Amit Rohidas clutched his knee and grimaced when the ball thudded into his guard as Belgium threatened with wave after wave of penalty corners during the semifinals of the Tokyo Olympics.
Rohidas remembers the painful blow vividly. But he’s suffered worse on a hockey field. The reason India’s first rusher took time to get back on his feet was to give the team breathing space in the midst of a flurry of penalty corners.
“After the game, I spoke to my mother. She sounded worried for the first time. She watches all my games and knows the risk I take being the first rusher. Even if I get hit, I never show the opponents that I am hurt. That day I made it seem worse than it was because we needed a few seconds to regroup. My mother asked me if I was hurt. I told her ‘Don’t worry, nothing has happened to your son,’” Rohidas, 28, says.
Rohidas’ brief for over a dozen years, starting with the Under-18 Asia Cup in Myanmar in 2009, has been simple but fraught with danger. He is the first man from the four-man defence who runs straight at the drag-flicker. The ball is flicked at over 80 miles per hour when a penalty corner is taken. Within three to four seconds, the first rusher needs to reach the top of the D and cut down the angle.
India lost to world champions Belgium 2-5, but Rohidas’ bravery stood out during the 14-penalty corner onslaught. He points to his chest, abdomen, knee and ankle to indicate where he was hit during the semifinal and the historic win against Germany in the bronze-medal playoff.
“Matches were challenging because most teams had very good drag-flickers. So, I had to remain mentally strong. The Germans also had a good drag-flicker and I stopped one of the balls. He tried to beat me by trying to get around me. He was confused, so he changed direction. In March, we had gone to play matches against Germany (on the tour of Europe) and we played against these players only. So, I had an idea of how they take penalty corners,” Rohidas says.
There are a few points a first rusher needs to keep in mind in order to be successful and reduce the chance of getting hit, according to Rohidas.
“We do a lot of video analysis as to who is the likely pusher, who takes the drag-flick. You just get three to four seconds and to rush and intercept the ball is not easy. Sometimes opponents can try a variation, so the first rusher has to be ready for a direct shot and the indirect shot as well.”
A clear channel of communication with the goalkeeper is key. ’Keepers tend to take a step to the right, so the first rusher tries to cover the left side. “I have been playing with (PR) Sreejesh bhai for so many years, so we have a good understanding and he has a lot of confidence in me.”
What is equally important is the timing of the run. Too late or too early would defeat the purpose and may also result in injury.
“If you time your run properly, you won’t get hit on the upper body, only on the shin pads. If you delay your run, because the ball is already travelling a good distance when it reaches you, it could hit your body. You need to calculate how fast you have to run. That changes from penalty corner to penalty corner. The pusher sometimes delays it. There is no point in just running blindly.”
Rohidas is from Sundergarh in Odisha, one of the nurseries of Indian hockey. A famous name to emerge from the district has been Dilip Tirkey, the former captain and defender. The backline is where Rohidas is also most comfortable. No surprise, as he started off as a goalkeeper.
He didn’t have access to protective equipment during local games but innovated to make do with what was available.
“When I used to play in my village, I used to be a goalkeeper. But how do you protect yourself? A local shopkeeper was happy to give me empty egg crates which I used to mould into different types of guards, including shin pads.”
But when he joined Panposh Sports Hostel in Rourkela as an 11-year-old, Rohidas had to change roles.
“I was small in built. The goalkeeper’s kit was too big for me. I would disappear into it. So, the coach told me to play in some other position. I told the coach I will play as a forward.”
After a little over a year, Rohidas made another switch. He gave up playing upfront and decided to become a defender. “It was not that as I was from Sundergarh which has produced some famous defenders, so I also wanted to be one. At that time, I felt like it worked for me. Now I can say it was a good choice. We have an Olympic medal for the country after 41 years.”
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