It is impossible to imagine a side rising to the top in international hockey without a drag flicker in their ranks. It is impossible because without a specialist, a team will never be able to take full advantage of the penalty corner. Throw in a few variations and you have a weapon that’s hard to stop. Perfect it and you can rise to the top. At the international level, roughly one-third of the penalty corners result in a goal.
Jay Stacy (the former record holder for most caps for the Kookaburras) is credited as being the first to use the skill in the 1987 Australian Hockey Championships in Hobart. Up until that point, the hit was the preferred option. But the smooth astroturfs made it possible to drag and then flick the ball with amazing power and precision.
Other teams were quick to find their own stars. Great Britain had Calum Giles. Holland had Floris Jan Bovelander. Pakistan had Sohail Abbas. But India relied on the hit for a long time before they finally found enough astroturfs to give them a Jugraj Singh in 2001.
A similar trend was observed in women’s hockey as well. The best teams had their penalty corner specialists. India had none. They relied on the hit and that just doesn’t get the required results. But all that changed in 2017, when Gurjit Kaur got a game during a tour of Malaysia.
The 25-year-old defender from Punjab scored in her first match and has since then emerged as one of the most crucial cogs of the team. The emergence of a drag flicker opened up the game that little bit more for India. It also gave the team a bonafide goal-scoring option in addition to skipper Rani Rampal.
Gurjit’s story starts differently too. She didn’t play sport in her early years. In her village (Miadi Kalan in Amritsar), but for the odd mention of kabaddi, sport was never high on the priority list.
Her father, Satnam Singh, wanted to give her a good education but since the school was a fair distance away from the village, Gurjit along with her sister was sent to the hostel and it was there that she had her initial brush with sport.
“I didn’t play any sport as a kid,” said Gurjit in an interview to Scroll.in. “There isn’t a sporting atmosphere in our village as such. A long time back they used to play a bit of kabaddi, so I knew a little about that but not much more. My school was quite far from the village, so I was eventually put in a hostel. Right next to our hostel, there was a ground where hockey was being played. We would keep watching them and felt like playing too. We asked our parents for permission to play and we were gladly given permission.”
Gurjit added: “In school, I had no knowledge of the drag flick. I would just try and push the ball. But my coach knew about it and he got me a wooden hockey stick which had a slight bend. And he slowly kept feeding me information. Initially, I too would just hit the ball but then I saw others do it and I was like ‘I want to try this too’. I didn’t want to do what everyone was doing. I wanted to try something different. And the drag flick is so different that not everyone can do it.”
She was in sixth standard when she finally picked up the sport. Gurjit was powerfully built but hockey is as much about pace and technique as it is about physicality. So, she would spend hours watching her seniors play the sport.
“When I was in school, I would try and drag flick but I didn’t have too much knowledge about the technique,” said Gurjit. “So when I played senior nationals, I got called up for the junior camp and that is when I truly understood the mechanics and the technique behind the drag flick. I had continued with my own feeble efforts to figure things out on my own but this is when it truly began for me. I would take every opportunity to watch the good drag flickers, even the ones in the men’s team, and learn from them. The footwork, the build-up and every other little thing that I could notice, I would try and incorporate into my technique as well.”
Stepping up for India
A few years after making the junior camp, Gurjit was called up for the senior camp. Her flick, like that of most youngsters, was still a work in progress but it had turned heads.
The drag flick is a complicated technique to learn. It requires coordination, strength and timing and may take years to master. In addition, you need to set aside time to perfect it after practising your primary job of being a defender or a midfielder or an attacker. So it almost never ends in one session. That alone takes a toll.
And then there is the additional load of mastering the variations. Gone are the days when a drag flicker could just smash it in. With protective equipment becoming better, the rushing defenders are that little bit faster than they used to be and with just seconds to pull the trigger, Gurjit needed to become smarter too.
Still, it helped that she managed to score early in her international career.
“My first tour was that of Malaysia in 2017 and there I had a chance to employ the drag flick in international hockey for the first time. I scored in my first match itself and that gave my confidence a huge boost. And from that point on the desire to keep scoring with the drag flick increased and I kept up my practice sessions.”
It has been three years since her debut but Gurjit continues to focus on the basics with quiet determination. She doesn’t want to let her team-mates down.
“That they believe in me makes me feel blessed,” said Gurjit. “That I can score for the country makes me feel blessed. We are like a family here. We share our joys and sorrows and if anything, I want to come through not just for myself but for my team too.”
For now, the Olympics have been shut out of her mind. Each day has a steady rhythm to it – Gurjit standing at the top of the D, stepping in, following through and dragging the ball to the desired corner of the net. Then, she goes back to coach Sjoerd Marijne and looks through the video; she gets his suggestions and repeats the action over and over again until she feels every part of the movement is in sync.
“There is always scope to improve and I know I can be much better,” said Gurjit. “We are starting again from the basics after this long break. But I am only looking at it as a chance to build from the ground-up again. Since I know more than when I first started, it should be easier. Then again, who knows what I might learn this time around.”