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Sting goes out of the flick

The rivalry dominated by the drag flickers at the beginning now has the defenders calling the shots. What caused this shift in power dynamics?
Last Updated 02 March 2024, 19:22 IST

Bengaluru: The year is 1998. Somewhere in Bengaluru, a nine-year-old Abhishek Sadanand gently moves the television antenna on the terrace of his home to fix it at the right angle to catch the elusive signal while his seven-year-old sister’s, Deepika, task is to relay the message as and when the grainy TV screen flashes a clearer image.           

A few minutes later, their teamwork pays off as DD Sports springs to life on the ground floor. “I had seen his picture in the newspaper but I wanted to watch Sohail Abbas live in action,” reminisces the hockey fan. 

It was the debut season of the ‘Drag-flick king’ who went on to become the second highest goal-scorer in international hockey with 348 goals in 315 matches for Pakistan. Bringing in a combination of speed and accuracy, Abbas revolutionalised the art of drag flicking in penalty corners which is considered, by many, as one of the most exciting part of the sport. 

Essentially, a pusher, a trapper and a drag flicker, along with four other players, form the attack line for a penalty corner-awarded side while four runners and a goalkeeper constitute a defending team, all inside the shooting circle or the ‘D’. A seven versus five war ensues within an ongoing battle.   

“Dhanraj (Pillay) and (Dilip) Tirkey charging at Abbas even if risking broken bones is hockey folklore. But now the conversion rate is so bad. No fun,” rues the now 34-year-old Abhishek, an IT professional. 

His observation mirrors the proceedings from India matches in recent times. The national teams’ (both men and women) ability to score off penalty corners is well-documented often attracting cliches such as Achilles heel, PC conundrum, grim reality and what not.  

At the home leg of the FIH Pro Hockey League last month, the Indian men and women played eight matches each. While the men converted 11 out of 48 (22.91%), the women produced an even dismal show, scoring two out of 41 PCs (4.87%). 

There’s, however, a consolation. This dip in the rate of PC conversion is not an Indian problem alone -- every team in the world is facing a similar difficulty when it comes to set pieces. 

The following numbers underscore a not-so-encouraging trend. In the 1998 men’s hockey World Cup, the PC conversion rate was 46.4%. This number dropped to 22.44% (57 goals out of 254 PCs) in the 2018 edition of the event. At the men’s WC in January 2023, in Bhubaneswar, the group matches saw a further dip to roughly 17%.

According to experts, one out of three is the benchmark. 

“The drag flickers are currently on the back foot mainly because the PC defence has gotten better,” feels Bram Lomans, two-time Olympic gold medallist and one of the drag-flicking greats who helped the Netherlands win the men’s World Cup at home in 1998. 

“Besides, during my days (when hockey was played for 70 minutes with two halves of 35 mins each), we had the same pusher, trapper and flicker working together as a PC trio during practice and competition. But now (60 mins with four quarters of 15 mins), substitutions are made often and a flicker is required to adapt to different guys feeding or stopping the ball. 

“Even a minute difference in the push or trap affects the quality of the flick. You can’t afford to have flaws in that rhythm of a PC set because the defence has become so precise,” explains the 48-year-old Lomans. 

The rivalry dominated by the drag flickers at the beginning now has the defenders calling the shots. What caused this shift in power dynamics?

Vikram Kanth, former India defender, credits technology for the evolution.

“We now have video recordings of the specialists along with the statistics. We get to study the strong points and the weaknesses,” offers the 36-year-old, who was part of the 2007 Asia Cup-winning team. 

“For example, a defender can judge which side the flicker is most likely to shoot based on the angle of his stance and the way he is holding his stick. It’s very human, they do beat us. But at least we can cut that margin by 50% now with better knowledge.”

Another major introduction and rule change, that gave rushers a boost in confidence, came in 2014 when protective equipment - face masks, abdomen guards, knee pads and gloves - was made mandatory during a short corner. The dread of putting their body in line against a hockey cork travelling at 140 kms/ hour towards them, turned into dare. 

“Unlike the Europeans, players from India and Pakistan had this raw courage of taking on an attacker back then. Eventually we understood that risking our bodies in this manner was actually foolish and not brave. FIH making guards mandatory during PCs was, according to me, the game-changer. With a fearless first rusher and post man next to the keeper, makes penetration tough for a flicker,” explains Vikram. 

Some also believe that the design of the hockey stick had a role to play in PC-conversion reduction. Earlier, flickers had their sticks custom-made with a curvature of up to 80mm that facilitated better speed generation. Abbas was one of them until FIH set 25mm as the limit. Since the depth of the bow is the same for everyone now, Lomans opines that it doesn’t give any unfair advantage to any player anymore. The positive spin of this change is that flickers are getting fitter to add more speed to their strikes while trying to find acute angles to penetrate the defence.   

Drag flicking is a complicated skill set to master, agrees Lomans and Vikram. It is no wonder that every team struggles to find a specialist or is forced to depend on only one without any backup to replace him/her through injury or retirement. Pakistan is facing this challenge as they have no prolific scorers as flickers after Abbas hung his boots in 2012 right after the London Olympics. 

India has been fairly lucky. First it was Jugraj Singh then came Sandeep Singh followed by VR Raghunath, Rupinder Pal Singh and now Harmanpreet Singh with Jugraj as the second option. If Gurjit Kaur is the only big name in this department in the women’s team, 19-year-old Deepika is carrying a heavy load of expectation on her shoulders as a specialist for the future.  

“What makes drag flicking hard to develop is that it is extremely technical. There are a lot of biometrics involved. It is a little bit like a golf swing but it comes with the ball kind of being in motion and the body going from high to low with a coil and uncoil movement,” says Lomans. 

So is it all downhill for the drag flickers from hereon? Not really, the attackers still hold the advantage by using a weapon called deception, thinks Vikram. 

“It’s a wave. If the flickers figure out a way to solve the current lull, then they can outplay the defence because it’s still seven against four. A direct shot might not work because the runners are getting too close and closing off lines, at the same time it means that they are opening other lines. 

“It is a bit of a cat and mouse game. Sometimes the mouse gets a bit smarter and then the cat becomes a bit wiser,” analyses Lomans.

It’s sure going to be a fascinating phase of mind games.

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(Published 02 March 2024, 19:22 IST)

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