He’s vocal, chirpy and pretty good when it comes to thwarting the opposition’s ploy.
But the recent past has seen Indian hockey goalkeeper PR Sreejesh bring out another facet of his character to good effect too. One that of a mentor.
Though the Kerala man made his senior team debut in 2006, it wasn’t after India’s forgetful showing at the 2012 Olympics in London that PR Sreejesh took over the pads as the first choice goalkeeper of the Indian hockey team.
While the initial years were nothing short of a bumpy ride for the feisty shot-stopper who takes pride in being the leader of the defence, as time passed, PR Sreejesh evolved into one of the best goalkeepers in the world.
This rise through the ranks was also a testament to the fact that he was nominated for the year-end FIH Awards -- under the best goalkeeper category -- in 2016.
This period has also seen Indian hockey climbing through the ranks to once again establish itself as a fierce force in world hockey.
Though the national team has done well to find able replacements to ensure that they were never caught wanting when a generation passed on the baton to the next, the goalkeeping department paints a bit of a different picture in this respect.
While PR Sreejesh has been with the side for over a decade and has been the undisputed number one in the past 5-7 years, the Indian star has barely been challenged by a backup choice till date.
PR Sreejesh has an eye on youngsters
But that seems to be changing now. And that’s largely down to PR Sreejesh himself.
If youngsters Krishan Pathak and Suraj Karkera are to be believed, being understudy to one of the best has done a world of good for them.
“There’s a lot that you can learn by just being around him, training with him,” says the 23-year-old Krishan in a conversation with the Olympic Channel.
“Sreejesh bhai is a leader and that’s something that I have picked up from him. How to lead the team from the back? How to be vocal and ensure that your defence maintains the shape always…”
With the best view in the house for any game, PR Sreejesh is often the one to dictate the terms in the Indian defence. While one can hear him put his vocal cords to good use even in a packed stadium, the 32-year-old’s commitment to ensuring that the team stays pumped up is evident if you are to glance to the Indian bench when he’s there.
And in the past year, PR Sreejesh has been on the bench more times than he would have liked. This is down to the team management’s decision to rotate the goalkeepers in every quarter.
In 2019, with the team barely involved in any significant competition apart from the Olympic qualifiers, the Graham Reid-coached side was keen on allowing the reserve ’keepers a chance under the floodlights. An idea that PR Sreejesh was onboard within no time.
“I think that made a lot of sense. I made my debut in 2006 but had to wait till 2012 to be a regular starter. They (reserve ’keepers) are keen to ensure that they make the most of the chance and that’s a heartening thing to see,” says PR Sreejesh.
“It’s not just about going out and performing when called upon, they are keen to learn from the experience as well. That’s the upside to this.”
While PR Sreejesh doesn’t deny the impact that game time can have on a young goalkeeper’s mindset, he believes that helping them grow also helps in ensuring he stays on top of the game as well.
Hunger to stay on top
“The youngsters are bound to improve with the experience that they gain with every opportunity. When that happens, you need to up your game as well, or else the guys will replace you. That’s the reality of this sport,” he reasons.
So, does he finally see some competition in the goalkeeping department?
“It's too early to say that...” he answers before letting out a laugh.
“For me, the competition is with myself. I am not the one to be satisfied with what I have done so far. I try to improve with every passing day, every training session. I have to prove to the team, to the coaches that I am still the best in the country, every single day.”
With his hunger to prove himself at this stage and the desire to nurture upcoming talent, the Indian hockey goalkeeping department is in safe hands.