The experienced shot-stopper shared the team’s outlook ahead of their FIH Olympic qualifier against Russia next month.
The Indian men’s hockey team will take on Russia in their FIH Hockey Olympic Qualifiers at the Kalinga Stadium in Bhubaneshwar on November 1-2 with the winner sealing their place for the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo.
Ranked fifth in the world, the Manpreet Singh-led India side has had a satisfactory season so far.
While they missed out on the inaugural FIH Pro League, a silver-medal show at the Sultan Azlan Shah Cup and a winning run at the FIH World Series Finals were accompanied by some quality performances at the various Test series, including a 5-0 win in a tour that saw them play world champions Belgium and European heavyweights Spain.
But despite such a run of form, the Indian team isn’t taking their Olympic qualifier lightly. Speaking to the Olympic Channel, Indian goalkeeper and one of the senior members of the side, PR Sreejesh gave his insight into the side’s tune-up for the two vital matches at the start of next month. “I see this as a take-off year. Like, we had a new coach join us this year and the team has come up with some consistent performances,” he said.
“But what usually matters is how we end the year. How we perform in a major event, how the team performs when it matters. So, be it the test series or the Olympic Test Event, it helped in building our confidence. But what will matter is how we perform in the qualifiers.”
Sreejesh was talking about the change in the guard that the team saw early in the season where Australian Graham Reid was appointed as the head coach after Harendra Singh was sacked following the team’s below-par show at the 2018 FIH World Cup.
While a new coach usually means a change in philosophy and approach, the 31-year-old shot-stopper said that the team hasn’t undergone a huge overhaul in terms of their approach. “I think the coaches at the top level have a somewhat similar style. What usually differs is from where they come. Like a coach from Europe tends to have his style built around quick movements, fast passes, while someone from Australia and Asia looks at trickery and skill,” he said.
“The advantage we have is that we are more skilful players. We are like artistes. So, it becomes easier for us to adapt to a new style without much trouble. If we are to talk about Harendra (Singh), he has Indian roots and has worked under top coaches in the past — something that’s helped him gather immense knowledge about the sport. So, when he was in charge, he tried to polish the side he had."
“I think, even Graham is trying to do something similar. He’s not trying to bring in some wholesale changes. He’s trying to improve us and take a step or two ahead from where we are. I don’t think we have enough time for some big changes in the way we play. Ever since he’s come, we have been playing quite a bit.”
Up against Russia, a team ranked 22nd in the world in their FIH Olympic Qualifier, many are tempted to draw a few conclusions given the gulf between the two teams. And the 10-0 defeat that the Indian meted out to the Russians in their pool stages of the FIH Series Finals seems to be giving enough reasons for the Indian to believe that this could be a cakewalk.
But Sreejesh assured that the team isn’t looking at it that way. “See, there’s a difference between the two matches. This is the qualifier for the Olympics and that was the World Series Finals. The level of pressure has a huge difference. It’s a do-or-die match. And Russia will come with that level of preparedness. Like, ‘Let’s play our best and hope to beat India and qualify’. In such a situation we can’t afford to take them lightly,” he said.
Moreover, with qualifying for the Olympics being the team’s primary objective, the Kerala man believed that it’s up to the team to deliver when it matters.
“For us, qualifying for the Olympics is paramount. That’s the least that’s expected of an Indian hockey team every time. The level of expectation from the hockey team is very high, so there’s some pressure because of that as well. Be it the news, social media, or the fans everyone wants the Indian team at the Olympics,” he explained.
So India expects.
Now can Sreejesh and his team mates deliver the all-important Olympic place at the start of next month?