeroen Delmee says the rushers are saving more flicks than goalkeepers at the moment. “That’s the main reason, the way they block the shot,” Delmee adds. “The percentage of shots blocked by the first runner is about 50. So, I think the first runner is stopping more shots than the goalies at the moment.”
It isn’t by chance. Like penalties in football, teams are spending more and more time studying their opponents and their drag-flick routines, and then spend even more time training for it. Each team, at the end of a training session, spends at least 15 minutes practising penalty corner attack and defence.
Stats from a defensive perspective
England coach Paul Revington points out that the reason short corners seem more lethal than they actually are is because of the way it’s presented, especially by the broadcasters.
“All the stats generally are given around the attacking team,” Revington says. “I think it will be interesting if, on TV, they give stats about a player from a defensive perspective. To view the quality of the running, waves, lines… all those from other sports are very important.”
The gradual rule changes, which now allow defenders to wear protective gear, have made defending penalty corners easier and contributed to the declining conversion rates.
Until a decade ago, the players were only allowed to wear gloves and a thin face mask. But now, they have an entire kit set up behind the goal, which they wear in the 40-second break to take the corners.
The FIH fears the equipment may give players a false sense of safety while defending the corners. But their fears have so far proven unfounded. What it has instead done is create a level playing field at least in one aspect of the game.
Wales were no match for India in terms of individual skill and style. But when it came down to penalty corners, they had a defensive battery that was equal to the task. They frustrated Harmanpreet, whose efforts were either not lifting off the ground or were being blocked by the rushers and the goalkeeper. They successfully blocked Amit Rohidas and Varun Kumar’s one-dimensional flicks as well.
It remains to be seen if India were keeping some of their cards close to the chest, preparing to unveil tricks and variations in the knockout phase of the World Cup.
Still, it won’t be easy. “Just the level of the World Cup,” Delmee, the Dutch coach, says. “You have the best runners and the best goalies and that’s making it hard.”
Written by Mihir Vasavda