Fuelled by his focus, talent and a bit of craziness, India's goalkeeper has become the mainstay of the national hockey team
In the summer of 2003, a tall, skinny, wide-eyed 15-year-old carrying a tiny bag walked into the National Stadium in Delhi for a trial. As always happened when a new goalkeeper came into India's junior national hockey camp, he was tested in the most rigorous way - the ball hit hard into the goal towards the rookie's body. Saju Joseph, assistant coach and trainer of the Indian junior team at the time watched the rookie take the barrage, wearing thin, cheap pads and little other special protection.
"With him, they were twice as brutal. It was really pathetic to see him hit so badly." From time to time, the boy hobbled off the field, rubbed his hands over his body in an attempt to free himself of the pain and then return for more. A member of the support staff called out to Harendra Singh, then the junior national coach.
"Partner, who have you called up? Na bag hai, na pad hai, bas khelne chala aaya hockey?, (no bag, no pads, and he's turned up to play hockey?)" The boy came from Kerala, a state where hockey is an alien sport, and spoke no Hindi. He was in Delhi after Harendra had spotted him at an under-14 tournament in Thiruvananthapuram and, who knows, even looked into the future.
Thirteen years on, PR Sreejesh stands towering over most of his contemporaries, easily India's most valuable hockey player at the moment. Sreejesh leads the national side at the Champions Trophy, currently on in London, and has just completed his 150th match for India. It has been a long journey, but Sreejesh is philosophical about it - it comes with the territory.
"It takes goalkeepers twice as much time as the other players in the side to get noticed,' he says. "A lapse on the goalkeeper's part reflects on the scoreboard and, despite being in a team sport, you're often held accountable individually. You have to be able to shoulder the responsibility of seeing your side through to a podium finish, only then do people sit up and take note. That's exactly what happened in my case."
In four of India's India's last six major tournaments - the Asian Champions Trophy, Commonwealth Games, Asian Games and Hockey World League finals - Sreejesh's contribution has been a rock. But where he comes into his own is the shootout, which becomes Sreejesh Standard Time. That's when he can turn into a 12-foot-wide road block between the opponent's ambitions and the Indian goal.
Two stunning saves in the shootout at the 2014 Asian Games final in Incheon helped India beat Pakistan 4-2, and win gold after 16 years. It was India's first victory against Pakistan in an Asian Games final since the 1966 Bangkok Games and earned them a secure passage into the 2016 Rio Games.
Last December, Sreejesh played the Hockey World League final with an injured right thumb, right shoulder and right thigh, and with a generous dose of painkillers. Seven goals were scored in the final 13 minutes and, with the scores standing at 5-5 after four quarters, it was time for the shootout again. Three crucial saves there handed India a win over Holland and a bronze medal, ending the country's 33-year medal jinx in the sport at a major international tournament.
Sreejesh shot into notice at the 2011 Asian Champions Trophy when he, more than anyone else, beat Pakistan 4-2 on penalty strokes in the final. "Only after this win was I noticed," he says. Maybe it was saving those penalty strokes - or maybe it was Pakistan. Or Sreejesh's towering presence which continues to grow.
Goalkeepers, whether in hockey or football, are known to belong to an eccentric species. A role that requires you to defy your natural instincts and hurl yourself towards an incoming projectile is certainly not for the lily-livered. Sreejesh could not agree more. "You have to be crazy to be a goalkeeper. It's an amazing and extraordinary role. It's definitely not something a normal person can do."
Goalkeepers remain stationary for long periods of a match, watching the action from a distance but with probably the best view of the field. Much like the conductor who guides and synchronizes an orchestra, a goalkeeper has to organize and structure the defensive line and communicate well with the players.
At 6 ft, Sreejesh is taller than many goalkeepers, which helps him cover greater ground and offers him a better reach. With height, agility could often end up being a casualty but Sreejesh has worked "very hard" on this aspect says former team-mate and India goalkeeper Adrian D'Souza. He has also learnt, according to D'Souza, a unique method of handling game situations and the tensions they contain. "He treats every game like a training session. It's a fantastic trait since that way he feels little pressure."
It is perhaps the best way to tackle the boiling cauldron that is modern hockey's penalty shootout. Since 2011, the penalty shoot-out, now dramatically called the Shootout, is no longer the goalkeeper facing a series of penalty strokes. It has become a one-on-one between the attacker and the goalkeeper, with eight seconds handed out after the whistle to score or save. In his early days, Sreejesh found the experience "challenging" but now is comfortable. "With time, experience and practice you tend to grow in your ability to think on your feet." The key, he says, "lies in staying calm and not being overwhelmed by who your opponents are or the repercussions of a miss."
He knows first hand the repercussions of every hockey result: "If the team wins 1-0 the credit goes to the scorer, and if it's a 1-0 loss the blame falls on the 'keeper. So you're either a hero or a zero. There's no middle path," he says.
Maybe it is where his belief in destiny comes into play because despite the "hero or zero" job, he believes his life is has been touched by the magic of the fates: "Even in my wildest dreams I couldn't have imagined that I be would where I am today. Hockey picked me."
Raised in a village named Erumeli near Kizhakkambalam, around 25 kms from Kochi, Sreejesh, the son of a farmer, dreamed of being a pilot because airplanes fascinated him. He took up hockey in 2000 while at the GV Raja Sports School, Thiruvananthapuram. Like most of his seniors in school, Sreejesh too believed he would go down a familiar route: pursue a physical education course, and find a job in a school or college.
He was not very good at Kerala's three pet sports, football, volleyball and basketball; the idea of trying to master a sport which most of his peers excelled in was disconcerting. "I noticed that hockey was the one sport in school where everyone was still learning the basics, so I joined in and soon found it interesting."
An aversion to running - who would have imagined that from the land of PT Usha - made him opt for the goalkeeping position. The hockey stick did not cost much but the goalkeeping gear - between INR 15000 to 20000 at the time - was beyond his family's means. "My father somehow managed to buy the gear for me. Though my family had never heard of hockey before and were apprehensive of its future prospects, they supported my decision."
That kit was to be the butt of jokes when he joined the 2003 junior national camp. But what did not go unnoticed, even among his peers, was his drive to excel. No matter the quality of the goalkeeping gear, it is what has always made Sreejesh protected, looked after.
"With gear, I feel I can do pretty much anything on the field. Without it I would be a little lost. It has been 16 years now since I've been wearing it. It's almost like my second skin."
Former India player Adam Sinclair remembers meeting Sreejesh at the camp: "Many of the players and support staff poked fun at him since he had this very basic, old gear which looked like it belonged to his schooldays while the other 'keepers had specialized, world-class kit."
But after the first day's session itself, says Sinclair, "we knew there was something special about him. His focus and dedication left many surprised." He was often bullied for his little knowledge of Hindi or English and his pronounced rustic ways but took it in his stride. He turned his preference for a lungi over boxer shorts into a joke, wearing a lungi during the team's dancing celebrations.
When his team-mates stole his lungi, Sreejesh would go over to Saju's room and ask his fellow Keralite for a spare. Harendra, who calls him a 'great' dancer, recalls his own reaction when the Lungi Dance song from the 2013 film Chennai Express was released.
Harendra says he promptly texted Sreejesh: "Jangoo, tera gaana aa gaya. Aajkal iss pe Shah Rukh nachta hai." (Big Guy, your song is here. These days, Shah Rukh grooves to it.) To get Sreejesh's Hindi working, Harendra switched his room-mate from a player from the south to the player from the north - with instructions.
"I asked the guy to start with the Hindi expletives first. That's often the fastest way to make someone learn a language," chuckles Harendra. Sreejesh's struggles with Hindi, the Indian team's most widely spoken language, are more significant when realising that the requirements of a modern goalkeeper go beyond technical skill. Communication with the defensive line and through it, a projection of the team's mood is fundamental.
In this trait, former Pakistan captain Salman Akbar notices the big leap that Sreejesh's presence has helped his team take. "Goalkeeping has always been a problem area for Indian hockey," Akbar says. "With Sreejesh coming into the side, it has now turned into one of India's strengths. What stands out in his game is his ability to read match situations, which very few 'keepers do well and the manner in which he defends penalty corners. His aggression rubs off on the rest of the team."
Jugraj Singh, former Indian defender, drag flicker and penalty corner specialist, has watched Sreejesh grow into one of the top goalkeepers in the world. "The biggest thing about a goalkeeper is that he reacts to the action in front of him. It can be a problem if a goalkeeper reacts first; he must always wait to see what the opponent is doing before reacting. This was a problem area for Sreejesh early on, but he has clearly worked very hard on that. Today he is the ultimate goalkeeper."
Today, as he leads India in the Champions Trophy, Sreejesh's is the first name on the team sheet; very far from the boy who was left out of the first XI by all the other players in his camp on the eve of the 2005 junior World Cup. When former goalkeeper and Olympian Charles Cornelius arrived to select the squad, he was impressed enough by Sreejesh's abilities and picked him as the second 'keeper in the side after D'Souza. The look on his face, says Saju was one of "both shock and thrill."
Sreejesh was to join a very long queue of established goalkeepers - Baljit Singh Dadhwal, Adrian D'Souza, Devesh Chauhan and Bharat Chhetri. As fifth choice keeper, Harendra said Sreejesh "would stay back for extra hours after a three-hour practice session in the blazing sun. He never said no."
No matter where he came from or where he found himself, hockey had a way of keeping Sreejesh rooted and connected: a job with Indian Overseas Bank was the financial security he needed to stay in the sport. Had that not happened, he says he would have followed his elder brother, and trained to become a male nurse.
Destiny once again threw up the path for him to tend goal for India instead. Indian mainstay Baljit's right eye injury in 2009, which left his retina, cornea and lens damaged, opened a window of opportunity for Sreejesh. He was called in as a replacement goalkeeper for a Europe tour in July that year.
By 2011, D'Souza began to fall out of favour with the national hockey body for his participation in the rebel World Series Hockey following which he was slapped with a one-year ban for failing a dope test in 2012. Following India's disastrous last-place finish at the London Olympics four years ago with Chhetri at the helm, Sreejesh stepped up to become India's first-choice goalkeeper. "After the Olympics in London, the team began to trust me a lot more," he says.
What is likely to work at the Rio Games, Sreejesh feels, is that India has been "carrying a team" in recent times. Over the past two years, the core group of players in the side has remained unchanged, which has helped in forging greater faith and understanding within, he goes on to add.
He promises Rio will not be a repeat of London: "I have gained in experience and confidence in dealing with pressure situations. Goalkeepers are like wine, they only get better with time." Sreejesh has left the scrawny, hesitant 15-year-old behind and carries no false modesty. He unabashedly ranks his achievements higher than that of his predecessors.
"The medal count separates me from the rest. When you look up our achievements in the sport many years from now, my name will be up there, in big, bold letters."