Exclusive: My goalkeeping post-injury has been better than before, says PR Sreejesh to critics ahead of Independence day
Yet, by no means can the year 2018 be considered as just another in the career of one of India's finest-ever goalkeepers.
After an eight-month hiatus following an injury sustained during the Azlan Shah Cup of 2017, the veteran from Kerala clawed his way back to the national side early last year and was instrumental in getting his team to the summit clash of the coveted Champions Trophy at Breda.
In the final moments of an epic encounter against mighty Australia, the Indians fell short in the shootout after a gallant performance - the kind of which had not been witnessed by Indian hockey lovers for quite a while.
"My performance in the Champions Trophy was there for all to see"
It was PR Sreejesh who almost single-handedly denied the Belgians and the Dutch a second goal which got India to the final - but in spite of being honoured with the Best Goalkeeper award, the captain failed to defend the citadel well enough for India to script history at Breda.
Despite many an animated gesture and frantic bellow which warned his teammates of what was to come, the Great Wall was forced to guard his goal during a shootout one more time in the all-important semifinals of the Asian Games after Malaysia stole a late equalizer to stun Harendra Singh's boys.
Alas, this time also, the Arjuna awardee failed to get his team over the line which led to questions being raised about the stalwart's ability to defend shootouts in the matches that mattered.
"My performance in the Champions Trophy was there for all to see. The problem, however, was that we were losing in the finals or semifinals (Asian Games) so some reporters were making up statements that this guy was lacking something after the comeback from injury."
In a freewheeling exclusive interview with Sportskeeda, the proud son of Kerala gets emotional as he counters the critics who had begun to shed doubts on his goalkeeping prowess after a remarkable comeback - and explains why it is vital for young Suraj and Krishan to gain good international exposure ahead of Tokyo 2020.
The Indian think-tank have rested several seniors for the Olympic Test events where the Indian men will be up against Malaysia, New Zealand, and hosts Japan.
"Second goalkeepers know they can be replaced when things go wrong"
Young goalkeepers Suraj Karkera and Krishan Pathak were on their own in last year's Azlan Shah Cup - and this time too they will not have the benefit of falling back on Sreejesh's experience.
The 31-year-old feels that his exclusion from the side is a blessing in disguise for the less-experience custodians who will now have to assume a lot more responsibilty and learn from their mistakes.
"Its important for us to give them a free hand when it comes to chances. It's quite hard to check how Suraj and Krishan are doing when I am in the squad as well."
"When I was in the team with senior goalkeeper Bharat Chettri, I always knew at the back of my mind that if anything went wrong, the coach would replace me - and Bharat would come in and play."
"Second goalkeepers are always confident that they can be replaced, but when they are on their own it presents a tough situation for them."
"It is a great learning opportunity for both Suraj and Krishan to come into their own as they have played for a very long time at the junior level and it's now time for them to perform together at the senior level as well."
Krishan Pathak was part of the Indian squad for the major tournaments last year but rarely saw action as the Indian coaching staff played it safe by sheltering the rookie.
Things took a dramatic turn in the final of the Azlan Shah Cup against South Korea earlier this year, as it was not Sreejesh who strode up to defend the shooutout - but fledgling goalie Krishan Pathak!
What, indeed, was the thought process behind such a move?
"When the opportunity presents itself - especally in a tournament such as the Azlan Shah Cup, we need to give the young goalkeepers a chance to be part of a shootout in an important international contest."
"I was part of several shootouts in the recent past, and it was the first chance we had to give Krishan a try in a big shootout. He did a good job but unfortunately the result was not in our favour."
"With the Olympic Games scheduled next year, every player has to be given a chance to improve every aspect of his game."
"For young goalkeepers, it is important to be able to learn how to start a tournament and a match on the field of play rather than being brought on later. Being part of the action early on will give them the experience to do well in the crucial matches."
Sreejesh's return to the Indian side was no ordinary comeback given the kind of injury which the acrobatic goalkeeper sustained. An eight-month layoff was followed by a return to the side for the Four-Nations in New Zealand in January 2018 and Sreejesh was back again for the Commonwealth Games.
"During the injury period I realized the reality of life"
"Injuries do make a difference but one cannot say than an injury can change everything. The injury period was great as I learned a lot about myself and about my goalkeeping."
"During the injury period I realized the reality of life. People had a question in their minds as to what I was going to do post that phase. Yet, I came back and played the Four Nations and Commonwealth Games."
"If I were to compare my performances before and after the injury, I feel my performances were better after injury although a lot of people were searching for points with regard to whether I was having issues with my game."
"Mentally too, I feel I am a lot fitter after my comeback. When you are away from the game and there is no one to support you, working really hard and getting back on the field is proof enough of how tough you are as a person with relation to body and mind."
"It is only after a rigorous fitness test that one can make it to the national team."
Sreejesh was part of the squad captained by Bharat Chettri that had to settle for the wooden spoon at London 2012, but the Indians came roaring back to record a quarterfinal finish at Rio 2016.
If the team makes it to Tokyo 2020, what can Indian hockey fans expect?
"Major tournaments have their own feel and their own pressure. It is therefore important for us to teach our players to soak up the pressure and perform."
"In 2016, we did extremely well to get to the Champions Trophy final and also make the quarterfinals of the Rio Olympics. At Rio, we lost to the eventual silver-medalists (Belgium) in the quarterfinal, so I think we did quite well."
"At the Jakarta Asian Games, we were expected to win the tournament but unfortunaly we missed that."
"On the whole, perhaps, we lacked some experience in the team which could have taken our game to the next level. We need to work really hard before the qualifiers. Once we get through, we will focus on the Games themselves."
It is quite unthinkable, as of now, to imagine an Indian hockey team without the champion goalkeeper in their ranks - so can hockey lovers look forward to watching their favourite goalkeeper in action for a great many years to come?
After all, Malaysian goalkeeper Kumar Subramaniam was still going strong at 39 when he outdid his Indian counterpart in the semifinal shooutout of the Jakarta Asian Games.
"Kumar and me - we are like brothers. We talk a lot to each other and I know how hard he works."
"In India, there are a lot of talented goalkeepers coming up so one needs to compete hard to cement one's place in the team. Right now, the aim for me is to play the 2020 Olympics as I really have not begun to consider as to what may happen in 2022 or 2024."
"Keeping short goals is the way forward for me."
Sport has its glorious moments - and the not-so-remarkable ones as well. How does PR Sreejesh find the courage to overcome the numerous disappointments to return to the field in blazing colours?
"It is always important to think about right now rather than what is going to happen or what has already happened."
"What is important during a shootout is to live in the present and focus on which player you are going to be up against next , what his strong points are, and what he is likely to do."
"You face him - maybe you concede a goal or maybe you end up saving one - irrespective of what happens, forget it then and there and just walk off."
"When you come out of the ground, you need to approach the next step with a fresh mind."
Great thoughts indeed - from an equally great sportsman who is revered and loved in every corner of the hockey world.Published 14 Aug 2019, 20:51 IST