Picture by Alexander Hassenstein/ Getty Images

PR Sreejesh's success mantra: Leave emotions and expectations outside the pitch

India's talismanic goalkeeper feels that this Olympic medal will help the hockey aficionados to move on from history and embrace the present
By Soham Mukherjee

It is a complicated process to emancipate oneself from the burden of history. In a sporting context, the India men's hockey team have had generations endeavouring to lift the weight of expectation and replicate a gold-laden past.

On August 5, when India beat Germany 5-4 in an edge-of-the-seat thriller, to clinch an Olympic medal after 14,982 days, the nation jumped in jubilation but the history-makers heaved a sigh of relief. PR Sreejesh scaled the goalpost while Manpreet Singh and others broke down on the pitch. They had won the most decisive battle of their life that helped exorcise demons of the past.

Sreejesh has spent close to two decades to write his own Olympic-medal narrative and in Tokyo when it culminated, the feeling is yet to sink in.

"I have waited for this moment as a fan and as a player for far too long. And finally, when you get to touch that medal it is going to be different. We are still on cloud nine," he revealed to Olympics.com.

Before sailing off for Tokyo, he put out a tweet that read," Responsibility, expectation, trust." And two photographs of London and Rio Olympics were attached to it respectively. Those were three loaded words but that aptly summed the emotions that he would be carrying to Tokyo to get the better of history.

"It is about the past. But the previous experiences have helped me a lot this time. In 2012, we finished bottom and in 2016 we finished eighth. That's what I shared with my juniors. Olympics is not at all easy and being one of the senior-most players you have your own responsibilities. So you need to step up and perform. People will look up to you as a change-maker and it's a good thing."

It seemed that the Keralite had already started to stroll down the memory lane.

After a brief pause he added, "On the field, expectations do not matter. You leave all these emotions outside the pitch. You are just Sreejesh PR and you are just a goalkeeper. I don't think about the result. It just adds pressure. You have to be there in the present. That's my mantra. I just try to give my best to handle a situation."

Sreejesh was in incredible form throughout the tournament. He made 40 saves in the course of eight matches including a penalty corner save against Germany in the dying seconds of a match that handed India the bronze medal. However, two heavy defeats against Australia and Belgium in the group stages and semifinals could have dented the confidence of a young Indian squad that had 10 Olympic debutantes. Sreejesh knew what was at stake and immediately after the Belgium match he was seen leading a team talk on the pitch.

"After the semifinal loss, we said that it is not the time to sit and cry. This is the time to win medals. The message was just to go out and play the best game. One day later, you are playing a bigger match. The choice was to be a part of history or just another part of Olympic Games. And we played one of our best games against Germany," he revealed.

The 33-year-old keeper is also one of the most vocal players on the pitch. He commands the circle with ferocity and aggression which is one of the reasons behind India's improved defense. However, one bad day at the office and the goalkeeper is more often than not put to the sword.

"Well, that's how it is. A goalkeeper cannot hide his mistakes. Whatever you do, that's right in front of everyone. As a goalkeeper, you have to communicate. That is my job. When you set up your defense properly, the ball does not come inside the circle. That is all that I can want being a goalkeeper. Actually, that's also a part of my technique. It's an important part of the whole job," he stated.

Sreejesh is confident that this win will revolutionize the hockey landscape in India. He hopes that this enthusiasm will continue which will force the governments and other stakeholders to create more infrastructure and spread the sport across the country.

"Just like the PM said, that unless you are winning a medal in hockey, you don't feel that you have won something. Hockey strikes an emotional chord with the people, although cricket is the most popular sport. Previously we had worked hard and failed. We know how hard it is to fail and be a failure. Now we know what it takes to be up there. This win will surely bring about a revolution. People are asking me how to be a hockey keeper. The thing is happening now."

Sreejesh and co. have planted the seeds of change.