Asian Games 2018: 'Beaten by slow drag-flick in CT final - may have been deliberate tactic', says Sreejesh
Parattu Raveendran Sreejesh seems to be getting better with every passing year - and with every single match. The process of rehab and recovery following last year's knee injury was tough but like a true champion, the Indian goalkeeper not only came out unscathed but astounded the world with an electrifying performance at the Champions Trophy.
Sreejesh at his very best again
The Goalkeeper of the Tournament award at Breda was by no means his first - he had won pretty much the same award in Bhubaneswar in the 2014 edition of the same tournament. The Great Wall of India has made a habit of picking up awards ever since the 2008 Junior Asia Cup but he rates his recent performance as one of the very best in his career.
True, the Indian defenders were courageous as well, but Sreejesh almost single-handedly kept the marauding Belgian strikers at bay and frustrated the hosts too, to catapult India to the final of the grueling and prestigious Champions Trophy.
Against the Aussies, India began well and looked to have the upper hand as they eyed a rare victory against the World Champions. Sreejesh's boys were on the threshold of history in the final when one stupefying miss by the maestro himself put his team on the backfoot and compelled them to play catch-up.
The Indians dominated the match, and in the opinion of many, should have probably ended up on the winning side. In retrospect, Sreejesh's inability to save Blake Gover's PC seemed to be the single biggest reason as to why India's dream of winning gold continues to be as elusive as ever.
Yet, was it really an error on Sreejesh's part, or a spark of ingenuity that was conceived by the Australian think-tank and executed to perfection by Blake Govers?
The 30-year-old veteran from Kerala gets candid and emotional as he rewinds and recounts, for Sportskeeda, what transpired at the final edition of the historic Champions Trophy.
Here are excerpts of the interview:
'Champions Trophy 2018 was truly special'
SK: Sreejesh, you have been playing international hockey for over a decade. Would you rate the performance at Breda as one of the best ever?
Sreejesh: The Champions Trophy at Breda was truly special. The reason I say so is even though we won silver in 2016 too, the mood in the camp was quite different then as compared to what it was this time.
In London, the boys rejoiced simply because of the fact that we had won a medal in a really big tournament after a gap of many years. All the players were literally jumping with joy totally unmindful of the fact that we lost the shootout.
Most of us were disappointed after the shootout this time over. Dilpreet and a few of the youngsters were overjoyed, but on the whole, the players felt they could have done much better because we dominated the encounter. That, in my opinion, is a big positive because we know what our caliber is and we want to play to our potential.
If the boys felt that they could beat Australia, they are well aware of what their capacity is. In the Asian Games, we will not be up against any of the top sides in the world. We will be playing the lower-ranked teams, and so the experience we gained and the lessons we learned in the CT will be invaluable.
SK: Do you think our fitness has also improved since the 2016 final?
Sreejesh: We were quite a fit side in 2016. Some players, at times, get injured, and the others have to exert a lot more, which may have been the case then.
As far as fitness levels are concerned, we are one of the fittest sides in the world, and we can match up with the best teams. For us, fitness is also is a state of mind, and how we react to a particular situation is important. The improvement has not happened overnight, but smoothly over a period of time.
In a tournament like the Champions Trophy, it is important to grab as many points as possible from every match as there is nothing like a second chance. To earn a place in the final, it is important to play every single match well. The entire team was determined to win as it was the last edition of the tournament and we wanted to create history.
'Match against Belgium was one of the best in my career'
SK: You had a great match against Belgium and yet we couldn't win because of a PC at the very end. What are your thoughts?
Sreejesh: The match against Belgium was one of the best in my career but my defenders helped me a lot. Amit Rohidas, as the first runner, and Chinglensana did a really good job and we saved a huge number of PCs in that match. Once we make a commitment that we will cover a particular side, it is our duty to save a goal in that area and that is how the team works.
I do not feel it is right to blame the referees (for awarding the PC which Belgium scored from) as we should not give them the opportunity to make mistakes. When we get a chance to score, we need to do so rather than try to defend one goal. It is an important lesson for us in the future to try and increase our tally instead of holding on to a slender lead.
SK: How important do you feel our performance in the Champions Trophy is in the context of the upcoming World Cup?
Sreejesh: As far as the top six teams are concerned, the results largely depend on how a team performs on that particular day. There are certain teams that are really good but the others can be beaten. We used to lose to these teams in the past, but now we are able to beat them and also earn draws.
The way we do our homework about the top teams is important. We still have over three months to go before the World Cup and other teams will do their homework too and come up with new penalty corner variations.
Harendra Sir always says that hockey is a game that is played in between the 25-yard area. The attacking 25 is where you need to score, and the 25 towards the back line is where you need to defend. In the Commonwealth Games, we were found wanting in precisely these areas.
We let easy goals in and I was not happy with the goals which I conceded. We could also have scored many more. When Harendra Sir came on board after the Commonwealth Games, we considered all this. Whenever we get a chance now, we either take a shot on goal or earn a PC (in the circle).
In the end, the game is all about what shows on the scoreboard. No one ever comments on how you played or what blunders you committed after a win. So, it is more about scoring a goal and defending so you do not concede.
'Youngsters are starting at the top'
SK: There was a time when we played the Champions Challenge and were not good enough to compete in the Champions Trophy. How satisfying has the rise been?
Sreejesh: I feel we are being rewarded for all the hard work which the team put in for the last 12 years. We struggled a lot to make it to a tournament like the Champions Trophy but once we got there, we did not look back. When we got the opportunity, we availed it and we played continuously since (2012, 2014, 2016, and 2018).
It is important for us to stay at the top and play matches against the top teams. I feel that will keep us on our toes to perform really well.
After having played for so long, I feel happy for the youngsters, because they are starting at the top. Unlike us, they never had to carry the burden of trying to improve and move up from an eleventh ranking - that job is done now. Their task is now tough and that is to take the team further and improve upon our fifth ranking.
The next generation needs to realize that they are in a much better position now but need to improve further.
'Crowd in Holland and India appreciate good hockey'
SK: Hertzberger's goal against the Indians was disallowed and the Dutch crowd seemed upset - yet they supported India in the final against Australia. Did that surprise you?
Sreejesh: The Dutch have a great hockey culture and the crowd is really passionate. The referee had made a really good call to disallow that goal. The crowd thought it was a goal and no doubt showed their disappointment. You mentioned the umpiring error against Belgium, but against Holland, the referee was spot on and the verdict was in our favor.
The best thing about the crowd in Holland and India is that they support the team that plays well. In the final, we played better, controlled the game, and got lots of opportunities to score and the crowd was behind us. Of course, the Indian community was there to cheer for us as well.
SK: Were you not able to read Blake Govers' PC in the final- what exactly happened?
Sreejesh: Normally, a goalkeeper makes a judgment of how to react based upon the speed of the ball. My reaction was instant but the ball came on a lot slower than I had anticipated. I know the normal speed at which he (Govers) usually flicks, but that particular flick was a lot slower. For example, if I expect the ball to come at me at 100 km/h, but in actual fact, the ball comes to me at 70 km/h, I will not be able to react appropriately and effectively.
Maybe, that was a trick or a tactic, wherein the swing of the stick indicated that the flick would be hard but the final hit was taken slower.
The ball hit the edge of my glove and went into the net. I made a mistake and then it was the responsibility of the forwards to restore parity. They did a good job and scored once but were unable to score a second. The shootout, of course, was unfortunate.