With just 39 seconds to go to wrap up the third quarter, Vandana Katariya lingered on the left of goalmouth. She would swoop onto a well-directed deflection throwing herself into a pouncing equaliser and China would be neutralised 1-1, in the pool game of the Women’s Hockey World Pro League in the Netherlands. “At last the Indian corner comes good,” the commentator would exhale of the last of 5 penalty corner chances India earned. Experts would reminisce about India’s Dutch coach Janneke Schopman scoring off similar variations in her time as a player. But there was a nervous resignation to the relief of the eventual 1-1 draw.
On either side of the China game, India earned a staggering total of 31 PC chances. They converted 3. Coach Schopman’s stint was witnessing India move two steps forward, one step back. Plenty of chances to score off, but a miserly few converted.
Chasing New Zealand’s lead in a later match, and after Katariya and Lalremsiami had notched a pair of impressive field goals, India’s designated drag-flicker Gurjit Kaur flicked one to the low right corner, the ball sidling past two pairs of defenders feet and an outstretched leg of the Kiwi goalkeeper. The goal had the skill of threading a needle, but couldn’t mask the low conversion rate of the match: 1 out of 15.
Against Spain, Indian PC takers lacked in intensity, failing to convert any of the 4 chances. And when England held India to another draw – after yet another Katariya poaching on a rebound – some tame injections as the game wore on, saw the opponent rushers earn that extra split second to get into position to parry the slapped shots. The English game saw a conversion of 1 off 7 PC attempts.
Beijing Olympics gold medallist Schopman (beating China in finals incidentally), who loves a good bag of variations when taking PCs will be simultaneously happy that the Indian women are getting the ball speedily and meaningfully into the D with pace and intensity. But the conversions – oftentimes routine setpieces – are lacking in venom and precision, even if one assumes the complex variations will take a while to develop. The low conversion rate, also given field goals weren’t exactly raining down – might well have cost India a direct spot in the quarters, and over the next few months with Commonwealth Games on the horizon, might prove to be crucial.
Many expectations off Gurjit
Gurjit, India’s lady assigned the big role first came to the fore against USA in the Tokyo Olympics qualifiers, carries the bulk of responsibility of getting India those goals. Atleast till Monika Malik steps up. She became a sensation also owing to rarity of drag-flickers in India.
If phases of evolution of a team was a thing, India’s women’s team is where the men’s team was at before 2012 Games, and when Sandeep Singh carried the mantle to get the PC job done. Most teams find themselves in this stage of development of a team – when the paucity of flowing field goals needs to be recompensed with a glut of PC setpiece opportunities.
That India is earning many more PCs – running in from not just the flanks but also straight down centre of the field – and entering the D with speed and finding the foot, is amply clear. Compared to the Tokyo Olympics campaign, the PC count of the chances earned is a definite positive. But as India looks to consolidate on that 4th place result, and build upon the momentum, the PC conversion becomes singularly important as a stat and a spark plug.
Gurjit and Deep Grace Ekka are a formidable pairing on the setpiece, their defensive duties will need constant upgrades. Affording the rushers extra milliseconds because the hits aren’t always muscling in, is another problem. As are Gurjit’s slightly predictable straight, low (knee or waist length) flicks, and angles of the PC push. A tad too comfortable in height, Gurjit will need more than her stock along the ground or just above – efforts. She has a nice deceptive swerve of the stick that doesn’t betray that the ball will pierce the right near corner. But she’ll need more of the variations – and perhaps Katariya diving about, pouncing on more rebounds or reorienting deflections.
The defensive lapses – much like the moans used to be around Sandeep Singh and ball watching – also demand that custodian Savita is forced into double and triple back to back saves. But teams like England, NZ and Australia also hold the ability to run with equal strength in the last quarter, make it doubly difficult for the likes of Gurjit. An uptick in the PC conversion count might just help her gain confidence in defense.
Lots of work left
The next season of the FIH Pro League will not see India having failed to stay in the ranking bracket, and that would mean fewer top-level matches. That implies lesser opportunities to test their PC progress, even if backroom work on the dragflicks will continue no doubt. The CWG might well be one of the last testing assignments for a long time.
There’s not many drag-flickers immediately visible coming through the junior ranks. And India’s forwards aren’t exactly setting the blue turf on fire, lacking a bit in composure in the crunch and closer to the goal. Katariya is on a roll currently and Lalremsiami has the poaching chops. But mere field goals aren’t going to chip away at leads of opponents.
Matters are compounded with the continuing absence of Rani Rampal, India’s creative force for the last decade who could create chances out of thin air and set it up for her teammates. India will need to make the important calls on whether Rani – even if in short bursts of 30 minutes – can be employed to conjure those chances.
The PC conversion alongside remains good and bad news. Many chances, fewer dancing to the goal.