Featured

Punch shots and the ramp: Hockey is losing out to cricket’s magic hands

The Kookaburras warm up with a spot of cricket PIC: World Sport Pics

Just before last summer’s Cricket World Cup, Jonny Bairstow used the sport’s showpiece event to pay ode to hockey, writes Shahbaz M.

The English opener credited the hours of toil on the hockey pitch in Leeds as a teenager for his effective shot-making on the cricket field.

Here’s what Bairstow, a defender, wrote in The Telegraph: “I owe the power in my shots to my youth playing hockey. I use the same whip action of the wrists to generate energy through the ball. If you watch Jason Roy you will see he has a nice, big flowing follow through on his shots. But I will punch the ball, with very little follow through, a bit like playing a hockey shot with a snap.”

Among a lot of things that have been written and spoken since the tournament began, this bit stood has out for me for the simple reason that hockey often flies under the radar in terms of how much it contributes to other sports philosophically and ideologically.

For instance, in the 2014 FIFA World Cup, Louis van Gaal had two professional hockey players – Hans Jorritsma and Max Reckers as his strategy analysts. It wasn’t the first time Holland’s favourite sport had turned to its second-favourite sport for inspiration. But hockey’s intellectual contribution to other sports is not spoken about much.

So Bairstow’s comments feel like a sentimental tribute to the first coach. Who knows, his words might inspire a school-going kid to pick up a hockey stick!

Bairstow, of course, isn’t the only player who has executed the skills learnt on a hockey field to flourish as a cricketer. Jos Buttler’s signature shot, the ramp, has its origins in hockey as well. The wicketkeeper-batsman was at a local hockey match when he saw a forward trying to deflect a long pass past the goalkeeper by simply putting his stick in the path of the ball.

A former hockey player himself, Buttler was easily able to breakdown the striker’s complex movements, especially changing the angle of the hockey stick at the last second. He fine-tuned the technique and developed it till the time he mastered what later came to be known as the ramp shot.

The slap shot that former India captain MS Dhoni played so masterfully in his prime was inspired from his hockey-playing days on dusty, pebble-laden ground in Ranchi, his hometown in eastern state of Jharkhand. Like most school children, Dhoni grew up playing multiple sports. He excelled as a footballer, was an average cricketer to begin with and was a bits-and-pieces hockey player. What separated him, though, was his ability to borrow the skills learnt in one sport and implementing them while playing another – like the slap shot.

You wonder how things would’ve been if the likes of Bairstow and Dhoni would have gone on to make a career in hockey and not in cricket. Would they have raised the profiles of their respective hockey teams in the same manner? Maybe. Maybe not. It’s unfortunate that gifted players like them, who transcended their sport, did not find it worthy to make a career in hockey.

That leads me to another question, one that I often find myself asking others: Is hockey doing enough to retain talent at a young age? Unfortunately, not enough research has been done on this subject to arrive at a definite conclusion but through first-hand and anecdotal accounts, you get a sense that not enough is being done.

A thesis by The University of Birmingham student Joanna Turnbull on factors that affect talent identification in hockey identifies family, school and clubs as three key influencers. Ms Turnbull’s paper, prepared in 2011, focuses on the English game. If her parameters are applied to rest of the world, few countries come out shining.

All Asian countries fail miserably on all three counts for varying reasons – in India, school-level hockey is virtually dead; in Pakistan the sport itself is on a life support; Malaysia is trying but lacks proper structures which then leads to a mass exodus of players after school level while South Korea seems to have run out of money and patience to revive hockey. None of these countries have a club structure to boast of.

A lot of young children play hockey in South Africa, Australia and England. But they are mostly the ones who attend grammar and state schools and it is one of several sports they play. Playing multiple sports while growing up is indeed beneficial for a child but the general trend is that when it eventually comes to choosing one sport, hockey isn’t always the preferred choice.

Again, the reasons are many – if you’re a South African, ambition/motivation can be a decisive factor since Olympic participation of the hockey team is always a big question mark. A common problem for all hockey-playing nations is the lack of financial security. The amateur nature of the sport – the fact that there are still many players who pay to play – is the biggest deterrent and forces a lot of talented players to migrate to other sports where their future isn’t so uncertain. Ultimately, we are often left with players who stick to the sport only because someone from their family has played it.

That, then, makes me wonder: should hockey aspire to be a big, mass sport – like football, for instance – or is it better off being low-key and family oriented? I know where I stand in this debate, which is also the subject of my next column. Till that appears, I’ll leave you all to ponder over it.

Please help keep independent journalism alive in these uncertain times. With the media industry affected by advertising, we are continuing to offer our coverage free until we return in print.

Ahead of the new season, please subscribe in print or in digital format. Subscriptions for clubs, schools and individuals.

Tagged