Sreejesh: ‘Penalty conversion is a big concern for us’

The Indian captain is looking to tie up loose ends as the team gears up to defend its title at the Asian Games.

The experience of Sardar Singh (centre) is invaluable for the Indian team, says Sreejesh. Photo: PTI

The Indian men’s hockey team had a brilliant outing at the recently concluded Champions Trophy, settling for a silver medal after going down to Australia 3-1 in the final. The team, led by goalkeeper P. R. Sreejesh, will now travel to Jakarta to defend its Asian Games gold medal, which it had won beating Pakistan in the final at Incheon in 2014.

Despite the team’s recent showing, Sreejesh is well aware of the challenges ahead.

“Penalty conversion is a big concern for us. We are working hard on that part and we do realise the mistakes we made at the Champions Trophy. Key players are back in the side and we will look to convert penalty opportunities at the Asian Games,” Sreejesh told Sportstar.

India will benefit from the return of ace drag-flicker Rupinder Pal Singh, who was rested for the Champions Trophy.

Read: India fifth in FIH rankings

National coach Harendra Singh, trying to address the team’s penalty corner woes, has also included the likes of Harmanpreet Singh, Varun Kumar, Amit Rohidas, Surender Kumar and Birendra Lakra in the team.

The young crop of players are expected to be a part of the Indian challenge for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. “The return of Rupinder will definitely help us and we also have Amit and Varun in our ranks. We will try to create scoring opportunities for them and fine-tune our penalty corner variations.”

Sardar the ‘game changer’

The team will also benefit from the presence of veteran Sardar Singh, who was dropped from the Commonwealth Games squad.

The midfielder recently played his 300th match — against Argentina in the Champions Trophy — for the country.

Elaborating on the senior player’s worth to the team, Sreejesh said: “He is an asset to the team and his experience is invaluable. He is a game changer and he knows how to handle pressure. He helps every player and he is extraordinary when it comes to passing.”

Comeback from injury

Sreejesh, too, made a return to the national side at the Champions Trophy after an eight-month injury layoff. The 30-year-old made the most of this unscheduled break, connecting with his friends and family.

P. R. Sreejesh doesn't see captaincy as an additional burden to his goalkeeping duties. Photo: K. Murali Kumar

 

“I was like any normal person, hanging out with friends, spending time with my family. The injury-induced break helped me to think what I can do for Kerala, how to develop sports in the State and I used the time interact with a lot of stakeholders. I went to a lot of schools, gave speeches and spent time with kids,” Sreejesh said.

“This time off has eased the pressure on me and I am more free mentally and that is helping me when I stand in front of the goalpost. I have started to enjoy the game more.”

Sreejesh also took over the captain’s armband upon his return, replacing Manpreet Singh, who was at the helm of India’s disappointing Commonwealth Games campaign where the team finished fourth.

Read: Rugby has a future in India, says World Rugby CEO

The shot stopper doesn’t see this as an additional burden. He said: “It's not an added pressure. As a captain, you shouldn’t tinker a lot. You cannot change personally just because you are the captain. I maintain a good relationship with the seniors as well as the juniors and all of us engage with each other. Captaincy is important off the field, not on the field.”

‘Cannot let our guard down’

The skipper is confident of India's chances of defending the gold medal at the Asian Games, but warned against complacency. “We will be playing lower-ranked teams and we need be more careful. We cannot let our guard down. We want to win the gold medal and book a berth for the Olympics.”

While excited about playing the World Cup at home in Bhubaneshwar, Sreejesh refuses to look so far ahead. “It will be great to win the World crown in front of a packed house at home. It will be a dream come true,” he said.

“But we would like to keep our focus on the upcoming Asian Games and not think too far ahead. It’s time to defend the gold.”