“Oi, Harman fall back into position! Machaaa, Varun, hold your line! Get back! Get back! All you guys have grown too old! Get back!”
When PR Sreejesh first made the Indian camp, he didn’t know any Hindi. “My situation was like a dog lost at a temple ground [on the day of a festival],” he grins. “I didn’t know the language, I had no friends, was not getting food to my taste. All the coaches were speaking in Hindi…”
What saved him was that he was a goalkeeper. “Within hockey, goalkeeping is an individual game,” he tells ESPN in a long, relaxed chat between matches at the Commonwealth Games. “I didn’t have to adjust with or make an understanding with anyone else and that’s the only reason I survived. Otherwise, I’d have long ago packed my bags and gone home.”
He survived, then he thrived.
Two decades on from that first junior camp, PR Sreejesh is one of the greatest goalkeepers Indian hockey has ever seen. His trophy cabinet may not be as full as those of some predecessors, but that’s an indication of the time when he emerged (“zero expectations from me, or anyone”). And the Olympic bronze, Asian Games gold (and bronze), CWG silver and multiple Champions Trophy medals he has – Sreejesh has had a very real, very direct impact on winning them.
Now he’s the oldest member of the team. He isn’t lost anymore, and he knows his Hindi. Any India match you go to, his is the one voice you will hear. Doesn’t matter if there’s 100 people in the stands or 10,000, you will hear Sreejesh and his rough comments. Even when he’s not playing, he stands up at the rails on the sidelines and barks instructions. At times Krishan Pathak, second-choice keeper, hears his senior barking from the sidelines and immediately starts echoing those comments.
“Run back you *insert expletive of choice* slowpokes!”
You need to be a little different to want to be a goalkeeper. No fear, a little flair, and being okay with not stealing the headlines after scoring the match-winning goal.
Sreejesh, though, became a keeper because he “didn’t want to run.” It’s delivered with deadpan seriousness before a massive grin breaks out. “When I joined the hostel, and when I started hockey, our warm-up was running 5-6 rounds. After that there was exercise, sprints, agility [training], then work with the stick and ball… after you do all this you will die. I never had a sports background, so I saw that goalkeepers run 1-2 rounds, tie their pads, stand in a corner and kick the ball a bit, that’s all there was. So the basis of my decision was simply that I didn’t want to run. Nothing else.”
“Like the military says, as much sweat as we pour out in training that much less blood you will spill in war…”
Sreejesh’s early years in hockey were an exercise in convincing those around him that he’d made a smart decision. Kerala does a lot of sports, but not hockey, so his parents were dead against it. His volleyball-playing cousins said with that “typical Malayalee mentality” that there were no jobs available (in government departments) if he took up hockey.
Little did they know that all he wanted was grace marks, granted by the education department if he made the state team. And he’d calculated that the hockey team was the easiest to break into. And involved the least running.
He was alone in his choice, but he stood by it. That, he believes, was always his biggest strength.
A goalkeeper’s life can be dangerous. Does he get scared when the ball is smashed at him? “Sometimes in training, if someone smashes it from too close… I shout at him, saying you may injure me!”
But that’s only in training; come the match, “I’m not thinking of whether I’ll get hit, or how fast the ball’s coming at me. In my mind the sole thought is that I need to save the ball, that’s all. Our objective changes [from self-preservation].”
From not getting injured, the sole thought becomes, “I don’t want to concede a goal.”
“Whether I get hit, whether it’ll hit my helmet or my body or if it’ll bruise me… that fear is never there.”
“I talk to my [goalkeeping] pad sometimes — it’s idiotic and silly, I know, but that’s how I — all that frustration and negativity has to be talked out and this is the way I do it.”
A goalkeeper’s job is thankless. Make a save, and that’s doing your job. Concede a goal, and that’s costing your team. There are no repeat attempts to save, no multiple opportunities for redemption. It can take a cruel mental toll.
“Today, because I’m so experienced, I know how to handle it. But normally, whenever a goal comes, the first thing you think of is consequences. We get very worried about the result… ‘Aiyyo, I conceded a goal. What will people think, what will the coach say, will my teammates shout at me?’ When you think like that, you [invariably] concede the next goal. It becomes a chain reaction.”
You’ve seen it happen too, one mistake building one another and compounding all the way to massive defeats.
“Being a goalkeeper, you need to be in the present, whether that’s after a save or after a concession. A goalkeeper should take all this like water off a duck’s back. The water never sticks; however much water you pour, it will flow off. You should become like that. Say you save one, leave it immediately. Then immediately focus on the present. Concede a goal? Forget it immediately.”
Which is where the non-stop yelling comes in. “You can stay in the present by talking to players ahead of you, guiding them, discussing mistakes with them. When you do that, you forget the issue that just happened.”
That’s why he speaks to everyone even when not playing. Coach, teammate, ballboy, cameraman. It’s his way of remaining switched on for the duration of the match. He shouts, brutally, at everyone and anyone on the field – but is friends with everyone off it. “Whenever some juniors come in, I try to talk to them more, involve them in the team, try and understand what problems they are facing, tell them if they are making some mistakes.”
“I’m not thinking of whether I’ll get hit, or how fast the ball’s coming at me. In my mind the sole thought is that I need to save the ball, that’s all.”
“I’ve come through all this and these are all things I wished for: that some senior would talk to me, or cared for me a bit or guided me. Whatever I couldn’t get, that’s what I am trying to give my juniors.”
He shouts a lot in training too, he says. “Like the military says, as much sweat as we pour out in training that much less blood you will spill in war… If during a game, a spectator abuses you, a youngster can get broken, shaken suddenly.” He doesn’t want that to happen. Play hard, train (way) harder.
But what happens after the lights are off, after everyone has gone home, when everything has settled in… do thoughts of the match come floating back into the consciousness?
“It depends on situations. Some days when you make really good saves, you don’t feel like thinking about it. But sometimes after you make a lot of good saves and you make one mistake in between, that mistake comes back to your mind , like a gag reflex you get sometimes when you eat food. You start thinking, ‘Oh this is what I did, and this is what I should have done.’ Then you try to come up with an answer… ‘Okay, in this situation, this is what I should have done.’ Once you get that answer, that won’t happen again.”
Over the years, he’s learned to deal with it. “Some days you have some terrible performances, that day you will be very negative, you do a little self-talk, not just in my room, even in the changing room I talk to myself… I talk to my [goalkeeping] pad sometimes — it’s idiotic and silly, I know, but that’s how all that frustration and negativity has to be talked out and this is the way I do it.”
“We get an opportunity to talk to ourselves. Sometimes there’ll be a lot of questions that we want to ask ourselves. There’ll be a lot of answers that we want to tell ourselves. When you sit with a group of people and you speak to them, they start giving you their ideas… sometimes those are ideas that we never wanted to hear, and we can’t digest it. In such a situation, I try and keep to myself…”
“Once I finish talking and find that answer, my issue ends there.”
And he’ll keep on doing it for as long as he’s able to. The boy who just wanted a Kerala jersey to get 60 grace marks is now a bonafide legend in the India one. And he’s not done yet.
“Whichever way you look, what I don’t have [in terms of medals] is more [than what I have]. Lake [getting them] is definitely my motivation.”