With the group stage of the 2023 men's Hockey World Cup ending, and pre-tournament favourites Australia and Netherlands matching expectations, there's major one question being asked: Where are the goals from penalty corners? India's PC expert Harmanpreet Singh, for instance, has converted only one in three matches, and that when there was no keeper guarding the net. Most others too have been well below par.
The answer: Partly down to the turfs being used, partly to smarter defending and partly to less innovative PC-taking techniques.
Are conversion rates really down?
The PC is the defining action of modern hockey... where a limited number of defenders have to guard a well set drag flicker powering the ball towards goal. The most important, and often the highest scoring individuals in the team are these drag flickers. Naturally, then a lot of the in-match tactics and strategies in the sport cater to winning, and converting these PCs.
Now, Dutch legend Floris Jan Bovelander says that the normal conversion rate is 20%; but at the end of the group stages of this World Cup, it stands at 17.28% (42 out of 243 PCs). In stark contrast, the 2018 FIH Men's Hockey World Cup saw 57 penalty corners being converted out of 254 at 22.44%, which is a bit higher than Bovelander's reference mark.
So, why has the conversion rate of PCs dropped at the 2023 edition? There are a variety of factors but the pitches in Bhubaneswar and Rourkela have played a massive part, said Bovelander, whose thoughts were echoed by various drag flickers involved in the World Cup.
Slower pitches not conducive to drag flicking
"Ground conditions matter," Indian captain Harmanpreet Singh told ESPN before the World Cup. "Like the Kalinga turf is a bit on the slower side but we are used to this stadium. If you go to Australia or Europe, you'll encounter fast grounds. There even if you push the ball it will come at the speed of a dragflick," he said. This World Cup has seen 12 games each played in Bhubaneswar and Rourkela, and there's a marked difference in the conversion rate of penalty corners at the two venues. While 24 out of 117 penalty corners (20.5 per cent) have been converted in Bhubaneswar, only 18 out of 126 (14.28 per cent) have been converted in Rourkela.
The Dutch dragflicker Jip Janssen converted four penalty corners in one match in Bhubaneswar, but had scored only one in the two matches he played in Rourkela. "This one (Bhubaneswar) has more speed, so it's a little easier," Janssen told ESPN after the Netherlands's record 14-0 win over Chile.
Why, then, is a quicker pitch more conducive to penalty corner conversions?
"If you have a dragflick and the pitch is softer, there is more resistance, so it becomes slower and more difficult for all the processes involved in the dragflick," Bovelander explained. He also said a slower pitch allows the rushers that split second more to get closer to the flick, and hence be able to get in the way of the shot.
"The two turfs are different to each other, which is normal in hockey, so as the tournament goes on, the flickers need to adjust to it and get into a bit of a routine," New Zealand's dragflicker Sam Lane told ESPN. Rourkela had hosted no official matches before this World Cup, and the turf is expected to play quicker as more matches are played on it.
"As you play more on any turf, then it becomes harder, and the resistance reduces to make it quicker," Bovelander said.
The evolution of penalty corner defending
The conversion numbers in Rourkela can be attributed to the pitch, but why are they down in Bhubaneswar too, compared to the last World Cup? English dragflicker Liam Ansell says that is down to the biggest evolution in the sport in the last few years. "I think over the last few years, there's been such an emphasis on penalty corner runners," Ansell told ESPN.
Ansell pointed to England's goalless draw against India earlier in the tournament where England had eight penalty corners, and India four, but barring one from each side, each of the other shots was charged down by the rushers.
India's head coach Graham Reid also called this the next generation of penalty corner defence, saying that the age of runners taking poor lines in defence may be over. "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," he said.
Star Belgian dragflicker Alexander Hendrickx also said that it is up to him to evolve his flicks now that the defenders are getting better. "All defenders now watch every flicker, and they're getting so much better. In the same way, I will analyse their defensive set-up on corner, and see which way I want to go with my flicks," he told ESPN.
Lack of incisive variations
Despite the advancement in PC defence and the pitch factor playing a role at this World Cup, Bovelander lamented the lack of innovative penalty corner variations, and said it is imperative to pay enough attention to variations. "Variations are very easy to get wrong," Bovelander said, "that's why teams need to practice them more."
"The more stops [of the ball] you have in a penalty corner situation, there is more chance of making a mistake. The pusher can make a mistake, the stopper can make a mistake, and so on," he said. Bovelander also said that the old-fashioned slap going out of fashion may need a rethink. "I'm not a coach, so I don't know why they don't emphasise on it, but I think they should," he said.
He said the slap could be an effective variation also because it is a shorter action than a dragflick, and therefore gives lesser time for the defence to line it up. However, he was skeptical about a lot of players' ability to control the height and direction of the ball when they slap it. "Mostly, it is a rolling ball, to control it with a slap hit is very difficult," he said.
Bovelander also said the concept of rolling substitutions have made effective variations even more crucial. "Most teams here have one major dragflicker, but he's not on the pitch for around 30% of the match. What do you do with a penalty corner then?" he asked.
However, Janssen has a different take. When asked about the importance of variations, the Netherlands's main dragflicker in Odisha this year responded with a simple, "I think we just need to get better at flicking."