FOR once, the Asian teams are not complaining. They are taking in their stride the change in rule which, in the context of its significance, compares with the introduction of the artificial surface 20 years ago in Montreal.
In the past two decades, the Rules Board of the International Hockey Federation has modified and turned around so many rules that old-timers find it tough to follow the game as its played today. But with the abolition of the offside, experts foresee a whole new phase in the evolution of the sport. Paul Lissek, the coach of the German team and an influential member of the Rules Advisory Panel (RAP), which recommends rule change to the Rules Board, felt that the abolition of offside was only to be expected. "If you look back, youll notice that for a player to be judged as offside, he had to be in line with the third defender. Then, it was reduced to two. The next logical step was the doing away of the rule itself," he said.
Others feel that this rule will not only alter strategies in the game, but also the main thrust in coaching. "Well have to work out new ways of dealing with the situation and take maximum advantage of there being no offside. But itll take a while before we can fully appreciate the real significance of the change. However, its bound to have a tremendous impact on the way the game will be played in the future," says Terry Walsh, currently assistant coach of the Australian team, but likely to be at the helm next year.
There were few indications of emerging trends at the Kuber 18th Champions Trophy in Chennai last week, the first major international tournament to be played without offside. Few teams showed they had definite plans to tackle the change in rule. In fact, contrary to what the Indian Hockey Federation (IHF) predicted, there was no dramatic rise in the number of goals scored. "Were still in the embryonic stage as far as exploiting the no off-side rule goes. But, perhaps, by next year, you will get to see far more goals and results like 6-4 or 5-5 would be commonplace," said Lissek, while confessing that a majority of the coaches around the world were still to work out a basic strategy. "In this tournament (Champions Trophy), well get to see what the other teams are doing, and Im certain that in a few months time, we would have worked out a proper strategy."
The Chennai show, however, made clear that while midfield play will assume greater relevance, individual players will be assigned new roles. In Indias case, coach Vasudevan Bhaskaran reverted to the 4-4-2-1 formation which his predecessor Balkishen Singh had advocated in 1984 itself. At that time Balkishens "total hockey" theory had been pooh-poohed.
Says Bhaskaran, who had no compunctions about casting aside the traditional 5-3-2-1 pattern of play: "Without the offside rule, therell be more pressure on the defe-nce. Well have to redefine the roles of the half-backs and the deep defenders as well as the goalkeepers. I believe that the four-forward systems, with an overlapping halfback, is the best possible strategy for India." Also obvious was the reduced role of the ball dribblers in the attack. Says Roelant Oltmans, coach of The Netherlands team:
"Youll see less of skills and more of long, hard hits from end to end. The forwards have been so intent on deflecting the ball into the goal off a long hit, that I dont see much scope for the art of dribbling and body feints like it used to be in the past. " South Africa demonstrated this last month during the four-nation Chief Ministers Cup tournament in Chennai, when it scored a goal against Bangladesh. With a mere three touches, it scrambled the ball from its own circle following a penalty corner and scored. There was no dribbling as the ball travelled the length of the field.
Meanwhile, coaches and players alike think that the game without offside will benefit the Asian teams, particularly India and Pakistan, who have complained of an anti-Asia bias in earlier changes. "Indians and Pakistanis are very skilful players, and very good at beating the defenders in a one-on-one situation. I wouldnt agree that hockey without offside will kill skill and artistry. You might see a lot of goals being scored off deflections, but then thats part of the game," said Frank Murray, former coach of the Australian team.
Regarding deflections inside the scoring circle, Oltmans warns: "Such goals might look spectacular, but you cant ignore the danger to the players. In a crowded defence, deflections can and most certainly will, cause injuries. I hope none will be serious."
However, Pakistans Islahuddin Siddiqui, one of the finest wingers in the game and now a member of the RAP, disagrees. "Weve done the right thing in doing away with the offside. Maybe, in the Champions Trophy, you didnt see as many goals as predicted by us. But then, it was the first major tournament without the offside. Now you will see more moves because of the space it creates. Of course, the goalkeepers will have a bigger role to play since there is bound to be more pressure on the defence."
Indias star centre-forward, Dhanraj Pillay provides the last word: "Im very happy that there is no offside. I can move around freely and therell be more opportunities to score. I dont have to bother about falling into the offside trap like before. Now, you get more space to move around."