India need to cast their net far and wide to find Sreejesh’s understudies
Forget being household names, Richard Allen and Ranganathan Francis wouldn’t strike an instant chord with followers of Indian hockey.
The two men, known as much for their grit as for the gold medals they have won, were goalkeepers over six Olympics. While Allen stood under the bar at the 1928, 1932 and 1936 Olympics, Francis was the custodian in 1948, 1952 and 1956. Then, there was Shankar Lakshman – the ‘Rock of Gibraltar’ – at the 1956, 1960, 1964 Games.
Goalkeepers in Indian hockey have often flown well under the radar, but their contribution to the sport in the country has been unparalleled.
Unlike his predecessors, PR Sreejesh, who has donned the big pads for a decade now, is more a recognizable figure,
thanks to his deeds, short memories, social media and television.
King-size both in stature and deeds, his jovial personality off the turf belies a no-quarter-given approach on it. He has been rock-solid in guarding the Indian citadel. But much like Allen, Francis and Lakshman before him, his role in India’s bronze medal-winning feat at the Tokyo Olympics will not be a part of individual sporting folklore.
Be that as it may, at 34, Sreejesh’s illustrious international career, spanning over 15 years, is pretty much behind him. It is not out of place to say he is in the twilight of his career. Not because his skills are fading – to the contrary he is still among the best. But with Indian hockey’s future in mind, it, perhaps, is time to look ahead at options beyond Sreejesh.
The thought itself is unsettling in the current circumstances and the “who next” question is frightening. Krishan Pathak is still a work in progress; India hasn’t invested much in grooming goalkeepers.
It is a big departure from legacy. Until now, the process of passing the baton was a smooth one. Lakshman easily took over from Francis just as Francis did from Allen. Sreejesh himself had to wait for more than five years until Baljit Singh, Adrian D’Souza and Bharat Chetri made way for him.
And before them, the likes of Edgar Mascarenhas, Rajinder Singh, Mark Patterson, AB Subbaiah, Ashish Ballal, Jude
Menezes, Aloysius Edwards and Devesh Chauhan were all part of a big plan, which is lacking now.
The 25-year-old Pathak, who came to the forefront as part of the 2016 junior World Cup winning squad, made his senior debut in 2018 and has since made 70 appearances for India. Though strong in his basics and quick on his feet, his main drawbacks are his height (5ft 7inches), on-field communication and inability to handle pressure situations,
like it happened in the drawn game against England in the CWG, in which he conceded three quick goals.
By giving ample opportunities to Pathak in the CWG, chief coach Graham Reid is looking to blood him in, but there is a dearth in terms of goalkeepers on the bench.
Suraj Karkera (41 caps), who got his senior team call-up a year before Pathak, was named the goalkeeper of the tournament at the Asian Champions Trophy last year, but has since been found wanting in opportunities. Vikas Dahiya (24 caps), once seen as Sreejesh’s successor, has sunk into oblivion.
The three are in the 25-27 years age-group and should have been jostling for the second goalkeeper slot, which is not the case now.
While Sreejesh looks certain to be around for the World Cup and Asian Games next year, the 2024 Paris Olympics will be the focus.
India will have to redouble its efforts in training their custodians. The team hasn’t had a goalkeeping coach since the exit of Chetri in 2018. Dutchman Dennis van de Pol was the stop-gap consultant for the men’s team but his training went virtual due to Covid-19. Sreejesh has been mentoring the other goalkeepers, but a specialist coach is the need of the hour for the team.
(Except for the headline, this story has not been edited by GOVT.in staff and is published from a syndicated feed.)