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Field hockey is the second most popular participatory team sport in the world, with only the beautiful game - football - ahead of it at number one. In terms of popularity, football is way ahead of hockey all over the world. If you compare technique and flow, football has the following advantages over hockey:
Did field hockey at one time posses the above qualities? Of course, we did. In every decade, and in every part of the world, hockey had teams and players who demonstrated the above qualities. Let's take some examples from the decade of the 1980s.
RULE CHANGES IN HOCKEY AND FOOTBALL
There is one key difference in the way the sports of hockey and football have been administered - the number of, and frequency of rule changes.
How many major rule changes have been made in football in the last 5 decades? Only one, with the offside limit set to two players instead of three.
In contrast, in hockey, we have made around 15 rule changes since the 1960s. Some of these rules have affected the game in a positive way. For example, the self-pass, which is a European invention, has made plays from a free hit quicker, while negating the deliberate delaying tactics employed by the opponents during the game restart situations.
However, some other rules have backfired. For example, removing the obstruction rule and the no-offside rule has affected the game more in a negative way than in a positive way - not only for the teams from the Indian subcontinent, but also to the European teams that came up with the rules. Please refer to an earlier article by the author - Impact of the No Obstruction Rule.
HOCKEY 9s - THE AUSTRALIAN WAY
The latest set of proposed rule changes come from Australia; let's analyse the impact of these proposed changes.
|Minimum of 2 Players Having to Stay in Opponents Attacking Half|
The idea of having a minimum of 2 players having to stay in the attacking half at all times is a positive step in the right direction. The attacking team will avoid putting all its players up front, as they will have to keep back a defender or two in their own defensive zone, to cover the 2 opponent players who will be ready to pounce on counter attacks. This results in the defensive zone near the goal being attacked less crowded..
This reminds me of the 80s and early 90s, when the coaches kept 1 or 2 strikers floating up in the opponents zone, for counter attack with a long ball. This also forced the opponent teams to have a defender or two mark the floating forwards of the attacking team. Wise coaches managed and mitigated the risk of goals scored through quick counter attacks.
|Penalty Corner Change|
Thumbs up for the Penalty Corner change in the Hockey 9s, as technical and tactical skills need to be demonstrated in order to score a goal, which the fans always love to see. It will give a fair opportunity to all teams to show their skills, and reduces the disproportionate dependence on one specialised skill - drag flick - on the outcome of the game. I can foresee that the innovative Germans and Dutch will once again come with creative plays to optimize the effectiveness of this rule change.
|Making the Goal Wider by 1 Metre|
I feel that we are lowering the level of difficulty by making things easier for the players to score goals. Didn't we read in the newspapers that the Indian forwards hit the sideboards several times during the Lanco Super Series in Perth, Australia, despite the goal being wider by 1 metre? How much easier do we need to make it for a player to score goals?
The art of forwards being creative in a confined space in order to neatly eliminate the defender and take a deceptive push/hit, or a reverse stick flick, or a parabola scoop over the rushing goalkeeper, is not in vogue any more. We need to reintroduce these artistic skills in the repertoire of the current forwards. Otherwise, we will end up with most of the field goals being scored from top-of-the-D hits or by backhand reverse stick hits from afar.
|Reduction in Team Size from 11 to 9|
I am in favor of keeping 11 players on the field at all times, except when a player has been sent off the field by the umpire with a yellow or red card.
I understand the intent behind this rule change - create more open space, allow more time for the players, and make the game faster.
However, just like the introduction of the no-offside rule resulted in teams packing their defensive half, so will be the case if we reduce the number of players from 11 to 9. Weaker teams, and in some cases even the stronger teams, may employ the tactics of safety first - pack their defense and hit long balls to their 2 floating forwards - which may look more or less like a rally in tennis with the ball going back and forth from one half to another.
There will be less chance for players to show their 1-on-1 dodges, body feints, dexterity and play making moves. If we give less opportunity for our players to be imaginative and creative, they will probably resort to short cuts on the field, and end up making the sport of hockey less attractive, especially when compared with football.
Yes, with fewer players on the field, and with 2 players always staying in the opponent's offensive zone, lots of open space will be created. But this will encourage the players to run with the ball over open areas of the field, more like horses in the wild rather than race horses galloping gracefully on a track. There will be fewer opportunities to slow down the game, control the pace, face the challenges and score a goal - unless a radical coach comes along and incorporates the best techniques from the past to make the Hockey 9s game a balanced one
TREAT THE CAUSE, NOT THE SYMPTOMS
In a way, we are bending the rules to accommodate the players, with short-term quick fixes. This is similar to how we changed the no-obstruction rule and no-offside rules, as players were having difficulty receiving the ball, with the open body, when being marked tightly.
What is needed are creative and imaginative players, who use not just speed and force, but also silky skills, dexterity and tactical awareness to beat opponents. What hockey fans love to see are body feints, footwork, change of pace and direction, and play making passes that strand the opponents and left them clueless.
We may have seen this classic photograph from the 1982 FIFA World Cup Football, where 6 Belgian players are facing the one and only one Maradona. The reactions imprinted on the faces of the Belgian players says it all. This is the type of reaction which Manzoor Hussain Jr. and Shahbaz Ahmed from Pakistan used to create in the minds of opponents, due to their individual skills and artistry.
Maradona vs. 6 Belgian players in the 1982 World Cup - AllSport photograph
LEARN FROM THE BEST OF THE PAST
Football had and has players like Maradona, Pele, Ronaldinho, Romario, Messi and Xavi Hernandez, to name a few, who demonstrated a balanced package of speed, strength and skill. Hockey also had its silky stars like Manzoor Hussain Jr. and Shahbaz Ahmed from Pakistan, Richard Charlesworth and Peter Haselhurst from Australia, among others. These greats demonstrated their crowd-pleasing skills playing in 11-man teams, not 9-player teams.
The winningest coach on this planet, Ric Charlesworth, is a respected name in hockey, and a key proponent of the Hockey 9s. According to Charlesworth, "Hockey is already obviously a very fast paced sport with lots of excitement and intensity. The Hockey 9s rules will increase the pace of the game and result in a more attacking style, which is obviously going to make for great viewing and undoubtly help us gain a few fans along the way. These rules are made for India and Pakistan, in my view. They have fluency, speed, terrific skills and play an attacking style of hockey."
However, I would like the readers to reflect on the following questions:
The fair answer to the above questions is that the Europeans and players from Oceania are better at all of the above than the Asian countries like India and Pakistan (with South Korea being an exception as the Koreans are super fit).
While Asian (Indian/Pakistani) players run with the ball, Europe/Oceania players make the ball run, go for decoy runs to create space, position themselves optimally to receive the ball, put the opponents in vulnerable positions, and strike at will.
Reducing the number of players on the field from 11 to 9 creates more space, gives more time to the forwards, and results in more problems for the subcontinental teams.. The final standings from the inaugural Hockey 9s 4-nation men's competition will bear me out - the top two positions went to Australia and New Zealand, the bottom two positions went to Pakistan and India.
To change, and to change for the better, are two different things
- Old German proverb
The game is evolving day by day. Coaches are devising innovative new strategies and tactics, and modifying or discarding the old ones, to be more effective.
When it comes to changing of rules, we need to make sure that we do not attempt to change the basic principles of the game. For budding players in their development stages of Learning-Training-Competing (ages 10 - 18), we should focus on the developing:
This way, we will develop player with high levels of skills, ability to read the game, and with imaginative and creative play making skills, rather than turning into mechanical players.
This brings up the question of should we be developing "All round players" rather than "Specialized players"? We do not want players who are Jack of all Trades and Master of None; rather, we should aim for Jack of one trade/position, and master of that position. In other words, let's develop specific position skills, rather than change rules so very frequently.
In conclusion, I like almost all the Hockey 9s rule changes that have come out of Australia, except for the proposed reduction of players on the field. I hope the FIH Rules Board flashes a green light to these rule changes, after the 2012 London Olympics.