PR Sreejesh: The final frontier on whom rests a billion dreams

The veteran goalkeeper made a strong comeback against Spain after conceding seven against Australia
By Soham Mukherjee

Responsibility. Expectation. Trust. That's the tweet, attached with two photographs of London and Rio Olympics respectively.

Almost a month back, PR Sreejesh posted this on his social media to commemorate his third Olympics appearance in Tokyo. The three words aptly reflect the gravity of the task that he has undertaken. In the first match against New Zealand, he hardly put a foot wrong and came up with numerous saves which helped India get off to a winning start. Against Australia, he had a bad day at the office and against Spain, he regained his mojo and once again India left the field with three points in their kitty.

A veteran of many hard-fought battles, Sreejesh has been infallible the final line of defense. He is being ably guarded by Birendra Lakra, Rupinder Pal Singh, Harmanpreet Singh, who themselves have plenty of experience in their kitty. Yet, it is the composure and constant communication of the Kerala-born keeper while marshalling the defense that provided the much-needed stability against Spain.

Coach Graham Reid has been forced to make the tough decision of picking one goalkeeper as the usual 18-member squad gets pruned to 16 in the Olympics. Yet the Australian has little concern regarding the goalkeeping department. While describing Sreejesh's importance to the team, Reid took quite a few seconds until he finally got hold of the correct one.

“Contagious! That’s the word. Sreejesh brings a contagious confidence to the team," he expressed after careful consideration before leaving for Tokyo.

“It’s nice to have him in the team. I’ve crossed Sreejesh’s personality before I came to India as the national team coach. He does bring to the team a uniqueness that sometimes is hard to explain. He certainly lifts the group up if things aren’t going particularly well,” he went on to add.

Going deep into the tournament, if the chips are down, it will not be surprising if Sreejesh takes charge of things inside the pitch and leads from the back. Needless, to say that his experience will come in handy for a team that is packed with youngsters and 10 Olympic debutantes. Even skipper Manpreet Singh, who has close to 270 caps to his name, sometimes looks up to Sreejesh for inspiration.

"If I am having a bad game, he will come up to me during halftime, put a hand around my back and motivate me. It’ll take me a long time to list every incident when he had helped me,” said Manpreet before the tournament.

The 33-year-old has also made a name for himself as a shootout specialist saving India's skin time and again during the FIH Pro League. Against Netherlands, he made three crucial saves to give India the win after the match was tied 3-3 after regulation time. Whereas when India went up against Australia, he continued his rich vein of form to deny Daniel Beale, Tim Brad, and Jake Harvie to score, which earned India a bonus point.

His decision-making, judgement and flexibility make him one of the finest shot-stoppers in the world. He spreads himself wide to cover his angles pretty well which makes it difficult for the attacker to pick a spot within the allotted eight seconds.

“In things like shootouts, he’s one of the best in the world at the moment. Shootouts are things that we are constantly working on. There aren’t too many training sessions where we don’t finish with a shootout," Reid had revealed earlier.

The tactician believes that it takes a "brave coach to play for a shootout." But if we are to go by past results and with Sreejesh in goal, it would not be surprising if India holds on to the ball more in the final quarter and force a shootout in the knockouts. Afterall, the Kochi-giant is guarding the goal.