In the danger zone of the drag-flick: Tirkey, Rasquinha recall fractures, close calls, speed of Pakistani Sohail Abbas

Dilip Tirkey is scarred for life. Literally.

Eighteen years ago, in October 2004 at the National Stadium in Delhi, Tirkey was holding the right goal post when Pakistani legend Sohail Abbas launched his ferocious drag-flick. On the left post was Viren Rasquinha. And they both watched in awe as goalkeeper Adrian D’Souza, in his unmistakable style, charged in to block Abbas’ shot.

For Rasquinha and Tirkey, D’Souza’s runs made it much harder to aim for the ball. “If he couldn’t stop the ball, it would go through his legs or under his arms. And Sohail had a slingshot action, so you couldn’t judge where the ball was going,” says Rasquinha.

“In that game against Pakistan, we expected Dilip to take the right post and I would take the left. Sohail kicked, Adrian rushed, the ball deviated slightly from him and went off course.

Tirkey, not a man of many words, enters the stream while recounting what happened next. “I couldn’t spot the ball. When Adrian rushed out I just spun around a bit and before I could react any further the bullet hit my eye. Ekdum sunn hogaya thode second k liye et phir, gir gaya (I went numb for a few seconds then fell to the ground). I couldn’t open my right eye.

Tirkey suffered a hairline fracture just below his right eye. He says he is still shaking now, while recalling the incident that happened almost two decades ago. “The mark is still there and it still hurts today, especially during the winters,” he says.

The potential danger of the hockey ball flying at high speed following a drag-flick and the future of the penalty wedge, an integral part of the sport, are under discussion and review after the International Federation de hockey has launched a consultation project entitled: “Future of the Penalty Corner”.

The danger during drag-flicks is most pronounced for defenders, notably early rushers, the player who runs to the flicker to cut his angle, and postmen, those guarding the posts, like Rasquinha and Tirkey.

When they were both playing, the defenders didn’t wear much protective gear. Like Gavaskar facing the fearsome West Indian playmakers with nothing but a soft hat, defenders back then largely depended on their reflexes and a bit of luck.

“I’m not going to lie, we were very scared. Ball zoo-zoo karke jaata hai,” Tirkey says. Rasquinha, who shared this fear, adds: “We stood without any protection, except for the abdomen guard. Most of us weren’t even wearing mouth guards, so my colossal fear was that the bullet would hit my teeth and knock them all out. It was a real fear.

Over the years, the rules have changed and defenders have 40 seconds to wear all of their protective gear – face masks, gloves, knee pads, etc. This has reduced the severity of injuries in some cases and drag movie supporters say advances in technology should be used to make penalty corners safer, rather than changing the rules.

“For me, it’s like F1 racing,” says Gonzalo Peillat, whose drag racing films propelled Argentina to the top step of the podium at the Rio Olympics. Peillat, who now represents Germany in international hockey and is one of the best contemporary drag-flickers, is unhappy with the FIH’s decision, saying penalty corners are no less dangerous compared to other open game situations.

“I don’t think it’s (the PC review) a good idea. In F1, there are fewer and fewer injuries because of technology. You can have the same thing even in hockey. We use a lot of gear that protects everything from face to toe. In the last two Olympics, there hasn’t even been a single repair corner injury,” says Peillat.

This does not necessarily mean that they are completely safe.

At the Tokyo Olympics, Indian defender Amit Rohidas, considered one of the country’s top runners, suffered bruises to his chest, abdomen, knee and ankle in a single match – against the Germany during the bronze medal qualifier. What Rohidas does is dubbed in hockey as a “suicide run” – charging straight for the flicker, to stop the shot even if it means taking a hit.

The FIH argued that the protective gear gave defenders a false sense of security, causing them to run directly into the path of the ball without thinking of the consequences. Rasquinha agrees. “The speed at which the ball travels, no face mask will protect you if you get hit directly,” he says.

Rasquinha’s spirit dates back to the early winter encounter against Pakistan in 2004. After the game in Delhi, where Tirkey was injured, the caravan moved to Chandigarh and from there to Amritsar where Abbas scored his world record 268th goal.

Rasquinha remembers the goal not just for memory, but also because it almost knocked him out of his mind. “I was guarding the left goal post. And again, Adrian charged. This time the ball came from under his armpit. I couldn’t see it until the last second when I noticed it was heading straight for the middle of my eyes. I just dodged at the last split second and as the ball went over my head I could feel the breeze…” he said.

The shot was so fast, adds the former India captain, that the ball went through the net and hit the billboards. “The referee thought he was over the goal and signaled he was out. But all the Pakistani players and I knew it was going in the goal. Rasquinha pauses momentarily to think. Then adds: “I didn’t have a face mask, no mouth guards… I could have died that day.”

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