Despite India’s 5-0 rout of South Africa in their first match of the ongoing Hockey World Cup, coach Harendra Singh was interrogated on penalty corner conversions. His boys had failed to convert three of the five penalty corners they got. The two they did were managed off rebounds – the conversion wasn’t clean.

“What matters for me is to score goals from penalty corners, it may come via direct shot or any other way and we did score twice from penalty corners,” the coach replied.

“Poor penalty corner conversions” is a soft target that often gets picked on when India lose a big game. It isn’t the only area of weakness for India. The finishing of field goals has been a long-time concern. The midfield, comprising Manpreet Singh, Neelakanta Sharma, Hardik Singh, Sumit and Chinglensana Singh, appears sterile at times. But the blame’s mostly on penalty corners and the drag-flick specialists, who often executes it.

But, according to India’s analytical coach Chris Ciriello, who was one of the world’s best drag-flickers when he played for Australia, the drag-flick’s just a part of the penalty corner. The drag-flick, he says, constitutes 34% of the penalty corner – the push (33%) and trap (33%) are it other components. “It’s important for us to focus on the push and the trap. Everyone talks about drag-flick. If you don’t have a quick pusher, it won’t help the drag-flickers,” he says.

“There’s a lot of conception about India struggling to finish the PCs. That’s across every team,” he says.

Because of the unavailability of statistics in hockey, it’s difficult to test the veracity of Ciriello’s statement for a long duration. But one can infer from the penalty corner conversion rates from this World Cup so far that India isn’t too far behind the other top-5 teams.

PC conversion rates of the world’s top-5 in WC

Australia 3 33.3%
Argentina 3 41.6%
Belgium  4 27.7%
Netherlands 4 16%
India 3 30.7%

Of course, the sample size is small and it’s difficult to infer from this what’s a good conversion rate.

But converting one out of three penalty corners chances is good, according to experts.

“If a team gets 20-30%, that’s pretty good. You probably score more than half your goals from corners,” says Australian legend Ric Charlesworth.

Olympic and World Cup gold-medalist Floris Jan Bovelander – one of the world’s best drag-flickers when he played for the Netherlands in the 1980s and ’90s – agrees that “one out of three is a good average.”

One out of three is 33.3%. Going by Charlesworth and Bovelander’s standard, India, at 30.7%, is almost there – and they have at least one more match to better or worsen their rate.

“India, as well as anywhere else, they always want us to score a 100%. The problem is if all teams are to score 100% corners, then we need to let 100% corners in. It doesn’t work. Everything’s gotta be realistic,” says Ciriello.

But India’s penalty corner conversion rates in major multi-nation tournaments, except the Asian Champions Trophy, haven’t been up to the mark.

India's penalty corner conversion rate in 2018

Commonwealth Games 6 25.64%
Champions Trophy 6 12.5%
Asian Games 7 20%
Asian Champions Trophy 7 50%

Bovelander says that it has become gotten difficult to score off penalty corners. And, he might be right. At the 1998 World Cup in the Netherlands, the penalty corner conversion rate was 46.4%. Less than 25% of the penalty corners have been converted in this World Cup so far.

“At the beginning of the tournament, you’re always struggling, you’re getting used to the pitch. All pitches are different. You gotta see if it has moisture or if it’s slippery,” he says.

One of the several reasons for the dropping rate of penalty corner conversion, according to Bovelander, is that the goalkeepers and the defenders – with extra protective gears (compared to the early eras) – are getting braver.

“You see the first runners, which is a relatively new thing,” says Bovelander. “The runners are adapting to the flickers. So, the flickers gotta work out the runners now.”

In the absence of Rupinder Pal Singh, Harmanpreet Singh and Amit Rohidas are shouldering the responsibility during penalty corners and baring the latter’s goal against Canada have struggled to make a definite impact on the course of the matches so far.

According to Bovelander, India would do well to develop or find a drag-flicker of the caliber of Argentina’s Gonzalo Peillat, who’s a master of the stroke. Peillat’s a big reason for Argentina’s high conversion rate in this tournament so far.

“If we have 20 penalty corners and score zero and we win 1-0, I am still happy,” says Ciriello. Fair enough.

Even defending champions Australia’s penalty corner conversion rate thus far in the tournament hasn’t been significantly higher than India. But their finishing is top-notch. They have racked up 16 goals in the tournament already and conceded just one. Whereas, India have struggled to score against big teams, especially in clutch games. Which is why the low penalty corner conversion rate becomes a talking point every time the team struggles.

With India set to take on Netherlands in the quarterfinals on Thursday, it would be interesting to see whether the low rate of penalty corner conversion once again becomes the talking point after the match.