One of hockey’s most integral aspects, the penalty corners, is soon likely to undergo a rule change with the International Hockey Federation (FIH) saying on Sunday that they are ‘going to start some experiments’ that are intended to make the set piece safer for the defenders.
The world body’s president, Tayyab Ikram, said the possible rule change would give the defenders ‘a little bit more time to react’. And while he did not elaborate on what the experiments would entail, he said one of the examples they are looking at is the rule related to free hits inside the 23m area.
In 2016, the FIH amended the game’s laws and ruled that the attacking team cannot play the ball into the circle until it has travelled at least five metres or been touched by a defending player. This was done with the purpose to eliminate the smash hits into a crowded ‘D’, which was perceived as dangerous play.
“We try to have an essential one or two touch before you enter a circle (because) those smashing shots in a very congested circle were a danger for us,” Ikram said. “We just allowed one or two touches before you came into (the ‘D’) and that provided (defenders the time to adjust) – if the person is on the wrong foot, he can come on the front foot, his vision is clear… so that solved 75 per cent of his safety situation. So that helps us a little bit. We are taking that example for penalty corners.”
The move is in continuation of the FIH’s consultation project titled ‘Future of the Penalty Corner’, which was launched last year with an aim to ‘balance between safety and the spectacle’ of the set-piece. There will, however, be no rule change until after the Paris Olympics.
Penalty corners are the go-to method for scoring goals and even though four out of the top five goalscorers at the last two Olympics were penalty-corner specialists, the conversion rate has been on the decline. Coaches say the drop in penalty corner goals is largely because the defenders, who are nowadays allowed to wear protective gear, are willing to throw their bodies in the line of a drag-flick even if they risk injuring themselves in the process.
The FIH said the safety equipment – like gloves, visors, knee pads etc – gives the defenders ‘an unnatural sense of safety’. In late 2020, the members of FIH’s health and safety committee analysed 295 matches from 11 international tournaments that took place in 2015 and 2016. Their research showed that penalty corners were responsible for 13.9 per cent of the overall injuries (49 out of 352) and included blows to the head.
“The priority for us is athletes’ safety,” Ikram said. “We are going to start some experiments on that and it is particularly on the safety issue.”
The safety aspect of the penalty corners has become a debate due to the drag flicks – the action when an attacker, in one motion, collects the ball just outside the ‘D’, drags it into the circle and flicks it towards one of the four corners of the goal. The flicks, unleashed from a distance of roughly 12m from the goal, can travel up to 150kmph.
“The main thing is the high intensity and the speed of the ball (from drag-flicks). That’s something which we are seeing how best we can… we are not going to reduce speed but better provide a little bit more time for defenders to react.”
‘Pakistan can follow Indian model’
Ikram, who took over as the president of the FIH after India’s Narinder Batra resigned last year, said Pakistan – the country of his origin – can take a leaf out of Hockey India’s book in a bid to revive the sport in the country.
One of the heavyweights of world hockey, Pakistan’s fall coincided with India’s resurgence. The country that gave hockey the World Cup and has won the trophy the most number of times – four – failed to qualify for this edition. This was on the back of their inability to make the cut for the last two Olympics, largely due to the financial problems that have resulted in talent draining out.
Ikram said the FIH is willing to help Pakistan as it did with India, but ‘there must be some willing from both sides’. “2010 (when India was in the doldrums) and 2022 are not too far apart. So, you don’t need to really follow very different models. Follow what Hockey India did – professional approach, change in mindset… and you have an Olympic bronze medal in Tokyo. It didn’t happen in two days’ time.”
More tournaments in India, Odisha?
Ikram also said there are separate proposals from Hockey India and the Odisha government to host more tournaments in India but there was ‘nothing concrete yet’. India, especially Odisha, has emerged as international hockey’s go-to destination over the last decade and with a brand-new stadium in Rourkela, which Ikram said was the world’s largest in terms of the number of seats, the state is likely to remain the hub for foreseeable future.
Ikram also did not rule out the possibility of the return of the Champions Trophy, a tournament that was only behind the Olympics and World Cup in importance but was discontinued to make way for other competitions.
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