Exclusive Interview: Asiad gold just the spark Indian hockey needed - P R Sreejesh
Came at the right time
The 2012 London Olympics brought Indian men’s hockey to its nadir. A wooden spoon was the last thing on the minds of the players and supporters, when the showpiece event started, but by the end of it the team wore a battered and bruised look with despair swarming them. The ramifications were huge – Bharat Chetri was not only stripped of captaincy but also axed along with six others. In fact, four (Bharat Chetri, Ignace Tirkey, Sarvanjit Singh and Tushar Khandker) of the seven axed guys are believed to be ignored for good.
Fast forward to the 2014 Incheon Asian Games and there is a feeling that Indian hockey has made significant strides since the London Olympic catastrophe. And the Indian men’s hockey team’s gold-winning feat has made all and sundry feel that the gold medal was just the ‘motivational tonic’ the team needed in their bid to climb up the ladder. PR Sreejesh, who pulled off two fantastic saves in the pulsating penalty shootout against arch-rivals Pakistan in the final clash believes the gold medal was just what the doctor ordered. “We haven’t won any tournament since the 2012 London Olympics. Such a title win was just the spark Indian hockey needed for the betterment of the sport so that youngsters can look up to us and feel hockey can be a career for them. I’m bullish that this bronze feat will trigger truckloads of self-belief, and stand us in good stead for the future. The significance of this gold medal lays in the fact that hockey as a sport will get a big boost; hopefully hockey at the grassroots level will pick up momentum,” the Indian goalkeeper says in an exclusive interview to Sportskeeda.
Was calm under pressure
Sreejesh, who made his senior international debut at the 2006 South Asian Games in Colombo, reckons he was not under pressure just because the penalty shootout of the Asian Games hockey final was against Pakistan. “I don’t feel that I have done anything ‘special’ in the shootout – I just did my duty as a goalkeeper and helped my country win the gold medal. It is not the first time that I featured in the shootout of a final. At the 2011 Asian Champions Trophy in Ordos, I had effected two saves to help India beat Pakistan in the final. Hockey is a team game and I just performed my duties as a shot stopper.”
The 26-year-old Kerala lad rates the semifinal match against hosts Korea as one of the best games India played at the Asian Games. “It has to be one of the best games India played at the Asian Games simply because we really gelled as a unit. Our defence put up an outstanding performance and believe it or not I hardly touched the ball in open play during the entire match although we did concede a few penalty corners. We played some solid hockey to beat them in their own backyard.”
The Indian goalkeeper, who has made more than 100 internationals, feels the team can take heart from the Asiad glory and build on it given the 2016 Rio Olympics is not far away. “We must build on this and ensure we keep clambering up the ranking ladder as improvement in rankings will ensure keenness of top teams to play against us on a regular basis.”
We are a much better team
The Indian Overseas Bank (IOB) employee has no doubts that the team is a much better than what their current number nine world ranking suggests. “We may be currently ranked ninth, but at the 2014 World Cup we easily beat higher ranked Korea 3-0 and later again pipped higher ranked New Zealand in the semifinals of the Commonwealth Games after trailing 0-2. It shows we are a much stronger side than what the ranking actually suggests. Trust me, we have the ammunition to beat teams like England, Belgium, Spain, Argentina and Korea. I admit it will take some time before we start regularly beating top-notch sides like Australia, Netherlands and Germany,” he quips.
The improvement process is never complete unless the Indian team regularly plays the top teams. The frequent encounters between India and Australia in recent times have meant that the yawning gap between the two teams have narrowed substantially. Sreejesh is also on the same page. “Absolutely! We have played Australia so many times since the 2012 Olympics that the boys are getting more confidence facing them. If you look at the scoreline of all games we played against the Aussies you will notice the margin of defeat is no longer as it used to be earlier. More we play them, better we are going to get.”
Sreejesh, who was blessed with a baby girl earlier this year, is remorseful about the fact that the team performed much better, but had to settle for the ninth spot. “Look, we could have either won or drawn the games against Belgium and England, but were done in by late goals. Spain was also a beatable side but we only managed to draw. Our penalty corner conversion left a lot to be desired. The short corner injection and execution were hugely disappointing.”
The cash awards haven’t been exactly pouring from the corporate houses, but the state governments have been munificent in doling out the same. Sreejesh, for his exploits in Incheon, is promised a government job besides a cash award of Rs 15 lakh. “I stay in Chennai at present while working for IOB. I will be happy to stay in my home state as the state government job will ensure that. I will be keen to see the official confirmation of the same soon,” he observes.
The country’s number one goalkeeper, who packs quite a bit of humour with his team-mates, says hockey players are beginning to get more recognition than ever before. “In my home state Kerala people earlier don’t know much about me, but now people easily recognize me on the streets and I feel happy about it. There is clearly more recognition for hockey players now,” he says.
Sreejesh is upbeat about the upcoming four Test series against Australia in November. “India-Australia hockey matches always generate plenty of interest and I’m looking forward to faring well. Australia are a formidable side and at home are an even more dangerous opponent. I’m sure the trip will be a great experience for our youngsters,” he signs off.