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Dear Me: Be patient and learn from others but don’t copy them - PR Sreejesh

PR Sreejesh, current Indian hockey team captain and ace goalkeeper, writes to his younger self, asking him to be patient and learn from others.

other sports Updated: Jul 29, 2017 22:46 IST
PR Sreejesh,hockey,Indian hockey team
PR Sreejesh captained the Indian hockey team which won silver at the 2016 Champions Trophy. He also led India at the Rio Olympics.(Illustration:Sudhir Shetty)

Dear 12-year-old Sreejesh,

Tomorrow is going to be a big day for you. You’re just 12 but you will have to leave home, your ‘acha’ and ‘amma’, to begin a life away from your village Kizhakkambalam. You’re going to the GV Raja Sports School in Thiruvananthapuram. I know you’re not entirely certain of what you are getting into but ‘acha’ will ask you to follow your heart. You may not realise this now but believe me, this will be the start of a journey you will cherish.

Don’t be afraid. Don’t think of the future. Don’t ask yourself whether you will play for India someday. Just give this your best.

While you are at the sports school, you will face many setbacks. You are born to a poor farmer who cannot afford to buy high quality gear for your training. You won’t have a comfortable pair of shoes or jersey. There will be times when you will be forced to stitch your torn shoes and T-shirts and use them because your father cannot afford new ones.

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People will laugh at you. Sometimes, not even behind your back. Your teammates in school will make fun of your state. Ignore them. Don’t let that bog you down. You just stay focused. When you are 13, you will go where most of them have not even thought about. You will be asked to report to the U-16 national camp.

Here too, being poor will haunt you. You will find yourself tying the kickers of your goalkeeping pads with ropes because you cannot afford a strap. Your coaches will talk behind your back. They will wonder what this poor lad – who cannot even afford a decent pair of pads – is doing at an India camp. They will ask if he will ever make it big in hockey.

But believe me, you will. Just stay focused. As a son, you want to support your ‘acha’ someday and that day will come. Think of this as your motivation and continue to work hard.

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‘Acha’ wants you to succeed in life. There will come a day when he will sell his cow to buy you good quality pads just because you asked for them. He won’t tell you how he arranged the money. But the gesture will make you realise that he wants to do everything within his means to see you succeed. The old pads made from cloth you were using until then will not protect you from the speeding ball. After attending a few camps, you will understand that having a good pair is essential. You would never ask ‘acha’ for new ones that cost Rs 3500 if you wouldn’t really feel the need to. So, don’t feel guilty.

Initially, ‘acha’ wouldn’t whole-heartedly want you to pursue hockey. Neither would other family members simply because it is not a popular sport in Kerala. But they will come around quickly when they see how good you are.

There will be others who will tell you it is a wrong decision. Your relatives will discourage you by telling you there is no future, no money in the sport. But your ‘acha’ will insist you follow your heart and your heart is in hockey.

In the year 2004, when you are 16, life will change. Junior Indian men’s coach Harendra Singh will ask you to join the camp for Asia Cup after your coach at the sports school introduces you to him.

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Suddenly, you will find yourself in a new atmosphere with new faces and new challenges.

You are not comfortable with languages other than Malayalam and on occasion you will feel alone. Friendless. But don’t worry. You will meet some genuinely nice people like Clarence Lobo sir (assistant to Harendra) and Adrian D’Souza, your teammate, who will encourage you, help you improve. They will give you special attention because they see the spark in you. Often during practice, Lobo sir will ask you to step aside and he will teach you different techniques because he doesn’t want you to get hurt by the speeding ball.

For the next four-five years, and perhaps for the rest of your life, Adrian will be your inspiration, a brother, a friend who will influence you to become one of the greatest goalkeepers in the world. While you will always want to play like him, and often copy his style, Adrian will give you advice you will remember for the rest of your life. He will tell you, “Sree, if you copy me, you can definitely become Adrian D’Souza. But you will never become PR Sreejesh. People should love you for your own style and not mine.”

The years you spend in the junior team will be enriching. You will be lauded in many tournaments – the U21 Asia Cup, the test series in Australia, the Four Nation Tournament in Pakistan and the 2005 Junior World Cup – as the best upcoming goalkeeper from India. This will make you hungry to get better at what you do.

But things are seldom easy in sports. Dejection lurks in the shadows cast by success and spring on you when you least expect them. The 2006 SAF Games in Pakistan will remain a bitter memory. The loss in the final against Pakistan where you let two goals slip between your legs will make you wonder if you were ever meant to play hockey. You will want to quit and run away from it all. The burden of letting your country down against archrivals will weigh heavy.

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On days like these, you will crave for the little comfort zone you behind in Kerala. The little house in Kizhakkambalam where you played with a smile on your face. Ebullient. Your ‘acha’ and ‘amma’ watching over you. But then you will remember of the sacrifices they made for you to be here. They believed in you when no one else, not even you, did. ‘How can you quit now?’ you ask yourself.

Patience, I would say, is virtue. And in your career, you will need plenty of it. Though you will be called up for the national camps on several occasions, you will need to wait for your chance. Adrian is a better player. You know it. He will, almost every time, get chosen ahead of you. Bharat Chettri is a senior and more experienced. For what will feel like eternity, you won’t be the selectors’ first choice. But you must be patient. Don’t let this frustrate you.

In 2009, an unfortunate incident with a fellow goalkeeper Baljit Singh will earn you a shot at shining with the senior men’s team. But your true moment of fame will come in 2011 when you help your team win their first Asian Champions Trophy after beating Pakistan in the shootout.

After this performance people will start believing in your game. Believing in you. Great results will follow when there is determination and hardwork. India will win major tournaments in 2014 and you will be awarded as the Best Goalkeeper at the 2014 Champions Trophy. Among these highs, the sweetest of them will be the Asian Games gold, because you will play a crucial role and help the team win a shootout once again. All those difficult days, without proper shoes, pads or jersey will seem trivial then.

There will be some great wins and some deeply painful defeats, but you should accept both with a smile. That’s who you are. A man who always smiles and lifts the spirit of his team even as he picks his own self up after defeats.

The following years will see you as the captain of the Indian team. Yes, you! That boy from a little village in Kerala. And he is not done yet.

Love, always

Sreejesh

(As told to Amit Kamath)

First Published: Jul 29, 2017 22:42 IST