‘Can’t let opposition influence our game': PR Sreejesh to HT as India go for hockey gold at Asian Games
PR Sreejesh was captain when India had to settle for bronze at the 2018 Asian Games and he now goes to the 2023 Asiad with an Olympic bronze in the pocket.
PR Sreejesh knows a thing or two about playing in the big tournaments for the Indian hockey team. A veteran of over 300 matches, Sreejesh has been a stalwart in the Indian dressing room for well over a decade and has been one of the protagonists of the team's rise as a force to reckon with since they failed to qualify for the 2008 Beijing Olympics. He was captain of the Indian team that had to settle for bronze at the 2018 Asian Games despite going in as favourites to defend the gold they had won in 2014.
Since then, quite a bit has changed for the men's hockey team, to say the least. Under Australian Graham Reid, they ended India's nearly four-decade long wait for an Olympic medal in hockey by sensationally winning bronze at the Tokyo Olympics in 2021. Then there was the disappointing exit from a home World Cup with India failing to make it to the quarter-finals, a result that led to Reid stepping down as head coach, and this year, India announced themselves as outright favourites to win gold at the Asiad once again by winning the Asian Champions Trophy.
“The Asian Champions Trophy was a great preparation for us,” Sreejesh told Hindustan Times. “We wanted to make sure that the team execute the plans and play to our best so that we can put some pressure on the opposition before the Asian Games start. The team is settled, the players are experienced, everyone played in the last World Cup in front of big crowds. That was a great experience for them mentally and physically.”
Sreejesh admitted that there are some regrets from what happened in that fateful match against Malaysia at the Gelora Bung Karno stadium in stadium in Jakarta at the 2018 Asiad. India, who were placed seven places above Malaysia at the time in the world rankings, ended up drawing 2-2 and then lost in the penalty shootout. “Throughout the tournament we played well but few errors in the semis cost us the spot in the final. That is the only thing we all regret. Every team has some positives and negatives, at the time we made some mistakes in the semis but we learnt from that and moved on. A lot of senior players who were part of that team are still in this team. We share our experiences with the younger players and we are preparing them for the big challenges coming ahead,” he said.
Among the things that made the bronze medal finish surprising was India's utter domination in the group stage. They beat hosts Indonesia 17-0 in the first match and then decimated Hong Kong 26-0, bettering an 86-year-old record for the team's biggest ever win in international hockey. They are easily the highest ranked team in their group this time and so these record-breaking headline wins could come around in Hangzhou. Sreejesh stressed on the importance of staying focused on the ultimate goal - a fourth Asian Games gold medal and qualification to the 2024 Paris Olympics.
“That is a great challenge in front of us. Standard of the players are totally different in Asian Games. Somehow, the placement of league matches is quite good. Gradually we are playing tougher opposition leading into the knockouts. You just need to be consistent and focus on what you are doing. We cannot let the opposition influence our game, whatever happens, we have to stay in our zone. That is what I want to focus on because this tournament where goalkeepers get a lot of challenges,” said Sreejesh.
New coach, not too new approach
South African Craig Fulton was appointed as India's new head coach only in March this year and Sreejesh has said that he hasn't attempted to make any dramatic changes in what the team was doing before he arrived. India have been visibly more careful with their trademark full press, often looking to prioritise their defence with midfielder Manpreet Singh stating that Fulton has asked them to make sure that they make sure their own "house" is safe first before attacking the opposition's. Sreejesh said that the team's tactics are based on whatever the situation demands, while making sure it doesn't become a situation where the team is just reacting to what the opposition is doing.
"We just do whatever the situation demands. We make our strategies according to the opposition. When the teams are good in attacks, we try to be more defensive and we attack whenever we feel it is a good time for us to do that. It wasn't just in the (Asian Champions Trophy) final, there are lot of instances where we went for a full press and tried our best to get the ball back and score. It is not like we want to be defensive throughout the tournament but it is more about whatever the situation demands. Sometimes we have matches on back to back days and at those times we don't want to waste energy unnecessarily as well," said Sreejesh.
The 35-year-old said that unlike Reid, who was an adherent to the Australian philosophy that was oriented towards attack, Fulton brings a mix of the team's he has coached in the past alongwith whatever he learnt as a player for South Africa.
Australians love to attack a lot. They just want to kill, kill, kill but Fulton has worked with a lot of teams. He played for South Africa and then worked with Ireland and Belgium. He has got that flavour of different places and he understands the pressure of being in Olympic semi-finals and World Cup finals. That experience helps. He shares that experience of winning the quarter-finals or big knockout matches like that. That is very valuable for us.
Strategy-wise, every coach have their own style. He is young and likes to give us freedom to do what we want within his game plan. That is good for the youngsters, they tend to like showcasing their skills and be the magicians on the field. This is really helping them to prepare well. It has only been four or five months that he has been with us so he hasn't tried to bring in dramatic changes but he tried to bring a lot of new style and structure into the team.
‘Milestones come and go’
India's match against Japan in the Asian Champions Trophy, which they won 5-0, was Sreejesh's 300th appearance for the team, making him the second player from the country to that mark after teammate Manpreet. While he knows the value of the accomplishment, Sreejesh said that it isn't one that he celebrated too much.
"Milestones come and go. I didn't celebrate it with my family but did that with my teammates, their wishes did matter for me a lot. I don't know if my family knows the value of 300 matches or not, for them every match is just another game, they always feel like my son or my dad should win. That's all. It was a great moment though, being a goalkeeper. If you are an outfield player and you are in the team, you will always get a chance. But for goalkeepers it is quite hard. As a second goalkeeper I always sat outside, that was the case for a long period. We sit outside and we learn and that is how we become good goalkeepers. So 300 matches for us is like 600 matches for an outfield player so it is a great honour. It has been a great journey for me," he said.