There is always a fleeting thought in the back of our heads when a vital cog in any team sport is in the twilight of their career. What next?
For Indian men’s hockey team’s veteran goal keeper PR Sreejesh, who turned 33 years old in May last year, it’s been a memorable phase in his career. India made history by winning bronze at the Tokyo Olympics and his save in the dying seconds will be a part of hockey folklore. Now though, having achieved so much in a two-decade long career and experiencing what he did in Tokyo, it is a story that must be left behind in 2021.
As both Sreejesh and the team embark on a new year and a new phase, the focus lies on stepping on the field with the intention of keeping up with the now-raised set of expectations and playing according to the benchmark the team has set for itself with the historic medal.
“2021 is over. We just need to forget about the Olympics story now and it’s time for us to focus on looking forward,” said Sreejesh in a virtual press conference, after becoming only the second Indian after women’s team captain Rani Rampal to win the World Games Athlete of the Year award.
“The Olympic medal was a dream but I still have a chance to better the colour of the medal.”
Indian men’s team begin a hectic phase in 2022 with FIH Hockey Pro League matches which Sreejesh sees as the base, building towards Commonwealth Games, Asian Games (where winner qualifies for Paris 2024) and the World Cup next year. After a break, he will be returning to the Indian team in the upcoming Pro League matches against South Africa and France to be held in Potchefstroom from February 8 to 13.
Age no barrier
For him, the time spent rejuvenating after the conclusion of the event was a good enough break to now return to winning ways. A little break gave him valuable time with family and a chance to step down from highs of 2021.
Sreejesh is also aware that goalkeepers do tend to have careers into their 30s, so that doesn’t seem to be a concern for him to keep going.
“For a goalkeeper, age is not a big barrier. It’s about how passionate you are about the game. How hard you can work, and how good performances are. These three things are important, so as long as I am good enough I want to continue. Personally, I am not setting any long-term target,” he said.
“Being in this age, it’s important for me to set short-term targets and give my hundred percent for that duration. My short-term goal is for the next World Cup to be held in India. If I keep doing my best, I can then think about Paris (Olympics) as well.”
Reflecting upon his journey – the ups and downs he has faced in his career – the senior player said that wearing the blue jersey was an opportunity very few individuals get and considers that reason enough to continue with the daily grind even today.
“Whenever you get an opportunity to make your country proud, your team proud, to take your team to the podium, that gives you energy and the excitement to play more and more matches. I know how hard it was for me to get that first jersey, I know how hard it was for me to bounce back from my injuries,” he said.
Sreejesh just wants to take the experiences into stride but stay in the present.
“I’m not looking back, I’m not looking forward... I’m staying in the now. It was not a smooth journey for me to reach here, there were bad times too. That helps you to have a strong mentality and deal with pressure situations. So from when I started my career till now, there has been a huge transformation, 21 years... that experience is helping me now,” he added.
Speaking about the younger group of goalkeepers (like Krishan Pathak, Suraj Karkera) he said, “The next string of goal keepers are developing in the right way and my duty is to raise the level of goal-keeping so that they can achieve more, they work harder and learn so that India does not miss a good goal-keeper in the future as well.”
Leaving a legacy
While the Indian men’s team has experienced the ups and downs of playing in the FIH Pro League, the Indian women’s team have recently made their Pro League debut. It is an experience that helped the Indian men’s team immensely before Tokyo and finally the likes of Savita Punia and Co are also part of the tournament where they will face some of the best teams in the world. Based on his own experience, Sreejesh suggested that performing consistently over a longer period and focus on basics must be the priority while playing a tournament like that.
“In the Pro League matches, everything counts. The goals you score, to the goals you concede, every shoot out point also counts. So it’s important that one should not underestimate any team [in the league].
“Secondly, there is a lot of travelling involved. So, you need to take care of your body first of all because if you are playing for Europe and the next week you are coming back to India and playing a match, you need to keep yourself fit,” he said.
Although Sreejesh assures us that it is not yet time for us to prepare to watch the sun set on his career, it’s important to take note of the legacy he wants to leave behind.
“See when I started my hockey career, I heard a lot about Shankar Laxman, a legendary goalkeeper and my coach used to say he was such a daring, dashing goalkeeper,” Sreejesh said.
“Just before [someone in the press conference] said there are younger goalkeepers who want to be like me. I always wanted to be part of the rich history of Indian hockey, that is what we can leave. I believe that if you can leave a footmark there... I would like to be remembered as one of the best goalkeepers India ever produced.”