How the drag-flick is losing its lethal sting on hockey turf
Experts believe that it is getting harder and harder to score off penalty corners. Though there is no comparative data available on conversion rates, coaches and team managements worldwide have noticed the changing trend.Updated: Nov 09, 2019 11:53 IST
Is there any other single skill that has influenced the game of modern hockey more than the drag-flick?
This high-speed, high-octane method of smashing in goals from penalty corners (PCs), introduced by Australian Jay Stacy in the late 1980s, rapidly established itself as the most successful way of scoring in the game.
Less than a decade after Stacy introduced the skill, the drag-flick was responsible for almost half of all goals scored at the 1998 men’s World Cup. By then, teams around the world had begun to introduce at least one dedicated drag-flicker in the squad.
The top scorers in hockey are all PC specialists with Pakistan’s Sohail Abbas leading the list with 348 goals. The drag-flicker became a cult-like figure in the hockey squad—former India captain and penalty corner specialist Sandeep Singh calls his Twitter handle ‘@flickersingh’.
Yet, at last year’s men’s World Cup in India, the stats presented a different picture: of the 167 PCs awarded in 24 group stage matches, only 40 resulted in goals—a conversion rate of just 23.9%.
It’s a trend that was first noticed during the 2016 Rio Olympics, and experts believe that it is getting harder and harder to score off penalty corners. Though there is no comparative data available on conversion rates, coaches and team managements worldwide have noticed the changing trend.
“One in three used to be the standard, but not anymore,” says India chief coach Graham Reid, with the dip in conversion rates falling to one out of five, or even one out of six.
So why are the flickers firing blanks?
Part of the answer is the advanced protective equipment used by the “rushers”—the defenders who spring forward to try and block the ball when a PC is taken. Cleats, shin and knee guards, goggles, mouth guards, gloves, groin cups and masks have made them intrepid.
“What’s happening now is the rushers run with big gloves with many using ice hockey gloves which are used for pucks which move at over 200kph and have sharp edges,” says India’s Australian analytical coach Chris Ciriello. “So they are feeling a lot braver wearing improved protection equipment. Some wear thicker shin pads and run with a mask as well. Plus, goalkeeping equipment has also changed.”
With better protection, rushers have found the courage to attack the flicker faster and more aggressively by putting their bodies in the line of attack to save goals. This skill and bravado is in high demand.
“We work especially hard on penalty corner defence,” Ciriello says. “Players understand that this can (also) be the reason you get picked for the team. For example, Amit Rohidas is probably one of the best runners in the world and gets picked because that’s one skill that adds to all the other skills he has.
“Running a PC is just as important a skill as any other. So being brave is like fighting an army on the front. We don’t want someone who is going to shy away. It’s about committing for the team.”
Ciriello knows a thing or two about penalty corners, having been one of the best flickers in the world in his heydays. The 34-year-old famously scored a hat-trick in the 2014 World Cup final to help Australia beat home team Netherlands 6-1 in The Hague. “Earlier, you could just go full power because there was less protective gear and guys didn’t run anywhere near as close as they do today,” says the Australian.
Body on the line
A PC is given when there is a defensive infringement in the penalty or shooting circle. During a set-piece, a player pushes the ball from the PC attacker’s mark to his teammates at the edge of the circle. One player traps the ball and moves away to allow the drag-flicker to sling the ball towards goal.
In between the flicker and his target will be the goalkeeper and 3-4 runners rushing towards the flicker to stop the ball, travelling at an average speed of 140kph; it’s the first rusher who quite literally makes a suicidal run into the ‘barrel’, the area between the ball and the goal.
“Earlier, they (first rushers) didn’t run with their bodies (on the line), they used to run with fear,” says India skipper Manpreet Singh, one of the best first rushers in the world. “The defenders are coming out more aggressively now, especially the first rusher.”
But the hockey ball, with a circumference between 224-235mm and weight ranging between 156-163g, is also infamous for causing serious, sometimes career-threatening injuries.
“At that point you don’t think about getting hurt. Then it’s just about the team, about saving a goal,” says India defender Birendra Lakra.
India reserve goalkeeper Krishan Pathak adds that the confidence of the first rusher trickles down to him and the other runners. “If he doesn’t feel fear, we get confidence from that,” Pathak says. “Also, the first rusher’s body covers the goal, decreasing the angle for the flicker. It then becomes easier for us as we have less space (to defend).”
A changing stick
The introduction of video analysis has also given the rushers some advantage.
“Now technology has changed a lot. Every team comes after reading their opponent’s game,” Manpreet says. “(In video analysis) we see who are their best drag-flickers, what are their variations and how to counter them and not to concede in PCs. Accordingly, we instruct our rushers which flickers they will be attacking.”
There is a technical angle too. Hockey sticks have changed and evolved to suit players throughout the history of the sport. With the introduction of the drag-flick, stick makers started giving more attention to the curvature, or bow, along the flat side of the stick. Increasing the degree of the bow on the shaft makes it easier for PC specialists to generate higher speeds from drag-flicks, which are traditionally taken from behind the body for extra pace.
Pakistani great Sohail Abbas, like many others, used to get sticks made to suit his requirements. When the bows got extreme, authorities had to step in to limit it.
“Previously Sohail Abbas and these guys had bigger bows, nearly 80mm. It is now cut down to 25mm so the angle at which you can pick up the ball behind you is a lot less,” says Ciriello. “So that’s a lot more stress on your body and you don’t generate the same force by twisting through as much as you did previously.”
Flicker without compare
Despite the drop in conversion rate, teams across the world still give PCs as much importance as they used to with most outfits having at least three in their 18-strong squad. The best in the business still manage to convert most chances they get.
Take Gonzalo Peillat for example. Widely regarded as the best drag-flicker in the world, the 27-year-old scored the most goals (10) at the 2014 World Cup to help Argentina medal (bronze) at the event for the first time. Two years later, Peillat again topped the tally with 11 goals to carry his team, with barely any history in the sport, to an Olympic gold in Rio.
Though this over-dependence on the ace drag-flicker also led to Argentina’s ouster from the 2018 World Cup quarter-finals, all coaches around the world would love to have a player like Peillat, who can find the gaps that no one else does.
“In the heat of the battle, in really tough top tournaments like the Olympics, (it’s) not necessary (to) get that conversion rate,” says Reid, who has seen the development of the drag-flick first as a player and then as a coach.
“But historically, if you were to look at the last 20-30 years, then the penalty corner, in semis and finals of World Cups and Olympics, is what determines whether you win or lose. I remember in 2014 when we beat Holland 6-1, we had both three field goals and three from PCs,” added Reid, who was Australia’s assistant coach when they won the 2014 World Cup.