Editor’s note: The article was originally published on October 1. On October 5, PR Sreejesh was named as the men’s FIH Goalkeeper of the Year 2021-22.
The Indian men’s hockey team has been on a path of steady growth over the past two years. After winning bronze at the Tokyo Olympics, India finished third in the FIH Hockey Pro League and followed it up by winning silver at the 2022 Commonwealth Games in Birmingham.
Through it all, PR Sreejesh has been a solid wall in front of the Indian goal, marshalling his defence. After a stellar year between the posts, Sreejesh has been nominated for the FIH Men’s Goalkeeper of the Year award for the second successive year.
In a conversation with Scroll.in, Sreejesh reflected upon the Indian team’s recent performances, his role as a goalkeeper over the years and *that* iconic photo from the Tokyo Olympics.
Excerpts from the interview:
How does it feel to be nominated for the FIH Men’s Goalkeeper of the Year award?
It is definitely a great honour and if you look at it individually, it is a kind of motivation for you looking forward and working hard. Every time you are nominated for an individual award, that gives you responsibilities, the trust increases and that motivates you to work harder. That’s one way. I’m not the only one, even Harman [Harmanpreet Singh] has been nominated. So it is a collective effort of the team. The team has done wonders and has consistently performed well.
A few years ago, you said, ‘goalkeepers, like wine, get better with age’. Looking back, would you say you are a better keeper now than you were five years ago?
Every game gives you an opportunity to improve. When you are playing for such a long time, that gives you more confidence and ideas on how to handle pressure and play a better game under any circumstances. That is what’s happening with me right now. When I compare with my younger days, I always laugh thinking about all the blunders I used to do in my earlier stage. That is how you change and you develop yourself at every opportunity. Every time you get a platform to sharpen yourself. So yes, I always feel like over the years I have become a better goalkeeper. I never say I am a great goalkeeper but all the opportunities help me become a better version of the previous me.
As someone who has been a part of the Indian team for 16 years and has done so well for the country, how do you motivate yourself to keep getting better and playing?
I got an Olympic medal but the colour is different. I can improve that colour. I don’t have a World Cup medal with me. So I want that as well. This time it’s a wonderful opportunity because India is hosting the World Cup. When you are looking into the empty part of you, that always gives you motivation. I have medals in Champions Trophy, CWG, Asian Champions Trophy, Asian Games. I wanted to look into that empty part. It’s like a glass half-full or half-empty. At this stage, I want to look at the empty part and that gives me energy and motivation to wake up every morning.
When you were out of the Indian team for three months with an injury, you said the three months helped you realise that there is life outside hockey. In the ensuing years, how have you been able to picture life after hockey?
I think that period was the best period of my life because that taught me what life is. Before that, hockey was everything for me. I never thought of anything else in my life because I was a familiar face. Wherever I went, people recognised me and I got appreciation. There would be articles about me in the newspaper and people would ask me about what has been happening. But when suddenly I got injured and I was out of the team, from the next month itself, someone else took my place. They took the newspaper articles, they took all the fame and I became a normal person. That was the time I realised that ‘Okay, hockey is a part of your life. Hockey is not your life.’
Beyond hockey there is a life and that is your family. Because tomorrow if your performance goes down, you’ll have to leave the team. But the only place that you could go back is your family. So I got to spend some quality time with my family because when my daughter was born, I was not at all there. In 2014 we played Asian Games, Commonwealth Games, and Champions Trophy so that was packed year. That helped me.
When I looked into the other part, what I should do with my career now, because when you are playing hockey, you don’t need to read anything, you don’t need to write anything. But once you are done with hockey, you will be going to an office and you will be looking at files and all. That thought helped me to start my reading and writing habit, a new wake up call. If I write a book, I will mention a chapter on life before injury and after injury.
Looking back at the past two years, what is your assessment of the team’s performances?
For Indian hockey, these two years were really good. We were consistently playing good and we were upsetting the top teams in the top level. That gives confidence because if you are consistently staying in the top four, that means the younger generation is looking, the young kids who are playing in the junior and sub-junior teams, they are looking at us and feeling, ‘Yes, if these players can do it, why can’t we?’ So we are giving them indirect confidence to mentally strengthen them to become better players for the future so that when they come into our shoes, they can perform well for our country.
How hard was it to cope with the way the team lost the Commonwealth Games final to Australia? How do you recover from such a defeat?
That was a bad day. We didn’t perform well so they thrashed us. You’ve got to accept that. That’s the best way. Once you are done with that... I told my players it definitely was not we wanted but this is what it is and now you just enjoy the silver medal. When we are back in the camp, when we are training now, we need to look into the main part – What happened? What went wrong? And that is what we have done in this camp.
We have realised which all areas we need to improve on, why we conceded that many goals, what went wrong and now we are working on that. We have three or four months before the World Cup which will help us strengthen our weaknesses and focus more on our positives which will help us stand tall during the World Cup.
One of the many memorable pictures from the Tokyo Olympics was the one where you are sitting on top of the goal. Manpreet Singh said that you see the goalpost as a friend since you spend so much time with it…
We goalkeepers are playing a different game on the hockey field. Because the players are interactive, they are always roaming around. They will go to the dugout after every three minutes. They get refreshments and come back again. But we are the only people who just stand there yelling at the players, guiding them. So we are playing a different game on the hockey field.
Most of the times, I used to take out my frustration with my goalpost. So I share things with the goalpost. It’s like a buddy because every practice session you are standing in front of that. The players always change their direction, their places but we are the only ones who stand there for a long time and spend more time with the goal. That gives you an emotional attachment towards your goalpost. You may have heard the phrases that in hospitals you hear more prayers than in a temple or a church or the saddest goodbyes are at the airport. The same way, the goalposts know you in a real way. We definitely do have an attachment and when you want to celebrate the best moment of your life, that was the perfect place for me to sit and celebrate.