After the warm-up routines on Saturday, P.R. Sreejesh and Krishan Pathak head over to one side of the goal of the practice pitch at the Birsa Munda Stadium. A cluster of balls is placed around the edge of the circle where the goalkeeping consultant Dennis van de Pol and assistant coach Shivendra Singh line up to fire shots on goal. Sreejesh and Pathak take turns in the goal and make save after save.
Sreejesh is the more vocal one and enjoys the saves he makes. Pathak is more understated in his work. Sreejesh, at one point, even looks up to the skies and puts his hands up with his fingers pointing, saying, “What a save, Sree! What a save!”.
The work with both the goalkeepers continues for another 30 minutes, where Sreejesh and Pathak alternate in the goal for field play and penalty corner routines. Sreejesh, the 34-year-old veteran, is constantly in the ears of his teammates, shouting out instructions, whereas Pathak is choosy with his commands and yet gets himself heard.
For the best part of the last 18 months, India has deployed the rotating goalkeepers policy by switching between the pair each quarter with some success. They have surprisingly continued to stick with the plan in the World Cup. In the opening night win over Spain, Sreejesh didn’t even make a single save, while Pathak was kept busy and was called to make four crucial saves. Van de Pol was so happy with their performances, he didn’t even talk to them about the game.
Indian team coach Graham Reid explained the decision, saying, “It’s the way we have been playing. Both ‘keepers have been playing fantastically well. They both push each other. I like both of them to be live options because if something happens to one of them, the other is slotted quite easily.”
When Van de Pol came on board, he had no hesitation in agreeing to the head coach’s choice.
“Normally, when you have one good goalie, who you know is playing, you put all your focus on that one. Here you have to get both on the same page to do this. Also, for the team, it’s different, of course. But the team also says it doesn’t matter who’s behind them. They feel completely relaxed and it doesn’t matter who is behind them,” the Dutchman says.
Sreejesh is the experienced Olympic bronze medallist with four World Cups under his belt. Pathak is still the fresh-faced shot-stopper, who is aiming to emerge from Sreejesh’s shadows, and had to miss out on the Olympic medal since he was the reserve ‘keeper. The decision to promote Pathak has also been made with a strong succession plan in mind.
“Sree is a few years older and if he decides to stop, we need a strong goalkeeper. Some teams have a good second goalie but they never get the exposure and when they step in, it’s all new for them.”
Van de Pol feels the quality in the goalkeeping rank is a ‘luxury’. He was previously consulted by the Indian team in 2019, when Pathak was not among the regulars in the team.
“I said in 2019, that there was quite a big difference between Krishan and Sreejesh. They did a lot of matches since then, quarter by quarter, and Krishan has really benefited from that exposure. And he has gotten better and better. He has gotten closer to Sree and they are quite equal. Yesterday, he got the most balls and he saved more. That’s really good. Not a lot of teams have the luxury,” he says.
Sreejesh and Pathak are continuing to push each other to improve and Van de Pol, who has previously worked with Canada, Chile and Holland, is helping them do so. He is working on Sreejesh’s patience when it comes to his decision-making and on Krishan’s tendency to over-rotate his upper body.
“Krishan has an old habit that he has worked and improved on, where he wants to go with his foot to the corner and rotate a lot with his upper body. That’s why his upper body is holding him back. With Sree, he has really good eyes and sometimes, he thinks that he sees where the opponent is going to shoot. But a really bad or a good striker can adjust that and change his movement. So, sometimes, he is wrong-footed. So, really patience is what we are improving with Sree. I don’t want him to think; just react on the ball,” he says.
Before India’s goalless draw against England on Sunday, Van de Pol was perched on the roof of the east stand for a bird’s eye view along with the team analyst. He had another training session in the morning. He had done his job and now it was up to the goalies on the field.
In what was an exhilarating end-to-end game of hockey, Sreejesh and Pathak both made a save each in the opening two quarters, and the former rushed out of his goal to put Sam Ward off in a one-v-one situation. Before the final quarter, Sreejesh walked up to Pathak with what seemed like some words of wisdom before tapping his chest to gesture ‘you got this!’
Van de Pol explains that despite their differing personalities, they both are the same.
“They are really relaxed. Gunnen (No begrudge). They also hope that the other one makes good saves and that they are both there for the team and not for themselves. They want to get the medal together and not ‘I want to get the medal’”, he says.
So, will India continue with its brave goalkeeping policy if it reaches the final?
“Who knows?” says Van de Pol with a raised brow.
“Maybe one gets injured, maybe one is too much in his head, then we have to make a decision. You will have at least one strong ‘keeper… But if two break down, then that will be s**t!”
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