First rushers and the art of running into the line of fire while defending penalty corners

Manpreet Singh and his team have a term for the job Amit Rohidas does for the Indian hockey team when they’re defending penalty corners: suicide runner.

Amit Kamath May 05, 2020 11:34:54 IST
First rushers and the art of running into the line of fire while defending penalty corners

Manpreet Singh and his team have a term for the job Amit Rohidas does for the Indian hockey team when they’re defending penalty corners: Suicide Runner.

It’s perhaps a more accurate way of describing Rohidas’ role than the tame, but universally used, designation: First rusher.

First rushers and the art of running into the line of fire while defending penalty corners

File image of the Indian hockey team. Twitter @TheHockeyIndia

When a team is defending penalty corners, it’s the first rusher’s job to scramble from the goalline to the top of the circle to block or deflect the flick. The first rusher is the man tasked with running straight into the line of fire, or to the drag-flicker, while a goalkeeper and a ‘postman’ stay close to the goalline to block. Two other rushers assume strategic positions in the circle.

Every defender stares at danger during penalty corners, given shots can travel at speeds of over 100 kmph and are taken just a few metres from the goal. While the goalkeeper stands in goal padded from head to toe, the rushers have paraphernalia like groin cups, knee pads, face masks, mouth guards, gloves, and goggles to protect themselves from injury in penalty corners.

A tip coaches give rushers is to run as fast as possible to the drag-flicker so that the area of impact can be minimised to below the thighs.

“When the ball is injected in for a penalty corner, the first runner is running directly in the line of the ball with his entire body,” says Manpreet, who is also tasked with being the first rusher for India from time to time. “That’s why being the first rusher is akin to attempting suicide.”

Bilkul darr nahi lagta (It doesn’t scare me at all),” chuckles Rohidas, who laughs even harder when reminded that the Indian team calls the first rusher as a suicide runner.

“Yes, the ball can hit you anywhere, there’s no guarantee.

Dum hona chahiye yeh karne ke liye (You need to have guts to do this job),” he adds before nonchalantly recounting times he has been painfully stung on the legs and — even more painfully — on the knee.

“Amit is fearless,” says India’s chief hockey coach Graham Reid, who adds that when he was part of the Netherlands set-up as an assistant to Max Caldas they would be wary of him when taking penalty corners.

Reid says that to be a good rusher a player needs two things. First among them is how brave he is. “Amit scores 11 out of 10 for that,” says Reid.

The other one, according to Reid, is the player’s ability to change directions quickly.

“That’s what Amit does very well, just like people like Jeremy Hayward and Craig Middleton. They’re big boys, but they can also change directions quickly and very late.”

Rohidas’ importance to the team was amply evident in India’s first FIH Pro League encounter in January this year. Twice in the third quarter, with the score reading 4-2 in India’s favour, Rohidas foiled two back-to-back drag flicks from the Dutchmen, who had experts like Jip Janssen and Mink van der Weerden in the ranks.

Rohidas says the Indian team’s tactics require him to focus on blocking shots to the left side of the goal, so that the ’keeper can focus on the right and the middle. The team focusses on penalty corner drills for half-an-hour or 45 minutes twice a week. There is also a lot of video analysis done to ensure defenders are familiar with the tactics of rivals when it comes to stopping a drag flick. But at the end of the day, it all boils down to the ability of men like Amit Rohidas to, use the Indian team’s turn of phrase, commit suicide.

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