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Friday, May 13, 2022

Making Hockey Safe Again: Injuries raise question mark over penalty corner

The future of one of hockey’s most integral elements is being reconsidered, at least in its current avatar. The reason? Rising risk of injuries and a diminishing success rate.

Written by Mihir Vasavda | Mumbai |
Updated: May 13, 2022 9:27:46 am
Penalty corners are the go-to method for scoring goals and drag-flickers often are celebrated as heroes of their teams. (File)

FOR DECADES, penalty corners have showcased thrilling action sequences on a hockey field — from the cannonball-like shots hurled by drag-flickers and “suicide runs” from defenders to block them to the goalkeepers diving and lunging to keep the ball out.

But now, the future of one of hockey’s most integral elements is being reconsidered, at least in its current avatar. The reason? Rising risk of injuries and a diminishing success rate.

The International Hockey Federation (FIH) has launched a consultation project titled, “Future of the Penalty Corner”, which aims to “balance between safety and the spectacle” of the set-piece.

Although there will be no rule change until after the Paris Olympics in 2024, the FIH has told national federations: “We must consider making changes to the penalty corner rules BEFORE serious or fatal incidents occur and not wait to react until afterward.”

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The move, depending on the direction in which this conversation flows, could have a profound impact on the game.

Penalty corners are the go-to method for scoring goals and drag-flickers often are celebrated as heroes of their teams. At the last two Olympics, four out of the top-five goalscorers were penalty-corner specialists.

Jon Wyatt, the former England captain who is now FIH’s sport and development director, insisted the purpose of their project is to “start a debate and raise awareness”.

“Personally, I do think there needs to be a change but that change doesn’t have to be removing certain parts of the game,” Wyatt told The Indian Express. “We will still have something called a penalty corner… we have to have some sort of penalty for a foul in the circle but what that looks like is the discussion.”

The safety aspect of penalty corners has become a debate due to drag flicks — when an attacker, in one motion, collects the ball just outside the ‘D’, drags it into the circle and flicks it towards one of the four corners of the goal. The flicks, unleashed from a distance of roughly 14m from the goal, can travel up to 150kmph.

While goalkeepers wear complete protective gear, the defenders are left vulnerable, especially the first player who rushes straight towards the drag-flicker to block the angle and those standing near the goal post as the last line of defence.

In 2004, while playing a match against Pakistan in New Delhi, former India captain Dilip Tirkey nearly lost vision in his right eye while trying to stop a drag-flick from Pakistani legend Sohail Abbas, arguably the finest exponent of the art.

“I suffered a hairline fracture below my right eye and even today, I experience pain, especially during winters,” Tirkey, who was positioned near the goal post, told this paper.

The defenders are nowadays allowed to wear protective gear — gloves, visors, knee pads, etc — but the FIH said it gives them “an unnatural sense of safety” and puts themselves in dangerous positions to stop the ball from going into the goal.

In late 2020, the members of FIH’s health and safety committee analysed 295 matches from 11 international tournaments that took place in 2015 and 2016. Their research showed that penalty corners were responsible for 13.9 per cent of the overall injuries (49 out of 352), and included blows to the head.

Wyatt said that at an elite level, where the techniques of attackers and defenders are advanced, the numbers might be low.

“(But) we are responsible for setting rules for all levels of the game. At the grassroots level, the skills aren’t that high. Maybe that means the ball doesn’t travel as fast but are the defenders wearing the best possible protective equipment? Are they trained and able to react as quickly as possible? Are shooters fully in control of what they do?” Wyatt said.

The sight of players walking wounded on the field, or them just wearing all the protective gear, “gives the image of hockey being a dangerous sport, detracting from parents wanting their children to start playing”, the FIH noted.

And even as the safety aspects of the penalty corners were being examined, the conversion rate at the Tokyo Olympics last year further forced them to rethink the rules.

“The amount of protection that is now allowed for defenders to wear means at Tokyo, most teams were sending two runners directly at the flicker, thus blocking half of the goal while the goalkeeper had to just take care of the other half or maybe two-thirds of the goal,” Wyatt said. “That resulted in fewer goals scored from penalty corners. So, the penalty of giving a penalty corner was reduced.”

From reducing the number of defenders to restricting the height of the drag-flicks to the level of the backboard, the FIH has received a number of suggestions to make the set-piece safer. Wyatt said he hopes to try out new rules in leagues and lower-level tournaments next year before implementing them post-Paris Olympics.

But given how crucial penalty corners are to teams and players, he is aware that any decision the FIH takes will generate more debate. “We are not going to please everybody,” he said. “But we have to put safety at the heart of the decisions we make.”

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