THE LONELINESS OF THE DRAG FLICKER
Ajit Chaudhuri – December 2018
If you are among those who’s illnesses coincide with sports events, then you, like me, will have depleted your sick leave by this point in the year – what with the Football World Cup, the Commonwealth Games, the Asian Games, the Indian cricket team’s tour of England, et al. I was therefore worried about missing the Hockey World Cup (currently being played in India) until I discovered that the games are on in the evening and watching them merely involves sliming out of office a little early on some pretext.
I have followed hockey from 1973 despite India doing zilch to earn my support after 1975 (when my namesake Ajitpal Singh lifted the World Cup), an Olympic title in a depleted, boycott-ridden field in 1980 notwithstanding. Why do I still support it? What do I like about it? This note attempts to make the case for you to support hockey as well.
So – here goes!
Hockey (outside south Asia) is an elite game. The players are somewhat educated (mostly in medicine and law), cut their hair, show respect to each other, listen to the umpires, don’t try to cheat, waste time and feign injury, and generally behave well (as does the audience – no hooligans, louts and ultras, and one can bring one’s family to a game). The Bengali term ‘bhadralok’, roughly translating to ‘genteel’, describes the atmosphere around hockey. The only black guy I have seen in a top team was a scruffy looking fellow in the early 1990s who turned out to be a medical student – Dr. Michael Green went on to captain Germany and win the world player of the year award in 2002. British, Canadian and Kiwi teams usually have a sprinkling of south Asian immigrants who share the characteristics of gentility and education with their teammates. In other words, hockey is everything that football isn’t – while sharing the characteristic of being a fast-paced contact sport that requires immense skill, speed, strength and stamina.
Hockey is also technologically ahead of its time. The decision to introduce VAR (for the non-sports-lovers – this stands for video assistant referee and is the system for the on-field ref to refer a decision to the cameras) at the football world cup earlier this year was based on it being standard fare in hockey. The concept of a ‘challenge’ (a team having the right to challenge an umpire’s decision and losing it if it makes a wrong one) has come into cricket from hockey. Hockey umpires also have mikes that make their words audible to the audience, and we get some gems such as the occasion this WC when a Canadian player was contemplating doing some drama and the umpire told him not to be an idiot, there were 11 cameras pointed at him at that very moment. The player shut up quickly (one of the most effective bits of conflict resolution I have seen on the field).
There is a theory around India’s decline that the game has changed away from India’s traditional advantage in dribbling and towards speed and strength. I find this a lazy argument! Anyone who watched Roderik Bowman (Netherlands), Peter Hazelhurst (Australia) or Stefan Blocher (West Germany) in the 1980s would know that their stickwork was as good as the best south Asians, and that the top teams of the time combined dribbling skills with teamwork, tactics and penalty corner expertise.
Which brings me (finally) to the subject of my note – the kind of hush that sets in during a hockey match every time the umpire brings both hands forward to announce a penalty corner (PC), and all focus shifts to one person – the penalty corner expert, now called the ‘drag flicker’. The importance of this person set in during the 1980 Olympic final, when an ordinary Spanish team ran India close because one person just kept banging PCs in. I followed the game on radio, and I still remember his name – Juan Amat – as well as my heightened nervousness every time the commentator announced a PC.
In those days, PC conversion required one to hit the ball from just inside the D-line, along the ground and through onrushing defenders and a goalkeeper into the goal, and the likes of Paul Litjens and Surjit Singh were the experts. In the 1990s, better padding allowed goalkeepers to respond by merely lying down in front of the goal and blocking the ball – resulting in a rule change that allowed pushing the ball high as well. PCs today are complex – the drag flicker has the option of hitting, pushing or dummying – and the best of them use a sling-like action that sends the ball at over 80 mph into the roof of the net. The drag flicker thus has to be an expert at this, while also being good enough at other aspects of hockey to retain a place in the team.
The best that I have seen are Floris Bovelander (there was a sense of fear every time the Netherlands were awarded a PC while he was on the field that was in indirect proportion to his first name), Sohail Abbas (the one reason, in my opinion, that the decline of hockey was slower in Pakistan than here in India), and Gonzalo Peillat (who symbolizes the rise of Argentina, the current Olympic champions, in the game).
PC conversion has been an issue at this WC (thus far), leading to talk about the decline of the drag flicker. I don’t agree! The two lowest ranked teams at the WC punched well above their weight thanks to brilliant drag flicking – Du Talake enabling debutants China to make a big impression, and Victor Charlet (another doctor) leading France into the quarter-finals.
And, let’s not forget the goal that took India out of the competition, a Mink van der Weerden (the Netherlands) drag flick that led to tears around the country.
Following Indian hockey is not pleasant! Politics, regionalism (especially the Sikh – Kodava divide) and corruption are rampant, and educated players do not survive to improve the system (as Jagbir Singh and Viren Rasquinha had tried to do). Efforts to acquaint coaches with the modern game are lost on a bunch of computer-illiterate bumpkins whose skills lie in intermittently saying ‘come on boys’, in negotiating the political arena, and in blame shifting – as displayed by the Indian coach’s attempt to divert fault to the umpires after a deserved quarter-final loss a few days back.
And yet, there is something about the current Indian team – they are young, good, and competitive, and there are two adequate drag flickers within. A little support, and a coach who is versed in modern tactics and techniques, might just get us back up there.