How the 1976 Olympics changed Hockey and how HIL's new rule could take India back to its glory

How the 1976 Olympics changed Hockey and how HIL's new rule could take India back to its glory

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1936 Olympics winning Indian hockey team


Image Courtesy: ©Wikimedia

Located downtown at the corner of McGill University and the Pine Avenue, in Montreal, Canada is an American football stadium named Percival Molson Memorial. The picturesque stadium might not evoke an immediate recognition in anyone other than historians of the sport, but 30 years ago, when it played host to the field hockey event of the 1976 Olympics, the stadium inadvertently etched itself in history as the place where the face of Hockey changed forever and marks the tombstone of India's hegemony over the sport.

In the first game of the tournament, India faced Argentina and thrashed them 4-0. The outcome was no surprise, but the field was. It was the first time an international hockey match was played on an artificial surface – Astroturf to be exact. However, India faced heavy defeats against Netherlands (1-3) and Australia (1-6), and eventually failed to make it through to the knockout stage for the first time in their history. In fact, it was the first time India failed to win a medal in the Olympic hockey event.

India had won 10 medals in men's hockey until then – 7 gold, 1 silver and 2 bronze – in the 10 Olympics they had participated prior to 1976. Contrastingly, India have won just 1 medal (gold) in field hockey, in the 10 Olympics they have participated in, since 1976. In fact, even that solitary gold medal arrived in the 1980 Olympics when 65 nations boycotted the games in Moscow due to the Soviet war in Afghanistan, and India defeated the likes of Cuba, Tanzania, Poland, Soviet Union and Spain to their way to the glory.

The introduction of artificial turf in Montreal changed the dynamics of hockey entirely, and India has never since learned to master it. The artificial turf that field hockey uses is markedly different to what is used in other sports. While in football, the turf is made to replicate the 'feel' of natural grass, in hockey the fiber structure is kept short in order to increase the speed at which the ball travels across the surface.

This astroturf-induced increase in the speed of the game, had a trickle-down effect on almost every single aspect of the sport. There was a drastic change in the shape of the hockey sticks, in order to accommodate different techniques like reverse stick trapping and hitting. The rise in speed and intensity of the game also placed higher importance on the fitness and conditioning of the players. This affected the sub-continental players adversely, who depended more on their silky skills with the stick to beat a player, rather than their fitness.

This, along with the removal of offside, introduction of rolling substitutes, self-pass and change in the interpretation of obstruction in play, made hockey much more tactically and physically demanding. Yet, it had somehow seemingly lost the romanticism that once the fans held so dear.

When the likes of Dhyan Chand, Feroze Khan, Ali Shaukat and Richard Allen left for Amsterdam to represent India for the first time in Olympics, three people were at the Bombay port to see them off. By the time they decimated Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Switzerland and the host Netherlands – scoring an incredible 29 goals in 5 games – and returned with India's first gold medal, thousands of people had gathered at the harbor to welcome them home.

“This is not a game of hockey, but magic. Dhyan Chand is in fact the magician of hockey,“ read a news report after India's triumph in the final.

After India's victory in the 1936 Berlin Olympics, a German newspaper printed, 'The Olympic complex now has a magic show too.', the whole city of Berlin had posters stating, “Visit the hockey stadium to watch the Indian magician Dhyan Chand in action.”, and Adolf Hitler offered him citizenship.

Such was the grandeur and brilliance of the man. He did not run past defenders with his superior fitness, instead he mesmerized them with grace, which would put a ballerina to shame, and before they could applaud, he would have disappeared. His aura earned him a statue in Vienna, where the artist chipped in four hands and four sticks.

Modern day hockey would have had no place for the magic of Dhyan Chand though.

In fact, someone as recent as Hassan Sardar, the legendary Pakistani forward who weaved patterns around defenses with a unique kangaroo-like posture, might have been smothered by the 'professionalism' and 'athleticism' of the modern game.

In today's world, creativity and magical tricks with the hockey stick are luxuries most coach would not afford. Statistically, a player has higher probability of scoring a goal from a penalty corner, than he does from dribbling past three-four defenders. Romanticism be damned.

The biggest change in this sport, however, is perhaps the change in the importance of penalty corners, and those who take it.

Penalty corners had been around in the game since 1908, but the game was different back then. At first, players were allowed to use their hands and feet to stop the ball, before taking a shot. While the use of feet was outlawed in 1938, the use of hands existed till 1982. The FIH kept tinkering with the rules, and teams came up with newer ways to score – none more than the Dutchmen.

Netherlands have been the masters of penalty corners since the 70s, and they have produced some of the best hitters in the game's history – from Ties Kruize and Floris Jan Bovelander to Bram Lomans. But in 1994, another Dutchman, Taco van den Honert made an invention, that once again changed the game.

In the Sydney World Cup, Taco introduced the drag-flick technique into the game. From penalty corners, he first dragged the ball into the circle and then flicked it hard, in one swift movement, to achieve velocity and height. The change in rule, which allowed the ball to be hit over the 15-inch board, also assisted in its development.

India and Pakistan struggled to keep up, as the likes of Germany, Australia, Netherlands and Spain began to dominate the game. Pakistan though, fared better than their neighbors, mostly because they were able to produce their own penalty corner specialist in Sohail Abbas.

Back in 2006, in a World Cup match in Monchengladbach, Netherlands humiliated India 6-1. All the six goals India conceded were from penalty corners, as Taeka Taekema established himself as the latest Dutch penalty corner specialist with five goals.

A former International Hockey Federation official cried out: “Ban the stupid penalty corner. That is no way to win a hockey match!”. No one listened.

India had Jugraj Singh, the best drag-flicker the nation has produced so far – but his career was cut short by injuries and a tragic accident. They now have the likes of Rupinder Pal Singh, Sandeep Singh and VR Raghunath in their ranks as penalty corner specialists, but lamentably, all three of them are susceptible defensively, which has also contributed to India's poor defensive record in recent past.

"The way hockey is played today, the team's dependency on penalty corners has increased, but it is not the only aspect that can win you matches. The overall game has to be good. The drag-flicker needs to be a good defender first. Defence is the priority, drag-flicking is a bonus," VR Raghunath told Times of India, back in 2011.

This is nothing new though. The rise in importance of penalty corners and the introduction of rolling substitutions has even brought forward the special class of 'drag-flick specialists'. Forwards are now more interested in looking to earn penalty corners, rather than dribble past players and score field goals. Instead of aiming for the back of the net, players aim for defender's feet – specially with FIH's inability to form a rule to cut out manufactured infringement.

"Nowadays, players would even try to hit the ball to the legs of opponents to get a penalty corner. Penalty corner has become an excuse to score goals," the legendary Balbir Singh Said back in 2014, in an interview to TOI.

India have fallen for the same trap. The coaching is focused on how to earn and score from penalty corners.

"With France they have to be careful as they are a strong team and will not give in easily. The key tomorrow will be to get the crucial penalty corners in our name and convert them," Paul van Ass, India's chief coach in 2015 said ahead of their clash against France in the World Hockey League.

Recently India managed to clinch the bronze medal in the World Hockey League Finals, after defeating World No.2 Netherlands. It was their first medal in an international hockey tournament since 1982 – a momentous achievement indeed. It is easy to overlook the fact that they had finished at the bottom of Pool B, after scoring just two goals in their three matches, as they failed to grab easy goals from penalty corners.

This just reiterates India's dependency on penalty corners, and how they struggle when they have to look for field goals. Goals from penalty corner is India's plan A, and at the moment they do not seem to have a plan B.

This dependency on penalty corners is evident in the Hockey India League as well. In its inaugural season, three of the top-four goal scorers of the tournament were penalty corner takers. In 2014, four of the top-five goal scores were drag-flickers.

This season though, there has been a change. Australian striker Glenn Turner is leading the goal-scoring chart, and seven of his eight goals so far have been field goals – in total, he has scored 15 goals for his team so far.

This is of course due to the exciting new rule introduced by the Hockey India League, where a field goal will be counted as two goals for the team.

"This new rule of counting one field goal as two is good as it will reduce dependence on penalty corner specialists. We will be able to see fantastic field goals which are rare now-a-days.

"This will promote artistic hockey which will suit Asian countries including India as we have always played artistic hockey. This rule will make defenders and strikers equally important," an excited Dilip Tirkey said.

The change in rule has certainly made the game more entertaining, with teams playing more offensively and pushing for field goals instead of penalty corners. We are witnessing end-to-end action and goals of fantastic quality.

Everyone of course does not agree, especially Ashley Jackson, the top-scorer last season courtesy his penalty corners. He said, "The rule of field goal counted as two (here in HIL) will not be good for the international game. I do not endorse it. We are seeing it for the first time here in HIL. We can see that teams in the current edition are focusing on defence, because conceding a field goal will cost two crucial points that can change a game in minutes”. While it is easy to detect a hint of bitterness, here is why Ashley Jackson is wrong.

HIL's goals per game ratio this season (4.3) has already improved from last season (4.1), given that we are now approaching the most crucial segment of the group stage, it is expected to rise even more.

Do note that, field goals have been considered as one in the analysis.

Although still in its early days, the new rule has already improved the field goals to penalty corner goals ratio. This season has the highest percentage of field goals so far (58.51%), and 22 games into the campaign, the teams have already produced more field goals than last season.

On January 28, hockey fans in Ranchi witnessed something refreshing, and in a way romantic. Kalinga Lancers were trailing the home side 2-3, and with just three minutes remaining on the clock in the fourth quarter, they earned a penalty corner, and with it a chance to equalize. However, instead of taking a shot directly from the penalty corner, Kalinga took the ball outside of the circle and tried to carve out an opening in order to score a field goal.

They failed in their endeavor though, and lost the game, and many would perhaps label this as stupidity, instead of bravado. But for a romantic like me, that moment depicted everything this rule change can possibly bring to this sport. Maybe, just maybe, India, and hockey, have found their elixir.

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