India and Spain faced off in two high-quality FIH Pro League matches in October 2022 with Spain winning the first match 3-2 with India winning the second via a shootout after a thrilling 2-2 draw.
In the six quarters he played against Spain over the two matches, India goalkeeper Krishan Pathak faced 16 penalty corners and conceded only once, pulling off 14 saves. In the first match, Pathak played the third and fourth quarters after India went 1-2 down and pulled off eight saves.
In the second match, it was as if the 25-year-old was seeing the ball like a football. Of all the saves, one stood out in particular. In the third quarter, Marc Miralles’ flick seemed destined for the top corner only for Pathak to nonchalantly swing his stick and make a brilliant save. It was as if he had all the time in the world to make that save.
“As a goalkeeper, I believe that your first touch and second touch sets up your match,” Pathak told Scroll.in at an interaction at SAI, Bengaluru. “Before that save, I had made a couple of saves which gave me confidence and that was why I think it was an easy save for me to make. When you get the ball once or twice at the start, your confidence is built.”
From a technical point of view, Pathak has learnt to become patient. Dennis van de Pol, the former Netherlands goalkeeper who has trained the Indian goalkeepers, has seen a big difference in Pathak over the past three years.
“I was really happy with what I saw compared to three and half years ago. There was, I thought, a big gap between Sreejesh and Krishan. Now, Krishan has really come close to Sreejesh,” Van de Pol said at the SAI centre to Scroll.in.
“Sreejesh is bigger, he needs less power. Where Krishan has as an advantage is that opponents think he could get beaten quicker because he is bit smaller. But he has so much power that people don’t think that maybe he can do that. Even balls which are going to the top corner and I feel would be tough for him, he makes them look so easy. He has so much power and so much confidence in himself. He knows that if he is patient and waits long enough, ‘Boom!’ Saved,” the Dutchman added.
“His power and his confidence in that when he waits, he can still reach the ball. Three and a half years ago, he was a bit too eager. The ball was going in one direction and he was at the wrong spot. Because he knows that he can save them, he is calmer and saves more goals. He has become technically better and has more power and is calmer.”
Pathak added about his game’s evolution: “When Dennis had come the last time, he had gone into the details of goalkeeping. He helped us with the basics and I worked on a few shortcomings I had in my game. Like I used to jump during PCs. I had to teach myself to be calm. When you practice, you have to be like you are during a match. You have to create the same environment in practice as well. You train with the same intensity that you have during matches.”
‘Learning to be mature’
Pathak’s journey in hockey hasn’t been an easy one. The Kapurthala-born player lost his mother in 2007 when he was at the Surjit Singh Academy in Jalandhar. Eight years later on the eve of the junior World Cup, Pathak lost his father. The youngster soldiered on and helped India to the title. Hockey, Pathak says, was the only anchor in his life and helped him cope.
“Sometimes I feel that period after my mom’s death was a difficult one,” Pathak recalled. “Today I cannot believe that I was able to survive that period. The positive thing is that I did not stray down the wrong path. You see when kids don’t have support at home, you tend to go down the wrong path. I stuck with hockey and didn’t let go. By God’s grace, things have turned out well. To lose my dad in 2015 before the junior World Cup was hard. I kept myself busy with hockey through all this. After losing both my parents, I had to make some decisions at a young age. It made me mature, I believe.”
If dealing with personal losses forced him to grow up and take big decisions all by himself, then fighting to emerge from Sreejesh’s shadow made him a better goalkeeper. After fighting off competition from Suraj Karkera, Pathak has evolved his game to firmly establish himself as Sreejesh’s heir.
“Maturity comes with playing international matches on a regular basis. The more diverse situations you find yourself in, the more experience you have. All situations are different and you have to make decisions accordingly. Banda waise hi mature hoga (that’s how one becomes mature),” said Pathak.
“When I came to the junior team in 2015, hockey was different. The game has changed a lot since. I have also had to change with the game. The more matches you play, the more situations you find yourself in, the more mature you become.”
Since coming on, chief coach Graham Reid has put an emphasis on having two strong goalkeepers, switching between Sreejesh and Pathak across quarters. The challenge for the second keeper is to hit the ground running quickly. It is crucial, according to Pathak, to make a couple of saves as soon as possible to get into the rhythm of the match and try to move on as quickly as possible if he concedes.
“Normally, Sreejesh paaji plays the first quarter and I come on after that. What I do when I am on the sidelines is guide the players. I yell instructions at them. The things goalkeepers tell their players while on the pitch, I tell them the same thing when I am on the sideline. That, in a way, keeps me in the match so I am ready and settled in when I come on to play,” he said.
“In hockey, goals can be conceded at any time in the match. When I concede a goal, I walk behind the goal where my water bottle will be. I take a sip, keep it in the mouth for a few seconds and just spit it out. Whatever feelings I have in that moment are all let go. It’s all forgotten. I try to take my mind off the goal I have conceded as quickly as I can. If we concede from a PC, I’ll collect all the protective gear my defenders have thrown and arrange it properly behind the goal. Even speaking to your defenders helps take your mind off the goal. It’s important to take your mind off the goal as soon as possible,” Pathak added.
At the 2018 World Cup, a still inexperienced Pathak warmed the bench as Sreejesh played in goal for all of India’s matches. Four years on, a more-rounded Krishan Bahadur Pathak will pad up knowing he is a worthy selection between the posts, capable of competing alongside the veteran goalkeeper, should his coach and team need him.