New Delhi: PR Sreejesh is a fiery character on the hockey field. Known for his quick reflexes and courageous defence during shootouts, India’s newly-appointed captain is confident of leading India to Olympic glory in Rio. In a freewheeling chat with HT, Sreejesh opens up about the team’s goals and strategies for the quadrennial event.
You were the star of the Asian Games final in 2014 that sealed India’s Olympic berth. Two years down the line, where do you find the team?
We went to the Asian Games with the sole motive of clinching the Olympic berth, which we did. In two years after that, we have beaten the best teams in the world and have got beaten too. If you look at our fitness levels, they have improved a lot. We are not intimidated by higher-ranked teams anymore. We believe we can beat anyone. That, I believe, is the biggest change in the two years since 2014.
Penalty-corner conversion has been a pestering problem. How do you plan to tackle that?
Penalty corners are never dependable, but that’s also an area we can use to our advantage. We have some of the world’s best defenders in VR Raghunath and Rupinderpal Singh. Even young Harmanpreet Singh is very good. But, you see, the opposition does its homework for such guys. They would know which side is Raghunath strong and where is he slightly vulnerable. The entire world watches and analyses us these days. I agree we need to work on it, and we are working on it.
After successful campaigns at Sultan Azlan Shah Cup and Champions Trophy, we seem to have gone off the boil in the Six-Nation Trophy in Spain. What went wrong?
By the time we reached Valencia for the event, we had been on the road for over three months. Also, we took time to acclimatise to the heat in Spain. I am not giving these as reasons for our failure, but these factors did contribute. We wanted to experiment a few things, basically test what we call our secret weapons. There was a bit of tinkering in team combination and formations. Sardar paaji was moved up in forward line, Manpreet was moved in midfield. We focused on our problem areas like PC conversion. So I am not reading too much into our failure in Valencia. Even teams like Germany and Australia experiment.
Experiments over, are the boys ready for the big stage?
Absolutely. Events like the Champions Trophy and Olympics are different from test events. Now the experiments are done. Whatever time we have (ahead of the Olympics), we will use it to fine tune what we have worked on all these days. It is like preparing for an exam; you don’t attempt to read a lengthy essay before an exam. All processes and plans are in place, we just need to go and perform.
You have played a lot under Sardar Singh. How different is your leadership style from his?
A lot. We are completely opposite. Sardar paaji is all cool and composed. I am very vocal and aggressive. I even abuse my defenders and forwards on the field (laughs). But what is said on the field is left on the field; nothing personal. I have the best seat to see how the team is playing, so I make full use of it.
In 2 years since our Olympic qualification, we have had a musical chair of sorts as far as coaches are concerned. How would you describe playing under Terry Walsh, Paul van Ass and Roelant Oltmans?
Yeah, a lot was going on with coaches (laughs). See all of them had different styles and strategies. Terry was defensive in his approach. Oltmans has a very attacking gameplan. But both of them were big fans of Indian hockey. They absolutely love the wristwork and kalakaari that the Indian hockey players are born with. We made steady progress under Paul as well.
Could you elaborate on the part Oltmans has played with the team?
Oltmans has had a very positive impact on the team. We were always aware of his style as he has been involved with us in some form of the other over the years. Before he took over, we were slightly confused about certain tactics. We used to take a lot of time to release the ball. All that has changed since Oltmans took over. He has experimented with the squad, rotated the players and changed the formations. Now, every player is fit to play in any position as you recently saw in case of Manpreet and Sardar paaji.
Our last two Olympics were disastrous. We didn’t qualify for Beijing Games and finished last in London. Good time to change history?
Certainly. There are seven players, including me, who were part of London Olympics, and trust me, we are itching to set the record straight. We prefix our names with ‘Olympian’, but when someone asks, ‘What position did you achieve?’ we say ‘last’. Imagine. We lost a lot of games in London four years back. Every time we go to London, we are reminded of that humiliating campaign. There’s lot of anger and a sense of revenge brewing in those who played in the London Games. Recently, when we went there to play the Champions Trophy, we again remembered that botched campaign. But you know what, that pain and anguish has brought us here. We want to change history and make some too. We need to do something to get rid of that pain.
Win an Olympic medal maybe?
Absolutely. And I think it is 100 per cent possible. If we show the form of Champions Trophy, we will do something special.
We have a tough pool. Who, according to you, would be the toughest?
When you go to play the Olympics, you don’t expect an ice-cream pool. For us, every game is equally important. Once a game gets over, it is over. History. No point thinking about it. Move to next game. History. Move on. That’s how we plan to play in Rio. Any team that competes in Olympics deserves respect. We don’t feel that Ireland and Canada are placed below us so we can go easy. No. Belgium is said to be weak, but they beat us 2-1 in Champions Trophy. Australia are world’s top-ranked team, but we dominated them in the Champions Trophy final until the shootout. So you can’t take anything for granted. There’s absolutely no room for complacency. We are capable of winning a medal, but it depends on how we perform on that particular day.