After meeting PR Sreejesh for the first time off the field, in the presence of people who he knows well, one would be excused for thinking: how the hell is he the goalkeeper of the Indian national team?
It seems like he has a great difficulty – perhaps even a disability – to remain at a spot. One moment, he’s waving his hands, striking up a conversation. The next, he runs and playfully pats a teammate on his back or waves at someone who passes by.
His energy seems endless. It’s difficult, even for himself, to contain it. So, how can he – this perpetually excited character – be stationed at a spot for an hour? It perhaps helps that the hour-long duration of hockey is punctuated with breaks.
“You have to be crazy to be a goalkeeper,” he had told ESPN.in two years ago. “It’s an amazing and extraordinary role. It’s definitely not something a normal person can do.”
Different person on field
Sreejesh on field is a different being. It’s as if the goalkeeper’s helmet is a mask that changes him into a different person once he wears it. There’s a preternatural calmness and composure he exhibits when the clock’s ticking. When the opposition turns up the heat, he becomes India’s iceman. Like he did against Belgium in a last-minute thriller in Breda, Netherlands, in the Champions Trophy on Thursday.
Sreejesh made three saves within the first quarter. The second quarter also largely went India’s way. The second half is when the Belgians tightened the screws and the men in blue slipped up.
On one instance, they were mistakenly celebrating a goal that was disallowed. And, the Belgians made a counterattack with no one to defend.
Florent van Aubel had only Sreejesh to beat to equalise for his team, but the goalkeeper won the one-on-one battle to hold on to India’s lead. Most of Belgium’s 11 penalty corners were also blocked by him. Belgium penetrated the Indian defence with more ease in the second half, but not Sreejesh, the immovable object.
The final score was 1-1. It could have been at least 5-1 in Belgium’s favour if not for Sreejesh; 2-1 if he didn’t stop Loick Luypaert’s last-minute drag-flick.
Only a minute ago, Luypaert – after being denied by Sreejesh all day – had equalised for Belgium, managing to convert the 10th of his team’s 11 penalty corners in the match. Arthur van Doren had trapped the injection perfectly, setting it up for Luypaert to strike.
Amit Rohidas was a little late in taking off from close to the Indian net to cut off the angles for Luypaert. The Belgian, by then, had already aimed towards Sreejesh’s right and struck the ball along the ground. The ball had beaten Sreejesh before he could stop it with a stretch of his right leg.
Staying in the present
Sreejesh neither lets his great saves corrupt his mind with complacency nor does he let the misses haunt him. After almost two decades of saves and misses, he now realises the importance of staying in the present. His innate easy-going temperament helps him be unaffected by the accolades and brickbats.
“It actually won’t help you if you are too bothered about the failures you’ve had,” he had once told a reporter, when asked about Liverpool goalkeeper Loris Karius’s regret over the mistakes he had committed in the Champions League final loss to Real Madrid.
“It’s bad for you and your team as well. What happens is that your confidence level goes down and you might miss another ball, which is once again bad for you and your team. So, it’s like a cycle.”
The eight months Sreejesh was away from competitive hockey because of a tear in the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee broadened his perspective. Earlier, he used to think hockey was his life. Now, he knows it’s a part – albeit an important one – of his life. This has allowed him to play with a sense of freedom and enjoyment.
At 30, he knows he doesn’t have a lot of days left to play at the highest level for his country. So, the next two years – leading upto the Tokyo Olympics (which is likely to be his last if India qualifies) – he’d want to give his best every time.
And, the match against Belgium was one of Sreejesh’s best days – despite missing the penultimate penalty corner. Despite hockey being a team game, he knows the goalkeeper has to take the blame when a goal is conceded. This, he said after the match was over. But he didn’t let the miss hurt him or demoralise him.
Once the match was over, when the final hooter went off, when Sreejesh took off his helmet, he went to Luypaert with his characteristic toothy smile, congratulating him for scoring his team’s equaliser.