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Weekly Sports Newsletter: How pacer Bumrah and drag-flicker Harmanpreet have changed India’s sporting identity

This week a bit of good news went largely unnoticed by a nation that truly loves cricket but also claims to care for hockey. The word from Bhubaneswar, where the junior hockey World Cup is warming up, is that India has in its ranks four penalty corner specialists with potential to play for the senior team.

Sanjay Kumar, Araijeet Singh Hundal, Sharda Nand Tiwari and Abhishek Lakra are drag-flickers with the priceless skill of sending a stationary hockey ball past a pack of brave on-rushing defenders and a world-class goalkeeper. With two hat-tricks, in successive games, Sanjay could even end up as the ‘Find’, if not the ‘Player’, of the tournament. Mihir Vasavda, keeping a close eye on Indian hockey’s assembly line, was the harbinger of this story of hope.

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Interestingly, India’s two favourite sports – hockey and cricket – have a common thread. India’s 140 kph plus pacers and drag flickers have a shared history. An anecdote about the intriguing parallel between these diverse sports wouldn’t be out of place.

Several years back while in Auckland covering cricket, I had met India’s hockey goalkeeper from the late 90s and early 2000 Jude Menezes. The Bandra boy had migrated to New Zealand and, at that point, lived a life of relative anonymity. Not many in his neighbourhood or work place knew him as an Olympian with extraordinary reflexes.

The story goes that Jude once got dragged to his son’s school for a cricket game for parents. Not too keen to be in the thick of things, he was coaxed to go out and bat as the team had an early collapse. As Jude walked in without pads or helmet to the crease, a concerned team mate warned him about the speed at which the cricket ball travels and the damage it can cause.

I still remember the smirk on Jude’s face as he narrated the incident and shared his reaction. “I didn’t tell him as it would sound like a boast. But imagine, I had stood up against the likes of Sohail Abbas and others, stopping their drag flicks that flew at you at around 150 kph. Do you think I would be bothered by a cricket ball that too in a casual game for school parents,” he said. When pushed to talk about his innings that day and the result, Jude said that he hit the bowlers all over the place and finished the game in no time.

It was the mention of 150 kph and a Pakistan play in the same breath that had me thinking. India’s general speed deficiency was the hastily drawn conclusion. With time, it would prove right.

Jude’s last Olympics was Sydney 2000, a tournament dominated by the drag flickers. Argentina’s Jorge Lombi scored 13 goals, Pakistan’s Abbas 8. India, meanwhile, didn’t have that trump card in their pack. We had the ever-reliable Dilip Tirkey. He gave the ball a good old whack but the strike didn’t have the science or stealth.

Jugraj Singh and Sandeep Singh were the pioneers of the drag-flick but they were not reliable defenders. There was always the fear that they would concede more than they would score. In that era, Indian cricket too didn’t unearth speedsters who took the team on chartered roads. In the first decade of this millennium, India didn’t have many pacers, or PC specialists, who could make a hard ball travel at 140 plus kph.

It was an old problem. Historically too India lacked that sucker punch, both in cricket and hockey. It remained a nation famous for its wily spinners, wristy batsmen and magical dribblers. We longingly stared at Roberts, Marshall, Sarfraz, Lillee, Thomson; the same way we wished that we had someone like Floris Bovelander at the top of the D when Mohammad Shahid won those many penalty corners. Most of Shahid’s magical runs would end with him being brought down by a defender or the ball catching a rival’s shoe. Painfully, the advantage would be wasted. Invariably one of Singhs from the defensive line would step up to take the penalty corner and fluff up the chance.

It took India close to 30 years to master the 3-second PC routine. Pushing the ball, stopping it outside the D, dragging it in and piercing it through the crowded defense with a stout and subtle flick – it’s a complicated K-Pop like choreography with hockey sticks and cleats.

It was only post 2010, that India got a few drag-flickers who had to be hidden before and after the PC set-piece. The decade would see Rupinder Pal Singh getting joined by his skill-twin Harmanpreet Singh. The two would play a big role in winning an Olympic medal after 41 years. On the cricket field, Jasprit Bumrah, Mohammed Shami, Mohammad Siraj, all certified fast bowlers, too would help India win in Australia, a ‘never seen before’ event. Both born in mid-90s, Bumrah and Harmanpreet have changed the sporting identity of their nation.

Like in hockey now, India’s under-19 circuit has been consistently throwing up pacers who can be classified as fast for some time now. If that’s the case why is India playing a Test on a slow, low pitch with 3 spinners in Kanpur? The answer to that question could be a newsletter topic for another day. For now follow The Indian Express coverage of Junior Hockey World Cup. Didn’t we talk about falling in love with hockey a few months back?

Do send feedback at sandeep.dwivedi@indianexpress.com.

Sandeep Dwivedi

Sports Editor

The Indian Express