Today’s hockey is increasingly revolving around Penalty Corner (PC) specialists and goalkeepers (GK). In the recently concluded HIL, four Indians were in the fray in the PC department, while five Indians tried their luck in the other area. Drag flickers got a regular mention in the scoring chart and emerged as a major threat for the opposition. Sadly, that was not the case with Indian goalkeepers.
In modern times, saving a goal gets more importance than scoring. That is why the preference of all the clubs of having a foreigner under the bar was quite evident. Each team selected one Indian and one foreigner to the squad to complete the lineup. Delhi Waveriders was the only team which featured no Indian under the bar.
It was assumed that because of their tall and heavy frame, foreign GKs would not have an easy time on the job. For example, Jaap Stockman is more than 6 feet tall. Contrary to popular belief, however, all the foreign GKs in the tournament showed their quick reflexes and tremendous agility. Their big frame covered all angles in front of goal and they were quick to react.
Nicolas Jacobi and Jaap Stockman were way ahead of the others. Among the Indians, only Harjot Singh of Kalinga Lancers got significant time to play. In initial matches, he was not the first choice of coach Gregg Clark. But as the tournament progressed, he was given more chances to be in goal.
The Indian team has been searching for a second GK for the team since a long time. Sreejesh is good but another experienced goalkeeper is a gap that has to be filled. Harjot and Sushant Tirkey have had reasonable experience in the junior team. Both are only 20 years old. Bharat Chetri and Sreenivas Rao fell down in the starting lineup of their teams. Sreejesh was not at his best in the tournament. He was replaced by David Harte of Ireland in many matches.
These days, drag flickers are hitting the ball at more than 100 mph regularly. A goalkeeper makes about 10 saves in a match in modern day’s fast paced hockey. It requires tremendous amount of concentration for a goalkeeper to fix his sight on the ball.
The main reason for the upper hand of foreigners in this department is their early exposure to Astroturf. Indian talent comes basically from the rural background. Kids spend many years on traditional mitti or grass grounds. Many of them (who are lucky) play on Astroturf for the first time at the age of 16, when they get selected for national games.
The ball runs virtually friction free on synthetic turf. On the other hand, the traditional grounds provide greater friction to the ball. That is why, for winning a match in Indian conditions, the team has to make a lot of assists and dribble with the ball. That improves the skills of dribbling and cutting of players. These are the only positives of traditional grounds.
On the other hand, the grounds are full of pebbles and an awkward bounce can happen any time. This results in injuries and generates fault lines in a player. Reduction in physicality and athleticism is another drawback of desi grounds.
Playing on Astroturf is altogether a different thing. Here, the game depends heavily on the physicality of a player. Trapping and shooting are the vital mantras of success on these turfs.
These grounds are very expensive. It costs a minimum investment of 5 crore rupees to set up an Astroturf ground. The rich nations have an edge here. Australia, Netherlands, Germany have hundreds of such grounds in their country.
By playing on Astroturf, the reflexes of a player sharpen. This is one of the main reasons for the superiority of players who grow up on Astroturf.
The Indian clubs in the HIL didn’t take chances and relied heavily on foreigners goalkeeper job. Most of the GKs in India are a product of same traditional grounds and naturally fall a bit short in reaction time. In modern times, when the ball travels like a bullet, a microsecond can be the ultimate decider of the game.
Use of high performance technology is increasing with each passing day. Foreign students of hockey are exposed to that at a very early age. Also, reading the mind of the striker is the thumb rule to become a successful GK.
Normally, a goalkeeper touches peak form in the later phase of his career. A major reason for that is experience, which comes with age. With each match, a GK learns the moves and manoeuvres of the attacker. He also becomes error free and learns to handle the pressure. Jacobi and Stockmann are in that bracket of maturity. Sreejesh is only 25. With time, he will only grow.
The tournament was not a happy outing for Indian GKs; the foreigners completely overshadowed them. But Indians should give full credit to their talent. I hope they and the hockey administration will learn the lessons. With the appointment of Roelant Oltmans as high performance technical director of the team, the skills must improve. And if the corporate sector comes ahead and sets up some Astroturf grounds in certain pockets of India, that could improve things manifold.