After his side’s 1-1 draw with India in their opening Hockey World Cup match, the England coach Danny Kerry said that he had concerns over the role of penalty corners. “No teams are really scoring from them,” he said. “It’s a feature of the game that’s become a bit dull.” They could, however, still be crucial for England when they face the United States today.
Penalty corners are a unique aspect of hockey; they are akin to a free kick on the edge of the area in football, but with a truckload more danger. Seven or eight attackers take on four defenders and a goalkeeper. As an attacker, there is a chess element, finding the right move to beat the defence. As a defender you have to outwit the overloaded attack and be prepared to put your body on the line.
The ball can travel at around 60mph, so you have to be someone who enjoys risk and the potential of getting hit with a hard ball. Having experienced both sides, as an attacker on the edge of the circle and a defender behind the goalline, I used to get into a gladiatorial mindset.
Hockey balls have always been hit hard. The introduction of composite sticks, replacing the old wooden versions, helped to increase the pace. Direct hits at penalty corners must cross the goalline at or below backboard height, 460mm high. Hitting, however, is sadly a dying art and is now seen as old school.
The drag-flick revolution came in around the 1990s, at the start of my career. Flickers get ahead of the ball, gather it on their stick, drag the ball along the floor, transfer their body weight and, with a rotation of the hips, the ball is sling-shot at lightning speed towards the goal. With a drag lick the ball doesn’t need to hit the backboard as new, bendier sticks were produced to aid the sling-shot effect and the game was changed. Teams rushed to train up specialist drag flickers and players such as Maartje Paumen, of the Netherlands, and China’s Ma Yibo brought Olympic medals home for their teams. Scoring percentages have gone down recently in the women’s game, partially due to the retirement of some world-class drag flickers.
Also, defenders are now able to wear more protection and as a result, are being sent on kamikaze running lines directly at the ball. This is a dangerous and disappointing aspect for the game. However, the best teams are able to score at penalty corners, directly off the top with hits, slaps or flicks and from special moves. On the first two days of the World Cup, 39 goals were scored — 25 field goals, three penalty strokes and 11 penalty corners. Only three of those penalty corners were scored with a direct strike and England’s goal against India came as a result of a rebounded second phase.
The remaining seven penalty-corner goals came from moves, balls slipped or played direct being deflected by attackers running in towards the goal. All seven were well-executed goals requiring many hours of practice. If the World Cup’s first eight games are anything to go by, corners matter, as much as open-play shots. Teams with this double threat will have the best chance of lifting the trophy…