Ahead of India’s FIH Olympic Qualifier matches against Russia, PR Sreejesh has mentioned that the matches are important for India as they are facing a lower-ranked team and the Olympics qualification is at stake. Sreejesh also explained about Krishan Bahadur Pathak’s performance in the post.
After finishing their Belgium tour on a high by returning unbeaten against the World Champions and Spain, the Indian men’s team is currently practising in Bhubaneswar for their two crucial matches against Russia which are a part of the FIH Olympic Qualifiers. Russia are ranked 22 on the FIH ranking table and the Indian men who are placed fifth are expected to have a comfortable outing against their opponent team.
However, with a few days remaining for the matches, senior Indian goalkeeper PR Sreejesh has stressed the importance of getting ready for the two games. India will have to win on aggregate to make it to the Tokyo Olympics 2020 and Sreejesh said that the performance in Belgium will only be an added advantage for the Manpreet Singh-led team.
“There is only one aim for us, to qualify for the Olympics. We are gathering our confidence in whatever way possible though we gained a huge amount of it from Belgium but that story ends there. Now we have a new mission and we need to focus on our performance. As everyone knows that when we are playing against a lower-ranked team, it's not about them it’s about us. We just want to perform consistently and not drop down to their level,” Sreejesh told SportsCafe in an exclusive interview.
India had beaten Russia by a huge margin of 10-0 goals at the same venue in Bhubaneswar in June during the FIH Series Finals. However, Sreejesh stated that although the opponents and the turf are the same, the Indian team cannot judge the Russians on the basis of their previous performance as the pressure of making it to the next Olympics will be there and the atmosphere will be different.
“That will definitely provide added confidence but when it comes to an Olympics qualifier round, it is a different atmosphere because both teams have the opportunity to qualify for the Olympics so they would also come out with a different mindset or a different team or a different strategy. So you cannot judge them on the basis of the last performance but even then we have an upper hand on them and we can’t take that for granted,” the Kerala-born player explained.
Sreejesh and Krishan Bahadur Pathak have been playing regularly in the Indian team for a long time now and in the last few matches, it is noticed that the Indian think tank alternates between the two goalkeepers in each quarter. This strategy was seen during the tour to Australia and even continued in the FIH Series Finals in June which the Indian team won. Sreejesh explained that the idea behind the switch among the custodians is to give more experience to Pathak.
“It's more about giving more experience to youngsters. If you see the past few years, I have been consistently playing so now it's time to develop the youngsters also. So this is how we can give them more opportunity and they will get more experience playing on the turf. Definitely, for a goalkeeper, match experience is more important than anything else so it's important for us to give them enough opportunity to be on the field and get the experience. Especially in Bhubaneswar, there is a huge crowd so being a goalkeeper it’s more about the mental game and it’s about your focus on the game,” the 31-year-old explained.
Talking about Pathak’s transition from the junior India level to the senior team, Sreejesh stated, “It's collective experience from the juniors level to the seniors. He has been with the juniors for two to three years so from there he joined us three years ago and now he has almost six years of experience so he knows the system and the strategies really well.
“Among us - me, Suraj and Krishan - we used to have a very healthy chat of the common stuff as every goalkeeper has a different style and performance. We talk about the negatives and the positives and how we are approaching the same situations in different ways so these things always helped us to improve ourselves by discussing the same situations from different perspectives and that’s a healthy way to improve ourselves.”
After Harendra Singh’s exit from the chief coach’s position following India’s World Cup quarter-final loss against the Netherlands, Graham Reid was appointed at the helm in April this year. It has been six months with the Australian as the chief coach and in this period, India has played some important matches which include FIH Series Finals, Olympic Test Event and the tours to Australia (in May) Belgium as well. Meanwhile, the main aim for him with the Indian team is making it to the Olympics and then prepare for the sporting extravaganza in Japan. Sreejesh also spoke about his association with Reid and the tactics of the coach.
“Graham joined us only a few months ago so he can’t make huge changes in a short period but definitely he is trying to implement his own ideas step by step. When it comes to the Australian coaches, they always love to play attacking hockey which is similar to the Indian style because we Indians got great talent in executing skills so when it comes to that they always appreciate our effort to do individual skills,” said the Indian custodian.
“When it comes to goalkeeping, he knows me really well because I played under him from the first PHL with Mumbai Magicians and from there onwards I have worked with him in UP Wizard. So being an experienced goalkeeper, his expectations are really high and he is not really involved but instructs me like you could have done that or what is the best choice. So he will force us to take the decision and he does not suggest but he asks questions so that you find out your own answer and rectify yourself. That’s the best way when you reach a certain level as you don’t need advice but guidance and some kind of motivation so that is what he is doing now.”
Sreejesh is one of the senior members in the team along with Rupinder Pal Singh, SV Sunil and skipper Manpreet Singh in the 18-member squad for the Olympic Qualifiers and has a vast experience of playing in pressure situations. He said that the primary job for the seniors, during the camp, will be to make the youngsters understand the situation and atmosphere of pressure matches where an Olympic qualification is at stake.
“The first thing is to make the youngsters understand the real business here because when I played in 2012 qualifiers even though we faced France it was a big match as the pressure is totally different. So, we just want to convey to them that this is not going to be easy for them and the pressure is going to be different and the expectations is going to be really high. I believe they will be mentally and physically fit for the big task,” Sreejesh signed off.
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