Can India solve their penalty corner problem before Hockey World Cup?
India have converted 5 out of 28 penalty corners in the ongoing test series vs Australia. While this looks decent on paper, it hides a problem that has not been solved since the retirement of Rupinder Pal Singh.
India currently have the world's best drag-flicker leading from the front. Captain Harmanpreet Singh, who has racked up an unbelievable 36 goals this year, has continued his form into the ongoing Test series against Australia in Adelaide, converting two penalty corners of the 28 won by India.
However, Harmanpreet's goals and records hide a big weakness for India - the lack of a second penalty corner expert in the team.
Since the early 2000s, when Sohail Abbas tore up the scoring charts and The Netherlands' Takae Taekema followed in his steps, penalty corners have been seen as a key goal-scoring option in international hockey.
India had found such a penalty corner specialist of their own in Sandeep Singh. Sandeep rapidly made a name for himself, but when he had to miss the 2006 World Cup after being hit by a stray bullet, India looked toothless as they went into the showpiece event without a specialist in the role. At the 2006 WC, India could muster just 10 goals in the tournament - one less than the top scorer and penalty corner expert Takae Taekema.
Since then, the Indian team, as well as most other top teams in international hockey, have always entered the field with at least two penalty corners experts.
For India, this formula started with Sandeep Singh and VR Raghunath's combination, which played in the 2012 Olympics. For the 2016 Olympics, this pair was Raghunath and Rupinder. In the Tokyo Olympics last year, where India scored a total of 25 goals, the majority of the goals came from the drag flicks of Rupinder Pal Singh and Harmanpreet Singh.
However, since the Olympics and Rupinder Pal Singh's retirement, the Indian team management has not found a drag-flicker to support Harmanpreet.
There is hardly any doubt that Harmanpreet is currently the best drag-flicker in the world. He has scored 36 goals in the calendar year 2022, with one more test match to play against Australia on Sunday. He continues to score and bail the team out but the big question is - will he get no support?
Inadequate opportunities for PC experts
The problem is not that there are no other penalty corner experts within the setup, but that they are not getting opportunities. The likes of Amit Rohidas, Varun Kumar, Jugraj Singh and Nilam Sanjeep Xess regularly play but chances to prove themselves are few and far between.
The test series against Australia could have been a great way to test the penalty corner strength for India but the team management has not made the most of it yet. In the four games played, India has won 28 penalty corners but has only converted five of these into goals. Harmanpreet has scored two of these.
None of the penalty corner experts mentioned above has scored a single goal for India in the Australian test series.
Goals Scored from PCs in 2022
Nilam Sanjeep Xess (India A)
The gap between Harmanpreet and the others so is so huge, it should ring alarm bells for Indian team management.
In the year 2022, the Indian captain scored 28 goals from penalty corners, with Jugraj Singh at second with just seven goals. Varun Kumar, who made his debut long before Jugraj, scored three. Amit Rohidas, the vice-captain of the side, has not scored a single goal from penalty corners.
If the PC expertise of these players are not tested ahead of the World Cup, how can an informed decision be made on their usefulness to the squad? Questions have been regularly raised about the performance of Varun Kumar, who is struggling defensively. Rohidas is an invaluable rusher while defending PCs, but does he bring enough to the team if his PC expertise taken out of the equation?
The modern approach to Penalty Corners
Defending penalty corners has changed a lot in the last few years, India's Amit Rohidas is the prime example of what defenders are expected to do. The first rushers are quicker, which allows them to close angles much faster. The agility of goalkeepers has increased. Overall, it is much easier to save penalty corners today than 10 years ago.
This defensive improvement has meant that the attackers must be even more creative. Today, most teams employ a 'double battery' system, where two penalty corner experts are on top of the striking circle instead of one. This puts doubt in the mind of the defenders and gives a higher chance for the attackers to score.
India too employs a double battery system, but the ball invariably ends up with Harmanpreet.
On paper, converting 5 out of 28 penalty corners against Australia looks good - it is not far off from a 30% conversion rate. However, it is getting more and more difficult for Harmanpreet to score with Australian players just focusing on him.
In modern hockey, the coach plays probably the biggest role of all. With the likes of Jugraj and Varun not getting the opportunity to take penalty corners, it raises questions about the role being played by the coaching staff. Do they not trust anyone apart from Harmanpreet? If not, do these players have a place in the team in the future? What's stopping the coach from asking the team on the field to give a chance to these penalty corner experts?
At this point, when there is just one game to go before the World Cup, Indian hockey fans can hope that the team management has a plan for penalty corners.
As we clearly remember from 2006, the Indian team is just one injury away from facing a massive struggle in penalty corners.