At the launch of the Hockey India League (HIL) in Delhi the other day, drag-flickers VR Raghunath and Ashley Jackson conceded how ‘fortunate’ they were to be retained by their respective teams. It was a comment made in jest, but perhaps they were only half-joking.
This season in the HIL, the focus is firmly back on the more traditional art of scoring. The weightage for field goals will be double compared to the goals scored from penalty corners, meaning a field goal will count as two while successfully converted short corner will still be considered as one goal. It’s a pilot project, and if successful, the rule might also be introduced globally.
The first impact of the new rule was visible at the players’ auction last September, where drag-flickers were, for once, overshadowed by strikers. During the league, too, this trend is likely to continue.
Since the time it nearly got chopped from the Olympic programme a couple of years ago, hockey has been under immense pressure to evolve and make the sport television friendly.
So out went the two halves, which were replaced by four quarters, extra time was abolished for drawn matches and the traditional shoot-outs were replaced by the ones where the penalty taker has to run from the 25m line and score within 8 seconds.
But these, in essence, have been cosmetic changes. The field goal rule can potentially change how the game is being played. For quite some time now, there has been an over-emphasis on penalty corners. There have been some great exponents of the set-piece over the last decade, from Dutchman Teun de Nooijer to Pakistan’s Sohail Abbas to the more recent experts like India’s veteran Sandeep Singh and Gonzalo Peillat of Argentina.
The conversion ratio of these, and a few other drag-flickers, changed the outlook of several teams, who developed their strategies around the availability of penalty corner specialists. Consequently, instead of aiming for the goal once inside the ‘D’, the attackers first look for the defender’s foot to win a penalty corner and have a better chance of scoring a goal.
Over-reliance on corners
The over-reliance on short corners meant the art of scoring a field goal turned secondary as the spotlight shifted from goal-poachers to drag-flick specialists. And it reflects in the composition of teams these days. A drag-flicker is always the first name on the team sheet but a genuine poacher is now a rare breed, and in India’s case, a dying one.
The move to make field goals count as two, many hope, will make hockey a more ‘direct’ sport, with the focus firmly back on the strikers, as was evident during the auction in September. Delhi Waveriders coach Cedric D’Souza says the move is driven to generate more interest among the television viewers, an area where the FIH is keen on making a mark. The four-quarter rule as well as the decision to scrap extra time were made keeping in mind theswelling demands of television.
This further adds to the list. “From a visual point of view, they are trying to make it more attractive. It’s like telling the viewer, it’s not just penalty corners that bring you goals but there is another attractive way as well,” says D’Souza. “So making field goals more valuable is a good idea to get more viewers. It will make games more tactical and coaches will have to start thinking out of the box.”
One school of thought says this will make the teams adopt an attacking approach. he coaches will be forced to be a bit more adventurous.
But there are many who feel this could also make the teams extremely defensive. “No team will want to concede a field goal now. So you will see a lot of defence-oriented patterns where the teams might just hold themselves back and not go all out so that they are not caught out at the back,” says Ranchi Rays coach Harender Singh.
His captain, Englishman Jackson concurs. “It will mean there will be a lot of emphasis on positional play. You never want to concede a goal but now it will count for two. So everyone will be extra cautious. It’s an interesting move. How well will it will work, we will know only once the tournament begins,” Jackson says.