Riding high on the Asian Champions Trophy success last month, veteran goalkeeper PR Sreejesh believes the continental tournament served as an apt platform for the upcoming Hangzhou Asian Games 2023.
The Indian men’s hockey team was unbeaten in the six-team event to lift their fourth title. They outsmarted teams like Japan, Pakistan, South Korea, and Malaysia (twice), including the come-from-behind win in the final where they overhauled a 3-1 deficit.
Speaking exclusively to Sportskeeda in a Hockey India event in Bengaluru, PR Sreejesh emphasized the importance of the Asian Champions Trophy games as they will face the same opponents later this month in China.
“Asian Champions Trophy literally was the rehearsal for the Asian Games because those are the teams that are going to be a tough opponent for us," Sreejesh told Sportskeeda.
"The preparation began four years back. After the last Asian Games, we started our journey towards the next Olympics game and after that, this Asian Games is coming for us. This preparation is always important for us because this Asian Games is a platform for a direct ticket to Paris,” he added.
Sreejesh along with Krishan Bahadur Pathak (goalkeeper of the 2016 junior World Cup winning team) has shared the goalkeeping duties for India for almost four years. The duo have an experience gap of 12 years but when it comes to commitment, they remain on the same page.
India adopted the split goalkeeping duties in alternative quarters earlier in the World Cup at home. This was the first time they went with this strategy in a major tournament as then head coach Graham Reid wanted to prepare Krishan for game time in case of an injury to Sreejesh.
Both the players continued with this plan in the Asian Trophy and Sreejesh confirmed that the same approach will continue in the Asian Games.
“Definitely, until and unless if there is any crucial situation that comes or any injury comes then we are going to change. But this is what we are going to follow so far now,” the senior goalkeeper stated.
“As I mentioned in my initial stage I never got the opportunity to play with the senior team. They always kept the second goalkeeper as the reserve goalkeeper but later on, they changed that scenario.
"Even if the second goalkeeper is not experienced enough, we try to give him at least one quarter. Later on when Krishan started gaining experience then we shared each quarter. In some ways we are preparing the next generation,” he stressed the importance of splitting goalpost responsibility.
Sreejesh, who made his India debut at the 2010 World Cup in New Delhi, completed 300 international caps during the Asian Champions Trophy semi-final clash against Japan. He joined former India captain Manpreet Singh to achieve the landmark from the current Indian team.
“Getting milestones is always great as an individual. That inspires me definitely to play more and that inspires youngsters to pick and focus more in their careers because most of the people quit in between,” Sreejesh said on 300 appearances for India in international hockey.
“When a player achieves 300 or 400 caps that’s a great motivation for youngsters to achieve more in their career. Definitely being a goalkeeper I never thought I could achieve that because goalkeepers in the initial stage never get to play enough matches,” he added.
"Paddy Upton's sessions were helpful for us" - PR Sreejesh
On June 29, Hockey India appointed renowned South African mental conditioning coach Paddy Upton to work with the men’s team for the Asian Games. Upton was part of the coaching staff of the triumphant 2011 World Cup men’s cricket team. He has also been part of the South Africa men's cricket team when they attained the No.1 ranking in all three formats between 2012 and 2015.
The Cape Town-based expert has also worked with other sporting teams like FC Goa and FC Hyderabad in the Indian Super League (ISL) and England men’s rugby team. He has also worked with South Africa and Australian men's hockey teams for a brief period.
Speaking on the experience of attending the sessions of the 54-year-old mental expert, PR Sreejesh said they are eagerly waiting for him to return before the Asian Games.
“Paddy worked with the cricket team during the World Cup (2011 and 2022). After he joined the (hockey) team, we got three sessions that was pretty helpful. I don’t what he kept as a secret before the Asian Games. We are waiting for his upcoming sessions and then we will know,” the Major Dhyan Chand Khel Ratna awardee said.
Paddy Upton’s compatriot Craig Fulton was named as replacement of Graham Reid as the Indian men’s team hockey chief coach in April following the latter’s resignation after India’s exit in the World Cup.
Although Fulton has 25 years of coaching experience where he managed Ireland (2014-2018) and was the assistant coach of Tokyo Olympics gold medallist Belgium side, Sreejesh called the South African a young coach who can easily read the mindset of youngsters.
"He is a youngster and not very old. That’s a good sign for us because he can understand the feelings of young players. He understood where they lack and miss their minds. He worked with all the good teams. Last year he was with the Belgium team which lifted the Olympic medal and World Cup. That experience is going to help us a lot,” Sreejesh mentioned about Fulton’s abilities as a coach.
“It’s been three to four months we have been working with him. He didn’t make anything drastic changes in the system. Sudden change for any player is quite hard for any player to observe it or accept it.
"But slowly he is trying to change the entire system in the way he wanted (us) to play. The players are skilful enough to understand the changes he brings in the team,” the 37-year-old senior Indian player added.
Sreejesh was the vice-captain of India when they last won a gold medal in the 2014 Asian Games in South Korea. India will eye for a direct entry in the Paris Olympics next year with their fourth Asian Games gold in Hangzhou.
Speaking on the only difference between the present team and the victorious one of 2014, Sreejesh mentioned:
“The teams are doing really good. This time also it’s good and that time it was the same. It’s all about the one match - the semi-final is a crucial bout where you need to put your 100 percent to play. Players need to understand the pressure and they just need to overcome that.”
“They just need to play their normal game and when you do that, you can beat any team in this world. When you are trying to do something differently, that’s the time we slag and we get troubles," he added.
PR Sreejesh has been part of India’s many major tournaments like representing the country in four World Cups (2010, 2014, 2018 & 2023), three Olympic events (2012, 2016 & 2021), and three Commonwealth Games (2014, 2018 & 2022). He is all set to participate in his third Asian Games this year.