The loudest cheer for the Indian men’s hockey team during the Tokyo Olympics was not after a goal. It was after a save. A save that was no less significant.
India led Germany 5-4 in the bronze medal playoff in Tokyo and with seconds left on the clock, the Germans had a Penalty Corner. Late goals had often broken Indian hockey fans’ hearts and even with seven seconds left to play, a first hockey medal at the Olympics was far from secured.
But PR Sreejesh was not going to let history repeat itself. He was there to make history. New history for Indian hockey. And he did just that. He saved the PC. It was the final one of many saves that bit by bit had brought Indian hockey that far in Tokyo and it was Sreejesh who made sure they got over the line. It had to be him, he had a promise to keep.
“This is the Olympics, go play your hearts out. Make mistakes, I’m there to save you,” was Sreejesh’s message to his teammates. He kept his word and how.
For most parts of India’s Olympic campaign, Sreejesh’s communication with his teammates, as much as his saves, stood out. The lack of fans made it very palpable to even television viewers, but it wasn’t the lack of noise that made the difference, it was the clarity in the goalkeeper’s thought.
“We all saw Sreejesh was very vocal, but just being vocal is not good enough. What stood out for me was how clear he was with his communication. That made a big difference,” former India goalkeeper Adrian D’Souza told Scroll.in.
“Communication is the most important thing for a goalkeeper. When you communicate it makes things easier for you as your defence performs better when you guide them. And Sreejesh has been excellent on that front for a few years. You could see how much it helped the team in Tokyo,” he added.
All goalkeepers receive special training to improve their communication on the field but for Sreejesh, it required a lot more effort. When he joined the national camp for the first time in 2004, he could barely speak anything other than Malayalam.
Fast forward to 2021, Sreejesh can also speak Hindi, English and even Punjabi to an extent. So PR Sreejesh can transform himself into Sreejender Singh whenever the need is as he himself put it during a recent interview with NDTV.
“Sreejesh is a curious fellow. He doesn’t just want to know what you are doing or reading or watching but he also wants to know why you are doing it. That quality has helped him grow not just as a goalkeeper but also as a human being. His personality was on full show in Tokyo,” D’Souza said.
His willingness to learn has not just helped him overcome a language barrier. It has helped him improve his technique even at an age where most athletes don’t find it easy to adapt.
In Tokyo, Sreejesh displayed his full range of saves. Making reflex stops, getting down low to keep the ball out, to rushing out and closing down the angles for strikers, Sreejesh was able to do everything when called upon.
“It’s astonishing how Sreejesh has been able to adapt and tweak his technique so many times during his career. After 25, it’s really difficult to make too many changes to your technique but Sreejesh has just kept getting better,” D’Souza said.
“The penalty shootout we have now wasn’t there before. It was a new technique for the whole world. But no goalkeeper has mastered that as well as Sreejesh. It’s because he is such a fast and keen learner,” he added.
India did not need Sreejesh’s penalty shootout skills in Tokyo, but just knowing that there is a goalkeeper who can bail the team out in case the match goes to the tiebreaker must lift a huge load of the team’s shoulders. It was probably one of the reasons why the team were able to finish off the job without needing penalties.
But even without a shootout, Sreejesh was no less crucial. His save late in the first match against New Zealand got them off to a winning start. He was the saviour again in the all-important quarter-final against Great Britain when India’s backs were against the wall in the second half.
At some point in almost every game, India went through a spell where they needed Sreejesh to be at his best. And he delivered every single time.
“The pressure that Sreejesh went through in Tokyo, no other Indian goalkeeper has in the past,” D’Souza said.
“This team didn’t have players like Ashok Kumar or Dhanraj Pillay who could take all the pressure away. Heading into Tokyo, he knew the team was heavily dependent on him. He knew he was going to be under pressure, he was going to be tested but he was still cheerful and in a state of mind, he loves to be. And most importantly, he still provided the goods. It was incredible,” he added.
While there were many notable performers for India as they won bronze at the Tokyo Olympics, Sreejesh stood out for his saves and a lot more but also for the frequency with which he was able to perform.
“The one thing that stood out most with PR Sreejesh in Tokyo was his consistency. It’s one thing to have one big game but to do it every game and get better with it was his greatest achievement at the Olympics,” D’Souza said.
“If there was another match for a medal after the bronze medal game, I’m sure we would have won because Sreejesh had reached such a level that the chances of him making a save were a lot more than him conceding,” he added.
It’s been a long journey for Sreejesh who’s had his fair share of heartbreaks on the way. He was part of the group that had finished last at the 2012 London Olympics. And then beaten soundly in the quarter-final at Rio four years later.
For Sreejesh though it has all been about learning new things and getting better. In Tokyo 2020, he was probably at his best, living up to his own wise words.
“Goalkeepers are like wine, the longer you keep them, the better it tastes,” he had once said.
And Sreejesh is far from done yet. He said he will play till the time he’s kicked out of the team. Only time will tell if it will ever come to this but till then Indian hockey will have had many more occasions to celebrate.
Watch PR Sreejesh’s full interview with Sony Sports after India’s bronze medal win: