P. R. Sreejesh had no idea he had been nominated, leave alone that he had been awarded Padma Shri on Wednesday morning. Currently concentrating on the Hockey India League with the Uttar Pradesh Wizards franchise, the India captain and goalkeeper laughed it off before the news was officially confirmed later in the day.
“Is it so? I don’t think it’s possible, you are joking,” he said before switching topic to the HIL. In a way, it was not surprising that the 28-year old was unconcerned about individual recognition. Since he made his national team debut in 2006 at the South Asian Games in Colombo, Sreejesh has worked hard to make sure he is always part of a team, never a lone-warrior.
“I would like to dedicate this award to my team who have been exceptionally good over the past few years. We have grown together from strength to strength and have enjoyed success as well as lifted each other from heart-breaking defeats. My recognition could not have been possible if not for the team work,” was his official reaction to the award.
In the past few years, the lanky custodian from Kizhakkambalam village in Ernakulam, Kerala, has consistently ranked among the best goalkeepers in the world. It is a role that earns few bouquets but a lot of brickbats if things go wrong, shrouded mostly behind the helmet and away from the flashbulbs. How difficult it is for goalkeepers to break through the ranks can be gauged from the fact that Sreejesh is only the second hockey goalkeeper to be considered for the honour, after the legendary Shankar Laxman in 1967.
The recognition comes on the back of India’s recent success under his charge – winning the Asian Champions Trophy 2016, silver at the Champions Trophy 2016, bronze at the Hockey World League Finals 2015, winning the Asian Games 2014 and leading India at the Rio Olympics.
That it is not a desperately sought after honour makes it sweeter. Indian hockey has shown signs of revival and, more importantly, the consistency needed to break into and stay among the top. Sreejesh has been at the forefront of that growth.
He is an example of a change in the sport and the team’s market value.
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