Charging towards the striker as if he was attacking and not defending, PR Sreejesh’s two lunges during the penalty shootout was enough for the Indian men’s hockey team to beat world No.1 and defending Pro League champions Netherlands 2-2 (4-2) on Sunday night.
With acrobatic saves and regular sprints towards attacking strikers, the 35-year-old continues to defy his age, being the only member of the Indian team born in the 1980s. Known for his youthful ebullience on the field, Sreejesh is a livewire on the field, regularly barking orders from between the posts 18 years on since making his debut for India.
“Goalkeepers age like fine wine, they get better with age,” is Sreejesh’s response every time he is asked about his seniority in the team. The Olympic bronze medallist is quite right. Dutchman Pirmin Blaak, who won the FIH Goalkeeper of the Year award last year, is 35. Belgium’s Olympic champion Vincent Vanasch– three-time FIH Goalkeeper of the Year awardee – is 36, like Australia’s Andrew Charter. These names are the best in the business. Time and again these names, including the India goalie, have proved that.
India in trouble. Sreejesh makes brilliant saves. India wins match. This has become a customary practice over the years with the 2021 Khel Ratna awardee coming to the team’s rescue whenever needed. Despite making his senior India debut in 2006, the two-time FIH Goalkeeper of the Year awardee had to wait six years to become a regular in the team as he remained as a support keeper after Adrian D’Souza and Bharat Chettri.
But since the 2012 London Olympics, the goalkeeper from Kerala has stood like a wall in India’s goal withstanding all changes the team has seen, be it captains, coaches, management or players. From being the third-choice keeper, Sreejesh is now grooming Krishan Bahadur Pathak, Suraj Karkera and Pawan, among others, who will take up the mantle once the Olympic bronze medallist decides to hang up his goalkeeping kit.
“Sreejesh has proved that one can succeed despite coming from a culture (not well known for its hockey players). He is at a different level completely and it feels so nice to watch him enjoying his hockey. Sreejesh is a perfect idol for the young generation,” said D’Souza.
The former India goalkeeper recalled the teenaged Sreejesh come into the Indian setup, face language and cultural barriers, overcome them and develop into one of the world’s best keepers. Back then, D’Souza would advise Sreejesh to develop his own style of keeping, form his own identity.
“As goalkeepers, we always try to copy another goalkeeper. It goes without saying. We used to watch videos. I have got advice from seniors saying, ‘Hey, you got to be your own style.’ And that made such a big impact because no matter what we learn, our walking style, our talking style is going to be a bit different in life,” he said.
Today, Sreejesh’s style, mannerisms and antics stand out, making him the entertainer of the pack. For the entire side, ‘Sree bhai’ is the guy to seek advice from, to learn hockey from, but also someone to joke around with, who can easily lighten the mood of the team, especially when it is down.
“I have learnt how to lead from the front from my seniors like Sreejesh which has helped me take responsibility. It has helped me be the best version of myself and helped push my teammates to give their best on the pitch,” said India vice-captain Hardik Singh, the 2023 FIH Player of the Year.
With the Pro League the final arena to test himself before the Paris Olympics, where Sreejesh will like nothing more than to stand on the rostrum again, the former India skipper is keen to push himself. Unlike most tournaments, only 16 players are allowed at the Games, meaning only one keeper.
Though Pathak has done exceptionally in the last few years, regularly alternating quarters with Sreejesh, it is likely that the senior goalkeeper will get the ticket to Paris. Sreejesh would want to fine tune his skills, sharpen his reaction time and get enough game time before heading to Paris, starting with India’s next contest against Tokyo Olympics silver medallists Australia in Bhubaneswar on Thursday.