When the National Games were last held in 2015 in his home state of Kerala, Murali Sreeshankar was in the 11th standard and witnessed the event as a spectator. The festive atmosphere, the packed galleries at the athletics competition in Thiruvanathapuram, and the adulation that was showered on the athletes remained ingrained in his memory.

Seven years on, the national record holder in the men’s long jump and recent Commonwealth Games silver medallist, now gets his chance to relive the event as a competitor, and as a huge star at that. His excitement at the prospect is building up by the day.

“I am very excited about participating in the National Games for the first time and I’m looking forward to the same kind of atmosphere (we had in Kerala). I am sure that Gujarat will be hosting it in the most befitting manner because the government has announced that Gujarat will be the sporting capital of India. It’s also the first time I will be competing in Gujarat,” Sreeshankar said during a Zoom interaction with the media today.

The 23-year-old native of Palakkad, who is coached by his father, said he has prepared well for this competition, his body is feeling good, he has set a target for this competition and wants to finish the season on a good note. “If I do so I will be able to set in motion a few plans for the 2023 season that will be crucial to my preparations for the World Championships and Asian Games,” he opined.

Sreeshankar comes into the National Games on the back of a good season which saw him compete in the World Athletics Championships, the Diamond League and win a Commonwealth Games silver.

“The season has been a great learning experience for me personally also because we have been competing since March and to maintain the kind of performance till August-September, honestly, was very difficult. It was kind of a good learning experience. This season with the Commonwealth Games, I had a breakthrough in my career with the silver medal. Obviously happy about it. My rankings have also improved a lot this season. I was somewhere around in the 60s in the rankings when the season started and now I’m happy that I am ranked sixth.

“From here I have to build and Paris is just two more years away and I’m pretty sure that I’ll be able to build from here. The next season what we are expecting to be more consistent with the international circuits, be more consistent with those competing among those guys, be more frequent in the Diamond League circuits and To get there to the top will be difficult but I’m sure it’s very much possible if we have more international exposure in competitions like World Athletics Continental Tour, continental events and the Diamond League,” he said.

Sreeshankar, who set his own national long jump record thrice and has a personal best of 8.36 m, refuted the notion that the National Games would be a cakewalk. He pointed out that there are three jumpers with leaps of over 8.15 and would be treating this outing as a world level tournament. Besides, the horizontal jumps are the most watched discipline in an athletics competition, he pointed out.

Sreeshankar will be facing competition from the likes of his own state-mate Mohammed Anees Yahiya and Tamil Nadu’s Jeswin Aldrin who in fact has a wind-assisted leap of 8.37 m.

Sreeshankar said it felt the same taking part in a National Games or a national championship in Kerala colours. But he emphasized it will always be a matter of pride when he wears Kerala colours. He is looking forward to the prospect of meeting two fellow athletes from God’s own country – baddie star and recently married H S Prannoy (whom he has not met before) as “he was our hero at the Thomas Cup”. And he would like to renew his acquaintance with Sajan Prakash, best male athlete of the 2015 Games, who will be spearheading the Kerala challenge.