Harmanpreet Singh is the most important player for India going into the men's Hockey World Cup at home.
The numbers back it up. Since making his senior debut in 2015, Harmanpreet has scored 126 goals in 164 matches -- a phenomenal conversion rate and one of the main reasons behind India's turn of fortunes in the sport post 2016. From the Tokyo Olympics, where the team won the bronze medal, to the recent Australian series, he has been leading goal-scorer for India in every tournament they played.
The main reason is that he is one of the world's best exponents in converting penalty corners. Almost all his goals have come via dragflicks, an art so specialised that only a few can master it.
In hockey, penalty corners are an avenue to pile on goals. A PC is given for an infringement or deliberate foul by defending team inside the circle or in the 23-metre area. But converting them regularly is not easy.
Speed, strength and accuracy are the core aspects of a successful dragflick. The pusher injects the ball at the right speed to top of the circle, the trapper times his trap at the right moment, and finally the dragflicker uses his strength to unleash a powerful shot, which demands direction and accuracy to beat the rushers and goalkeeper.
Keeping it simple
So, what makes Harmanpreet so good? ESPN spoke to him at length about his craft. Dragflicking, he says, is not rocket science or something he's mastered with relentless intensity over the years; it's the simple process of scoring a goal.
"For the pusher, we undergo speed tests in the camp where we know who pushes the ball with maximum speed consistently. I talk about speed because it is very important. If I receive the ball at the correct speed, I'll get time to hit the target. Sometimes, I don't get the ball at the speed I want or in the right direction, but you practice for all sorts of situations in the camps."
Regarding his part, he keeps it simple by focusing on things which he can control. "Usually I don't look up (after the push). I only see the first rushers if we decide to do the variations. If we are doing the variation then it's important to get the ball past the rushers. Sometimes you see two rushers coming for the block and in that case you plan for the deflection. For the normal PCs, I see the defence maybe once and then go for my shot."
The power he generates on the shot comes mostly from the upper part of the body. There's not much running involved for dragflickers when they take the shot. They bend down to drag the ball after taking a step or two and shoot. The muscles on their back, shoulders and pelvis, all working in tandem to get the power behind the shot. "For dragflickers, strength training is important. We try to work on our back and whole body in the gym. In terms of diet, we don't do anything different," Harmanpreet says.
The magical 'touch'
Once the basics are in place, you need to put in time and effort in doing the right things over and over. In Harmanpreet's case, he became better and better as the years progressed. He acquired the magical 'touch' where he knew exactly what would happen before even taking the shot.
"If you have been doing this for so many years then there comes a phase where things begin to happen exactly the way you want them to happen. You'll know the feeling if I want to target the top of the left then the ball will hit the exact spot. That gives you immense confidence. When you work on it constantly in practice sessions, you get the 'touch' where you'll see the ball going at the speed you wanted it to travel, at a height that you planned and hitting the target that you had in mind," says Harmanpreet.
"We usually practice without the rushers. That's because our main focus is execution of the shot. That the push is good followed by the trap and the shot. We do the penalty corner practice sessions to make sure these things are right. We also practice the variations without the rushers," he adds.
The impact of jerk
Bram Lomans, the Dutch dragflick legend has won two Olympic gold medals and a World Cup, has worked with Harmanpreet to perfect his technique. As recently as last month, he was involved with the Indian team in a penalty corner clinic for a week. Lomans is also a believer in keeping it simple, by just focusing on the execution part. He doesn't advocate massive changes to the technique, just the minor tweaks. Harmanpreet started improving when he worked on his 'jerk' or 'snap', which as Lomans puts it, is a simple twist of the wrist to change the direction of the ball at the last second.
To achieve the jerk, a dragflicker needs to loosen his left hand grip on the top of the stick. This helps the player to rotate the stick with his right hand wrist and change the direction of the ball.
Wrist work became extremely important in modern dragflicking. In the 90s, Lomans worked on his own to improve his game but now elite dragflickers use the same technique.
"It happened to me in the 2018 Asian Games. I usually aim for the left side so goalkeepers started positioning themselves towards that side. So I see the goalkeeper's position just before the injection is about to take place so that I could change the direction at the last movement. "If you see hockey now, you'll spot that goalkeepers usually cover the right side. The quality of rushers has also improved massively in the recent years. Nowadays you'll see the rushers come in a two-block (which is two players running parallel to block the shot) to cover the left side. We have to find a way to beat that defence. You can take one step to the left and try to hit it around the rushers or drag the ball towards your body and change the direction to the other side," Harmanpreet says.
Playing the World Cup at home, there will be huge expectations from Harmanpreet. But one of the reasons Harmanpreet makes for an excellent dragflicker, according to Lomans, is his relaxed personality. He's not the one to take pressure, he just wants to score and win games for his country.