The Raveendran household in Ernakulam, Kerala, faced a bit of a predicament at the onset of the ongoing millennium. In 1998, PV Raveendran and his wife Usha were reluctant to let their 12-year-old son join the GV Raja Sports School in Thiruvananthapuram, about 200 km away from home.
The boy, after excelling in school-level shot put, wanted to pursue sports. He was excited about the prospect of joining the school. But when the moment he longed for arrived, when his dad enrolled him there and was about to leave, the fear of missing home and family gripped him.
“Who will take care of me if I am down with a flu?” he asked his father, fighting back tears. Raveendran found it hard, too, to bid his preteen son goodbye. So, when the boy was staring at a plane flying over the school, Raveendran snuck away.
Twenty years later, Raveendran, Usha and Indian hockey are grateful for this bittersweet decision. For, had Raveendran relented at the last moment or had Usha given into her overwhelming maternal sentiments, the boy – PR Sreejesh – might not have gone on to become one of his country’s greatest hockey goalkeepers.
Sreejesh now has over 200 international caps, a roomful of awards and mementos – including a Padma Shri medal, an Arjuna Award trophy and photo frames of signed jerseys from two Olympics (2012 and 2016) – neatly arranged in a showcase that surrounds the room, and a road in his neighbourhood named after him. All of these, thanks to hockey, a sport that’s uncommon and unpopular in Kerala.
Sreejesh’s sporting journey started with shot-put. “He had a good physique, so he used to participate in shot put and other athletic events,” said Raveendran. “Once, he won a prize in a district-level event. Because of this, he got a chance to go to GV Raja sports school in Trivandrum.”
Sreejesh, when in seventh grade, had an aptitude and the passion for sports but, born in a family of farmers, not the skills and ambition.
“It just happened in a flow,” is his understanding of how his career panned out.
Wielding a hockey stick
Young Sreejesh, away from home for the first time in his life, felt he didn’t belong at the GV Raja Sports School. He tried basketball and volleyball – two sports that are popular and promise more job opportunities than hockey in Kerala – and found out that he didn’t fit in. He also didn’t like the hostel food. His seniors spoke too loudly. He saw a friend, who was down with a fever, with no one to take care of him. These things made him miss mom, dad and home. He wanted to go back.
Around this time, he met his first coaches Jayakumar and Ramesh Kolappa, the people who introduced him to hockey. The former spotted Sreejesh during an assembly session.
“I had a hunch that he’d be a good goalkeeper, going by his stocky build and his body language,” Jayakumar said. The coach also revealed that Sreejesh was a reluctant runner, so the prospect of protecting the net without much running appealed to him. He thought goalkeeping would be easy.
Jayakumar told him it wasn’t. “A goalkeeper can be a one-man army on the field, but goalkeeping is a thankless job.”
Lessons through failure
Sreejesh, now, is a cheerful stoic, who neither lets his great saves corrupt his mind with complacency, nor lets the misses haunt him. His wife, Ayeesha, who he met during his GV Raja days, said that he doesn’t linger too much on his victories and defeats. “He mostly lives in the present... It’s a difficult thing to do, at least for us,” she said, laughing.
“It actually won’t help you if you are too bothered about the failures you’ve had,” Sreejesh had once said, when asked about former Liverpool goalkeeper Loris Karius’s regret over the mistakes he had committed in his team’s Champions League final loss to Real Madrid last season.
“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.”
This wisdom – first conveyed to him by his childhood coach – he truly acquired after several painful experiences.
In 2006, at the South Asian Games, with the gold medal on the line, he conceded a goal in India’s 2-3 defeat to arch-rivals Pakistan.
“That was a crucial moment,” Sreejesh said. “I had saved many goals. But I was only blamed by my teammates for the defeat that night. Then, I understood that a goalkeeper should not expect anything.”
Three years later, during a tour to Spain, he was called out by his captain for underperforming. “That hurt a lot. In that situation, you tend to doubt yourself – am I good enough? But I told myself that the team shouldn’t lose because of me again. I started training harder.”
India’s horrendous campaign at the London Olympics in 2012, when they lost all their matches, was another career-transforming moment. “We were ignored and treated badly wherever we went,” he said. “That defeat hurt a lot.”
The signed jersey from the 2012 Olympics that he has framed in his trophy room perhaps spurs him more to do well than the 100-plus glittering awards.
The men who shaped Sreejesh’s career
There are five men who helped Sreejesh grow into an Indian hockey great. The first two are his childhood coaches Jayakumar and Ramesh Kolappa. “They are like gods to me,” he said.
“They taught me hockey. They showed me how to focus and take my game seriously. One of the greatest advice I got was from them. They told me, ‘A goalkeeper is doing a thankless job but he can be the difference between a team winning and losing.’ That perspective helped a lot throughout my career.”
Jaykumar and Ramesh also introduced Sreejesh to the current India coach Harendra during an Under-16 camp in Kerala. Sreejesh calls the meeting the “turning point of his life.”
“[Harendra] told me, then, to join the Indian juniors camp for the Asia Cup in 2004. I didn’t make the squad for the Junior Asia Cup but he took me for a four-nations tournament in Pakistan. There, I performed really well. From there onwards, he never dropped me from the team. That gave me a lot of confidence,” Sreejesh said.
“I had an inferiority complex and doubted myself at that point. He picked me for the Junior World Cup ahead of the other goalkeepers. That really helped my confidence. He’s never let me down in anyway. In the juniors camp, for instance, there were no other Malayalis. And, as a kid, I felt I was alone. But he was there for me 24x7. I was lucky to get that kind of support in the first phase of my career,” he added.
The next person on the list is his predecessor, mentor and close friend, Adrian D’Souza, who has played over 100 games for India. Sreejesh doesn’t have a role model. Adrien comes close to being one. “When I got into the team, I looked upto him and tried to copy him,” said Sreejesh.
“He saw that and told me, ‘If you copy me, you can be the next Adrian D’Souza. But you need to create your own style. Only then, you can develop your own game.’ That helped me identify my own game… to figure out what works for me.”
The fifth man in Sreejesh’s list doesn’t know hockey. But without him, Sreejesh wouldn’t be playing the game. “Above everyone else, it’s my dad who has been a constant inspiration to play the game,” he said.
“He sacrificed a lot for me. Hockey is an expensive sport, especially for a goalkeeper. You have to spend at least Rs 5,000-10,000 to get a proper equipment. It was quite hard for my dad to pay that much money.
“But my parents never say no to me, they have always supported me. Their unconditional support was fuel to me. I told myself that I need to do this to support my parents. Then, you won’t feel like quitting, you won’t feel like saying, ‘I can’t do it anymore.’”
Hockey void in Kerala
Only a handful of hockey players from Kerala – including Manuel Fredrick (who was part of the bronze medal-winning Indian side in the 1972 Olympics) and Helen Mary (goalkeeper of the Commonwealth Games gold medal-winning team in 2002) – have made it big in hockey before Sreejesh. There’s no one who’s come close to making the Indian side after he made his debut in 2006.
The dearth of players from Kerala, Jayakumar said, is due to the unpopularity of the game and lack of proper coaches in the State. “It makes a lot of difference if there are good coaches at the grassroots level, who can catch the players young and train them to go to the next level,” he said.
The infrastructure for hockey needs to improve, too, according to him. Thanks to the National Games, Kerala got its first astro-turf hockey field in 2009. “We need more such places to conduct camps and establish training centres,” said Jayakumar.
Sreejesh concurs with his childhood coach. “It will take time. Hockey is not a big sport in Kerala. We need to introduce players to new techniques,” he said. “Second thing, we have to create more job opportunities through hockey. So, a player will have some sort of a financial security if he can’t make it big in the game. That will bring in a lot of people into the game.”
Sreejesh also said he plans to open his own hockey academy after he retires. “I will take a break after retiring to spend time with my family. But, yes, after that I would like to be involved with the game,” he said.
But all that’s in the future, which Sreejesh doesn’t dwell on too much. For now, he’s focused on one thing: winning the World Cup in front of his home crowd in December.