Sreejesh during hockey match at Olympics | Courtesy: Hockey India
Down in the dumps for many decades, Indian Hockey has found its feet again in the world of hockey which has evolved in a dynamic manner over a period of time. Once AstroTurf replaced grass on the field of play from Montreal 1976, the European teams and Australia outwitted Asian teams.
The authorities in India did not have the foresight to face the challenge, even as other teams in Asia like South Korea, Japan and Malaysia began to compete with Asian and the World's arch rivals, India and Pakistan. India's reputation at the quadrennial Olympics weakened considerably; it did not qualify for the Beijing Olympics in 2008.
India took its time to gather its wits, get down to the task of redesigning its hockey culture and discipline on the field of play, discovered a fresh crop of players from the Punjab belt and Odisha who were willing to put in the hard yards. Luckily, it detected a bold and brave fellow from Kerala to man the last line of defence and he was none other than Parattu Raveendran Sreejesh, born and raised in Ernakulam (Kochi).
Popularly known as PR Sreejesh, he did almost everything on the Track and Field at the G.V. Raja Sports School in Thiruvananthapuram, but eventually the coaches there told him hockey was the sport for him, and that he can make a big difference as a goalkeeper. After making his debut for India in 2006 in the South Asian Games in Colombo, Sreejesh has grown into a daredevil and earned the sobriquet 'The Wall of Indian Hockey'.
Sreejesh held his own in the national team when the other personnel changed. He was a part of the Indian team's Olympic campaign in London 2012 and Rio 2016. His team was on the losing side, but come Tokyo 2020, his team did a miracle with a podium finish, with a genuine and brave 5-4 win against Germany in the bronze medal play-off. As usual, Sreejesh was in the thick of action right through the eight matches, parrying away 170 km pile drivers, Tomahawk (a variety of backhand shots) and neutralising drag flicks.
Former India captain, three-time Olympian and winner of the gold medal at the 1980 Moscow Olympics, MM Somaya has seen Sreejesh in action right through his career. The goalkeeper has been capped 236 times for India. Somaya said Sreejesh was a stand out for India in Tokyo.
Somaya also feels that the India player has to be adequately compensated. "We have been saying this for a long time, for 40 years. And nothing has happened. You have to give remuneration per match to a player, you cannot treat him like a club player. Just give him an India Jersey and ask him to play. You have to increase his self esteem and self worth as an India player. These things have to come to hockey players. The bronze medal in Tokyo can be a trigger for many things to happen."
Excerpts from an interview:
Q. The hockey world is all praise for Sreejesh, someone in hockey emerging from a Kerala sports school and doing daredevil acts as a goalkeeper ?
A. Sreejesh has improved by leaps and bounds over the years. He is probably the longest-serving Indian goalkeeper in AstroTurf hockey. He has played for one-and-a-half decades, which has never happened before. He has been a consistent performer over time, but I think it is in the last few years that he really matured as a goalkeeper, because in the earlier years, there were the odd occasions when he appeared to lose focus, missing regulation saves. But after the World Cup in Bhubaneswar in 2018, he has been really focused and consistent right through a tournament.
Q. He has been proactive, having the benefit of a full view of the action, hasn't he?
A. He has a full view of the ground and he has a commanding presence with, his communication skills with the players. He is a senior in the team and the others feel composed and confident when he is behind. Moreover, his reflexes, positioning and anticipation are of international standards, but it is his ability to impact the game by his presence and communication with his defence that make him an asset along with his skills as a goalkeeper. These are the qualities that has made him one of the world's best at the moment.
Q. In which aspect of goalkeeping has he evolved in the last ten years? What makes a good goalkeeper ?
A. Obviously the reflexes and the eye-limb coordination has to be good in a goalkeeper. The goal is not very big and the ball flies at good speed, but if your positioning is good and with all the protection, you don't have to worry much. The ball will hit you automatically. The third thing is anticipation based on where the pusher is going to drag-flick, and also when the penalty corner hits come at 170km an hour. And most important of all is keeping a cool mind. The goalkeeper gets criticised the most. In each game, the goalkeeper will have three or four setbacks. So the goalkeeper has to be strong to put these setbacks behind him. And communication, which is vital. Sreejesh has gone through all these. There were lapses in his concentration during the 2018 World Cup, but overall he has played the Olympics exceptionally well. Judgment of a game comes with experience and he has been able to acquire it over time.
Q. How far has goalkeeping skills evolved? Goalkeepers have to be brave.
A. Earlier, there was the leg guard, abdominal guard, chest guard and the gloves. They had be a little more courageous then. There is a better cover now, but the hockey sticks have changed. They are playing with graphite sticks, not wooden. The speed of the ball of a graphite is much faster. So you have to be courageous now too, because the ball can hit you in a place where you are not protected, like the neck. But the goalkeeper is well protected these days.
Q. What are the new weapons employed by the teams to get the better of a goalkeeper?
A. One is the drag flick style for penalty corner conversions. One never knows where the ball is going to fly, come high or low. The second is the Tomahawk shots, or the left-sided shots. They sweep it and the ball goes in such a parabola that the goalkeeper cannot sight it.
Q. What has the Australian coach Graham Reid done in the last two years? He said Tokyo was his fifth Olympics as a player and coach.
A. I think getting the on-field discipline, this has been exceptional. The players are also physically and mentally fit. Now, the Indians can run, run and run. Reid has made this team superbly fit; the players are also mentally tougher than what they were before. In such a situation, the team is more likely to perform than cave in.
The team has delivered in crunch situations. Reid has removed barriers from the minds of the players like you cannot beat a superior-ranked team or you cannot win an Olympic medal. His contribution on the physical fitness and tactical side has been enormous. Did anyone see individual thrust during the campaign? If someone does it, he will be thrown out. Now the last man in the defence to the centre forward contributes equally.