India entered the Hockey World League Final in a transition phase. They had won the Asia Cup, unbeaten, but in Bhubaneshwar, the field comprised of the top eight-teams in the World.

With regular goalkeeper and skipper PR Sreejesh out of action due to a knee injury, India had been missing their talisman in front of goal. And all eyes were on Akash Chikte and Suraj Karkera, to replicate their performance from the Asia Cup.

Fortunately for India, not only did Chikte and Karkera step up, they were one of the big positives for the men in blue as the side retained their bronze medal. In the penalty shoot-out against Belgium in the quarters, Chikte made some outstanding saves to get India on terms when they were 2-0 down. They went on to win the shoot-out and progress to the semi-final due to Chikte’s showing.

“Akash and Suraj have improved a lot as goalkeepers. They save a lot of penalty corners in all the tournaments and have done a brilliant job,” Indian captain Manpreet Singh told The Field, the pride evident in his voice.

Impressive performance in Asia Cup

The duo impressed one and all during the Asia Cup, where India won the title after 10 years. The team conceded just six goals, scoring 28.

“It was my first major tournament and winning gold after 10 years was just awesome. We were confident of a good show in Dhaka,” the 22-year-old Karkera told The Field. “We were confident ahead of the Hockey World League Final. It was a true test as we faced higher ranked teams. It was a learning experience,” he added.

“They pulled off some great saves in the Asia Cup especially against Pakistan,” said India midfielder SK Uthappa. “Sometimes there is a chance for the opponent and that is the time you expect the goalkeeper to pull off the saves. In the Hockey World League Final, despite it being the first major tournament for both, they did a brilliant job,”

Sreejesh’s knee injury during the Azlan Shah Cup was the reason behind Chikte and Karkera’s opportunity to prove their worth.

“We have seen them in the camp and we have seen them work hard. They have always been good. The best part about them is that they have performed when they got the chance,” said Uthappa.

Tough return for Sreejesh?

While after Karkera’s and Chikte’s performance at the Asia Cup and HWL Final, they do warrant a higher billing, the much experienced Sreejesh will return to the playing XI.

“After Sreejesh’s injury both have been given a lot of chances. They are making them play quarterly games because of the lack of experience. They are trying hard to improve further as well. They are improving with every tournament because the upcoming period will be crucial once Sreejesh returns,” said Kothajit Singh, India midfielder.

Kothajit feels that Sreejesh won’t feel the pressure because he has been working hard towards his return. But, it is a good thing that the junior goalkeepers are improving because that will keep Sreejesh on his toes.

“I think it is good actually to have some competition because it gets the best out of everyone. We all know what Sreejesh can do. He is easily one of the best goalkeepers in the world right now. I think it only motivates him more when there are junior players performing well. It brings the best out of him and that is what we want,” said Uthappa.

Karkera, for his part, also feels that Sreejesh is best in the world at the moment. “Sreejesh is at another level and we now have to raise our level. We try to learn from him as much as possible. We literally try to copy him. Plus, he always tells us what to do and how to perform. Even in the HWL final, he told us how to manage the pressure,” said Karkera.

However, Manpreet feels that it is up to the coach and selection committee to decide, who will decide to keep for India. “This is a good thing to have more goalkeepers. Now there will be a competition and whoever will perform will be selected,” said Manpreet.

With the World Cup, Asian Games and Commonwealth Games next year, Hockey India have a happy headache on their hands, and it’s thanks to the youngsters stepping it up when needed.