Hailing from Kerala, a state that didn’t have a foothold in hockey until his rise to prominence, Indian goalkeeper PR Sreejesh’s journey to the top has been laced with a little bit of luck in his early days.
As a 12-year-old, a young PR Sreejesh was confused with which discipline he should walk into.
Though he joined the GV Raja Sports School in Thiruvananthapuram on the back of his shot put prowess, once he saw his peers, the youngster would push the idea of being a shot putter on to the back burner.
“Those guys were much better than me,” said PR Sreejesh discussing his early life on the web show Double Trouble hosted by Indian cricketers Jemimah Rodrigues and Smriti Mandhana.
“Looking at the boys I realised I was nowhere close to them and I could never make a career in it.”
Then he would head to the volleyball court. But standing four-and-half to five feet tall, PR Sreejesh felt he had little chance in this sport. The next option would be football. But the rich history of the sport in Kerala overwhelmed him.
“You know how football is in Kerala. You can find a bunch of guys kicking around in every corner. So I ran from that sport too,” he said.
Hockey by chance
It was now that PR Sreejesh would look over to the adjacent field to see boys and girls trying to work around with a ball using a stick.
“They were learning the basics. So I went there and tried my hand at it, and it was fun. It was not easy, it has its own difficulties. But was fun,” he said recollecting his initiation into the sport.
“But then I saw that a few guys were standing in one corner -- all padded up -- kicking the ball around. And for long, I never liked running. So, I was like 'this is the best job for me'. There's not much running involved. That's how I chose my career.”
Though PR Sreejesh made a career more by chance than choice, the 32-year-old has gone onto master the art of goalkeeping and is now the Indian hockey team’s first-choice ’keeper.
And no one has seen the rise of PR Sreejesh as closely as his former team-mate Sardar Singh.
Having made their debut at the junior level together, Sardar Singh and PR Sreejesh shared the dressing room for over a decade before the former announced his retirement in 2018.
While the outgoing and the extrovert in PR Sreejesh helped him bed himself into the fabric of a team pretty soon, for a shy Sardar Singh, it needed self-realisation and a conscious effort.
“Having played for this long, I have realised that in India, we don't lack talent. And if you don't play well, there's always someone to replace you,” the 33-year-old said recounting his initial days in the national team setup.
“And for me my off the field equation affected my game. So, that's something that I always worked upon.”
Need to put in extra effort
Over the years, Sardar Singh would go on to become one of India’s finest centre-half with the former skipper playing a key role in several famous wins.
While many would call him gifted, Sardar Singh believed otherwise. “One thing I have realised working with the team is that, if you want to improve your game, you need to put in extra effort,” said Sardar Singh, who hails from the famous Namdhari Sikh community.
“Throughout my career, that's something I have believed and worked with. I would stay back after a session for another 30 minutes or so to work on my game.
“Be it my skills, be it my pace that I might be lacking, or be it stopping an airball dead. You pick one area and work on that.”
Having put in the hard yards throughout his career, Sardar Singh is now ensuring that he makes up for the time he stayed away from the family.
“While you are an active player you barely get time to be with your family. You are playing or travelling with the team for about 300 of the 365 days in a year. I think for the first time I have spent so much time with my parents.”
Meanwhile, PR Sreejesh is confined to the Sports Authority of India (SAI) South Centre, Bengaluru with the rest of the senior team. The Indian ace stated that though the team was barred from using the field, they were doing their bit to stay active and healthy amid the pandemic.
“Thankfully this place is so huge, it's about 90 acres of property... Right now, there's not much training happening. But we are allowed to step out in small groups of 2-3 guys for our fitness routines,” he explained.