In their World Cup opener against Spain, India tried something odd. With Harmanpreet Singh on the pitch, they tried a variation on the first penalty corner they won -- which saw Jarmanpreet Singh take the flick (unsuccessfully).
In their second match, against England, there were no variations on the first PC, but a poor trap meant Harmanpreet couldn't do much with his flick.
These two incidents, in a way, tell the story of captain Harmanpreet's impact so far in the tournament: India's penalty corner department hasn't really clicked.
From nine PCs won, India have zero goals so far in the tournament. Harmanpreet, one of the world's premier dragflickers, took five and saw all five blocked or saved. The others in the running for that premier tag -- Jeremy Hayward of Australia and Belgium's Alexander Hendrickx - have already opened their accounts, Hayward scoring four in his first two matches.
This struggle to score off PCs takes on significance given the context of India's match against Wales. If England are to beat Spain, India will need to score heavily to finish first in the Pool, the only spot available for automatic qualification to the quarterfinals.
Now, this World Cup has not been a tournament of penalty corners. Out of 63 goals, only 19 came via PCs and just three from penalty strokes. This could be due to the relatively slow nature of the surface in Bhubaneswar and Rourkela, or the fact that the penalty corner defence has been really good in the tournament. Sample Manpreet Singh's brilliant defence against a slew of England PCs in their last match.
"I think what you're seeing is the next generation of penalty corner defence, maybe," said India head coach Graham Reid. I think with video analysis you can now pretty much now analyse everything happening around the corners. You're constantly trying to readjust options on what you're trying to do. The days of runner taking a poor line, maybe they're over."
Meanwhile, Harmanpreet told ESPN on Tuesday, after the team's training session, that he wasn't concerned [by him not scoring yet]. "I have been following the same procedure which I have been doing [for] long," he said. "I am not worried that the goals are not happening. Overall, I think my performance has been good and I hope I can start scoring from the next match."
"Hope I can score in the upcoming matches"
Indian captain Harmanpreet Singh is not worried that he's not yet opened his goal tally in two #HockeyWorldCup2023 matches so far. pic.twitter.com/oDtNjKUjfV
- ESPN India (@ESPNIndia) January 18, 2023
The match against Wales is coming at a good time for Harmanpreet. India have played two tough matches against quality opponents, where negative results could've hurt India's chances of topping the group. With four points in two, they are up against a Wales side who lost both their matches heavily.
Wales have conceded 10 goals and 14 penalty corners in those two matches. In fact, when India faced Wales at the 2022 Commonwealth Games, Harmanpreet score a superb hattrick to help his team win the match 4-1. If there's a game that could bring Harmanpreet back to form, this could be it.
Hockey has seen this happen before. Legendary Dutch dragflicker Bram Lomas, while talking to the journalists during India's camp in Bengaluru, revealed a fascinating insight on how he found his form back during the 1998 World Cup. After not opening his account after a few matches (where he thought he was doing everything right), Lomans suddenly scored once and that completely changed his form. He ended up scoring in the final against Spain as the Dutch won their second men's World Cup title.
Perhaps, it's just a matter of a goal that could unlock Harmanpreet's best form. Besides, Lomans believes Harmanpreet is well prepared for this, I that Harmanpreet doesn't usually let pressure overwhelm him and his relaxed personality is one of main reasons why he's a world class dragflicker.
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The key to turning India's fortunes in front of goal is calmness, says coach @reidgj. #HockeyWorldCup2023 pic.twitter.com/BkLl3NohTC
- ESPN India (@ESPNIndia) January 18, 2023
Reid remained unflustered too. "I think the most important thing is little a bit of calmness. Aaramse, aaramse...you know? I think sometimes they're rushing a little bit, not making the right choices. Those sorts of things can happen in the heat of battle. Against England, we could have made better choices, I think. Their keeper played really well. Our positioning is going ok, just need to execute it. Don't think there's too much that needs tweaking."
Come 7 PM on Thursday, Wales better watch out. Harmanpreet Singh will be keen to show the world just how good he is.