PR Sreejesh: An impenetrable wall ‘crazy’ enough to shoulder a nation’s responsibility
The most dependable goalkeeper the Indian hockey has had for many years, PR Sreejesh once termed the role ‘as a crazy job’ and that ‘not something a normal person would do.’
However, one of his coaches in his early years also apprised him of the fact that the department offered him a chance to be the ‘showstopper’.
“I didn’t hesitate (to take up the role),” he told The Indian Express.
Quite fittingly, it is his stopping abilities that have given him all the recognition he wanted. And to think it would have not happened at all if PR Sreejesh had not taken the difficult decision of moving away from home.
The stocky kid who hated running
Sreejesh had always been a passionate sports kid and his prowess at district-level shot put earned him a chance to travel to a more sport-centric school that was 200kms away from Ernakulam, his village in Kerala.
The nerves kicked in for the then 12-year-old and though, overcome by the emotion of staying away from his parents, he eventually made the decision to go. This is where he was introduced to hockey by Jayakumar and Ramesh Kolappa, who coached the school team.
“I had a hunch that he’d be a good goalkeeper, going by his stocky build and his body language,” Jayakumar told Scroll.in. Moreover, the youngster did not like running too much and the role appealed to him.
PR Sreejesh soon played for the school team and as luck would have it, then coach of the junior national Indian hockey team and future senior team coach, Harendra Singh spotted him at an U-14 tournament.
The latter soon called up the goalkeeper to the junior national camp in Delhi in 2003 but it was not at all an easy introduction. PR Sreejesh, whose father had somehow put together Rs. 15,000, an amount far beyond his means, to get him a goalkeeper's kit, was taunted endlessly.
The other kids made fun of his ‘amateur’ gear and continually bombarded balls at his body, routine training for custodians, but it was too painful for the 15-year-old. His little knowledge of Hindi, the most widely spoken language in the country, only made matters worse.
However, not once did the boy complain. Each time he was hit, he would dust himself off, rub the pain away and promptly return to his position. The determination soon earned him a national debut.
The tough road to first-choice
In 2004, PR Sreejesh made his debut for the junior Indian hockey team against Australia and his impressive performances culminated in a senior cap at the 2006 South Asian Games. But yet again, he encountered a rude introduction.
The tournament saw some solid performances by the Indian hockey goalkeeper but his error in the final, against fierce rivals Pakistan no less, saw the team go down 2-3 to concede the gold medal.
This was when he realized that guarding the sticks might mean he could get all plaudits when things went well but when it does not, goalkeeping is a thankless job. The early jolt was a good learning curve for the youngster.
For the next few years, PR Sreejesh patiently bided his time for a run with the senior Indian hockey team as the presence of Baljit Singh Dadhwal, Adrian D’Souza, and Bharat Chhetri effectively made him a distant choice for keeper.
He continued playing for the junior team, winning gold and being named ‘goalkeeper of the tournament’ at the Junior Asia Cup in 2008 but the first proper recognition at senior level came in 2011.
At the Asian Champions Trophy final that year, PR Sreejesh came face-to-face with Pakistan yet again, and this time, he saved two penalty strokes from the neighbours to win the Indian hockey team the title. “Only after this win was I noticed,” he would tell ESPN later.
A combination of injuries and poor form to his competitors, most of all at the 2012 Olympics in London, saw PR Sreejesh being instated as the team’s numero uno goalkeeper. He did not disappoint.
Sharp minds make for great captains
The custodian came up with several incredible displays for the Indian hockey team in the coming years. He saved two penalties at the 2014 Asian Games - against Pakistan once more - to win gold, India’s first at the event in 16 years.
The next year, he saved three shots in the shootout against the Netherlands with an injured thumb and shoulder, to give the Indian hockey team a bronze, its first in a major international event for 33 years.
The 6-ft tall PR Sreejesh turned into somewhat of a beast at shootouts, using his large frame to deny attackers. It boded well for the Indian hockey team and so did his communication and ability to read matches. The goalkeeper was very vocal with his defenders as he constantly helped them with their positioning.
“With Sreejesh coming into the side, goalkeeping has now turned into one of India's strengths. What stands out in his game is his ability to read match situations, which very few 'keepers do well and the manner in which he defends penalty corners,” former Pakistan skipper Salman Akbar had told ESPN.
When legendary midfielder Sardar Singh was vacated the captaincy, PR Sreejesh’s nature made him the ideal candidate for the role and he was eventually handed the reins of the team ahead of the Rio 2016 Olympics.
Striving for the ultimate dream
In March 2017, the Indian hockey team’s goalkeeper suffered a bad anterior cruciate ligament tear after a collision with an Australian forward at the Sultan Azlan Shah Cup, an injury that kept him out of action for close to a year.
Two surgeries and many months of rehab later, PR Sreejesh was back on the field but had lost the captaincy to Manpreet Singh and had youngsters Suraj Karkera and Krishan Pathak breathing down his neck.
Though he seemed fine physically, the reflexes had slowed down and his second-guessing cost the Indian hockey team a few goals at the Champions Trophy and the World Cup.
He worked hard to regain his mental strength and retained his spot as the no. 1 coming into 2019, the year where the Indian hockey team qualified for the Tokyo Olympics and where they won silver at the Sultan Azlan Shah Cup.
PR Sreejesh was also a towering presence in the team’s strong start to their maiden FIH Pro League campaign as he constantly denied Belgium, Australia and the Netherlands and made crucial saves in penalty shootouts as well, underlining his supremacy.
The good form would have seen high expectations at the Tokyo Olympics but the one-year delay means that the Indian hockey team would have to do it all over again next year.
However, with a rock-like PR Sreejesh as their last line of defence, they would no doubt be assured of safety at the back and a medal-return would be a fitting gift for an ever-consistent servant.