On Sunday, The Netherlands and Pakistan played the last pool match of the ongoing Hockey World Cup. The same teams, one known for precision and the other for artistry, contested a World Cup final 28 years ago.
In Lahore, the two teams symbolising contrasting styles of hockey took the pitch at the National Stadium in front of 70,000 fans. The Dutch emerged winners just as they did at the Kalinga Stadium. But the contrast in the nature of victory and margin is unmistakable.
The Netherlands silenced the partisan crowd with the sledge-hammer force of the effervescent Floris Jan Bovelander, who scored two of their penalty corners after Pakistan’s iconic forward Shahbaz Ahmed gave the hosts the lead with a goal of quality.
The powerfully-built Dutchman single-handedly doused the Pakistan fire before it could turn wild.
Here in Bhubaneswar, at a neutral venue, the contrast was too obvious to miss. The Dutch earned nine penalty corners against Pakistan, but none of those impacted the outcome.
The three-time champions converted two of those awards, but only at the fag end after The Netherlands put the issue beyond doubt at 3-1.
The result at both Lahore and Bhubaneswar was the same. However, the process and scale of victory are vastly different. The significant difference: penalty corner success in Bhubaneswar added, not decided victory. Success at the lethal set piece is no longer the lone winning mantra.
The Asians and Pan American teams have realised this a bit too late. They have spent time and energy to unearth exponents like Sohail Abbas of Pakistan and Jorgi Lombi, believing their expertise will equal Europeans if not go one better than them.
It did not work out that way tournament after tournament. The Pakistani and Argentine legends went on to top the top scorers’ charts while their countries rarely won medals in either the World Cup or Olympics.
Malaysia scored three penalty corner goals against Germany the other day — a feat that would have easily given them outright victory a decade ago — but not so now.
Germany scored from a penalty corner, but complemented that with field goals to win 5-3 and doom Malaysia to an early exit.
What counts now is how effective a team is and how sharp, fast and precise it is in conceiving and executing moves upfront rather than grapple with the wealth of PCs and health by way of conversion!
The days of the PC are passe. It worked when the concept of coaching revolved around taking the lead and defending it. It made for boring hockey. The game today is bursting with energy of the aggressive kind.
As the Bhubaneswar edition of the World Cup reaches the business end, the rich dividends that accrue from attack are plain to see.
The biggest surprise and talking point here is how debutants France, the lowest ranked at No 20, outplayed, outmanoeuvred and outscored reigning Olympic champions Argentina, the World No 2.
Argentina have in their ranks the current greatest penalty corner exponent in Gonzalo Peillat, the top scorer of the previous World Cup and Olympics.
Neither did his prowess help get his team the bronze medal at The Hague four years ago where two field goals counted against England. Nor did his fearsome drag-flicks help secure a win over France here.
Rio may be an honourable exception, but that would warrant detailing on some other occasion.
Attacking in swarms and stinging like de-combed bees, Dutch coach Joren Delmee’s French side dismantled the vaunted South Americans.
The winds of change sweeping the corridors of elite hockey is slowly becoming a storm.
Free-flowing France struck four field goals and even converted the lone penalty corner on the way to an epic victory. Interestingly, the losing team depended heavily on their trump card Peillet. True, he scored three goals through his art, much like Razie Rahim for Malaysia mentioned above, and is worthy of praise.
But the moot point is that the duo’s prowess failed to bring their teams victory.
Here lies a lesson for every aspiring team, especially those in Asia.
Look no further back than the Asian Games in Jakarta three months ago. It wasn’t Malaysia, boasting of PC expert Rahim, nor India with its battery of specialists (Rupinder Pal Singh, Harmanpreet Singh and Varun Kumar) who collected gold, but Japan who played like France in Jakarta.
The numbers in Bhubaneswar too reveal the same. They are tricky and misleading if one doesn’t read between the lines.
Of the 111 goals, 40 have come from PCs. The healthy conversion rate is due to the fact that the four teams weeded out of the competition after the league stage have conceded one-third of those goals.
On the other hand, 30 out of 48 goals pool toppers scored were through from open play.
The writing on the wall is crystal clear: PC goals complement, but don’t complete your mission. The era when penalty corners defined victory is long gone.
More than any other team, the Aussies, who are well on course to clinch their third World Cup title on the trot, seem to have understood this. Their free-flow game brings in a rich harvest of field goals.
What counts now is not how you execute a carpet drive or drag flick from which angle at a penalty corner, but how often you create chances from open play.
What intensity you generate and how you manage to sneak a deflection through a maze of legs and sticks into the goal of an opponent with a stout defence bolstered by a goalkeeper par excellence.
Or, for that matter, how adept you are at the tomahawk, the scourge of goalkeepers these days.
A key skill that has also developed is negotiating aerial balls. It has rivalled the process of free-hit deflections for goals.
Aerial balls have made a comeback into the game after enjoying their moments in the 1980s. Without offside, overheads and long scoops have become vital. How a team collects a long airborne ball, manages its bounce and effect a timely half-volley whack into the cage have become distinctive scoring tools. India slotted two such goals in the Bhubaneswar opening.
Individual skills now have new meaning, forms new armament and makes for a whole new repertoire.
It also includes smart 3-D skills, particularly when it comes to entering a circle past tentative defenders.
It’s this mix of skills that enhances the chances of success. Not a rigid strategy or regimented structure.
The result — goals, attractive and frequent, each fittingly celebrated with eye-catching digitals, and explosion of cheer, music and fireworks that light up the sky in and around the Kalinga Stadium.
It all adds colour to the firmament of hockey.
Firstpost is now on WhatsApp. For the latest analysis, commentary and news updates, sign up for our WhatsApp services. Just go to Firstpost.com/Whatsapp and hit the Subscribe button.
Updated Date: Dec 11, 2018 11:23:34 IST