FIH Champions Trophy 2018: 'Players need to assume responsibility, but Indians are used to following the teacher,' says Sreejesh
The artful use of metaphors amalgamated with a sense of humor that is witty, wry, and lightning quick is not his most famed attribute although he is quite capable of giving the most accomplished stand-up comedians a run for their money.
How does one answer an undoubtedly complex and serious question with regard to how one's present coach is different from the former? More than likely, a question of this nature would result in a pause as the speaker would first exercise caution to weigh his words carefully and then proceed to enumerate and elaborate on the same.
Chalk and cheese is an age-old and oft-used expression to define contrasting personalities, no doubt, but when you say (without batting an eyelid) that the best thing about your old coach was that he ate cheese as opposed to your present mentor who eats daal-chaawal, most would agree that the retort is not exactly conventional!
Parattu Raveendran Sreejesh exudes charm and effervescence with a disarming smile and nature that has the potential to put everyone in the vicinity at ease within minutes. Decoding the man is quite tricky, as beneath a seemingly carefree and jovial exterior, lies a serious, passionate, and committed athlete who has earned his place as one of the very best custodians ever to have donned national colors.
The many faces of India's champion goalkeeper
In the Commonwealth Games at Gold Coast, the Indian goalie charged down an English striker who then bumped into the burly Sreejesh in the process. The English striker toppled over following the impact and within seconds found a comforting arm around his shoulders, helping him up with a pat on the back.
The altruistic gesture propelled the television commentator to describe in great detail about Sreejesh's soft side. Not a couple of minutes had elapsed before Sreejesh swept off his helmet with a snarl and vicious wave of his arms and barked out instructions to his fellow players. "He is not, as fierce as he looks!" the Aussie commentator quipped.
On the eve of the Champions Trophy, the Indian captain answered questions in his unique and characteristic style on India's chances in the forthcoming tournaments, the new coach, and what he envisages for the future of Indian hockey.
Was India cheated by bad refereeing in the London 2016 final?
We asked Sreejesh what exactly had transpired two years ago in the Champions Trophy gold medal match against Australia when India had lodged a protest following the shoot-out. After a goalless sixty minutes, in which the Indians fought valiantly, it seemed cruel to lose to the World Champions in controversial fashion.
So, had the video referee erred, leading to Daniel Beale being awarded a goal? "You are asking the wrong question to a goalkeeper, honestly," he replies with a grin. "Whichever goal I save, I always feel its a good save."
On a more serious note he adds, "We cannot blame anybody. If an umpire makes a mistake, it can affect the result of the game. That was an unlucky day for us."
He also adds, however, that had India converted all their chances, it would not have come down to one controversial goal making all the difference. He says it was a huge disappointment to miss a Champions Trophy gold by a whisker and likens the same to PT Usha missing the bronze by one-hundredth of a second (in the 1984 LA Olympics).
Healthy competition good for goalkeepers
How does he rate young Suraj Karkera and Kishan Pathak who took his place in the Azlan Shah Cup? Healthy competition between goalkeepers is an asset, he says and that has helped him to perform well. Goalkeeping, he says, is a mental game and positivity and self-confidence and calmness come with experience.
We also rewound to 2008, when Sreejesh made his international debut and asked him how tough it was to maintain his place in the side with senior goalkeepers like Bharat Chettri and Adrian D'Souza in the side. "I learned a lot from Adrian and Bharat and waited for my chance," says Sreejesh who came into the side briefly when Bharat was injured but cemented his place in the side after 2011.
Sreejesh feels Harendra Singh knows precisely how to treat juniors and seniors in the team and everyone in the team has been associated with the coach at some point or the other. "He is straight, hard, but friendly." opined Sreejesh.
From a cultural and linguistic perspective too, Sreejesh feels Harendra's appointment as coach will give the team a shot in the arm as he is familiar with all the players and the set-up.
When he was put on the spot and asked how he wanted players to assume responsibility if he did not believe in a player-centric approach, the champion goalkeeper answered the question with just as much class as he executes his athletic saves. "You can choose what you want to eat from the dining table, but the coaches place restrictions on what can be served on the dining table."
"You cannot ask SV Sunil, who is one of the fastest players in the world, to slow down his game." It is important he said to have a system and for the players to do their best within the purview of that system.
"In India, we are used to following the teacher"
When asked what he felt about Sjoerd Marijne's player-driven approach, the veteran goalkeeper said that Indians are used to following the teacher and like being told what to do. If the coach shows him the way, he is ready to walk, said Sreejesh.
"If he (the coach) draws a picture, I can help him paint, so it looks better. He cannot ask me to draw a picture that he will paint." The coach, he said should have an idea about what and how the players are going to play.
When asked what went wrong at Gold Coast, Sreejesh said that the players need to assume responsibility without shifting blame on the coaches and the staff. It was important that the players support each other in difficult times he said.
The great comeback after injury
Coming out of injury was tough said Sreejesh and added that it taught him to be calm as he needed assistance for basic activities of daily living following which there was a slow transition to walking, jogging, stretching, running and the slow road back to the national team was a lifetime experience for him.
Did Sreejesh have an issue with blocking low penalty corners on the right on account of his injury?
The veteran refused to comment but said that he was working hard on his shortcomings including that of conceding goals with the ball slipping between his legs.
The team also needed to concede fewer penalty corners said Sreejesh and the boys are working towards that aim.
When asked about the differing styles of Marijne and Harendra Singh, Sreejesh started off with his comments about the Dutchman's food habits and how it differed from Harendra, but on a more serious note added that all coaches have their own style and Harendra had a typical Indian style.
As India get set to defend their 2016 Champions Trophy silver medal, Sreejesh needs to do more than just to guard his goal, as a young team will look up to the veteran for guidance, support, and inspiration.