Sreejesh, Sushila to lead Indian hockey teams in Rio

Goalkeeper Sreejesh to lead 16-member men's team while Sushila Chanu will lead the women's team. S.V. Sunil and Deepika have been made the vice-captains.

Sreejesh, one of the finest custodians in world hockey at the moment, was rewarded after the team, under his leadership, ended up with a silver medal at the Champions Trophy hockey tournament in London.   -  PTI

In the end, there were few surprises as the final 16 men and women to represent Indian hockey at the Rio Olympics were named on Tuesday. The men’s team would be led by goalkeeper P.R. Sreejesh while Sushila Chanu has been named skipper of the women’s squad.

While most team announcements are staid affairs, Hockey India believes in grandeur. The function had BJP president Amit Shah as chief guest and Sports Minister Vijay Goel as the guest of honour besides SAI director general Injeti Srinivas, IOA secretary general Rajeev Mehta, and several former Olympians.

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But for once, the big shots took backstage as the spotlight remained firmly on the players, provided with special formal apparel for the occasion.

Sreejesh, who became the first hockey player from Kerala to lead at the recent Champions Trophy, would now be the second goalkeeper to get that honour at the Olympics. Bharat Chhetri had led in 2012. But while there was a buzz around removing long-time captain Sardar Singh from the post, the man himself downplayed it.

“For me, the nation comes first. Our only target is to give our best and we have been preparing hard for it. For me everybody is a leader in the team,” Sardar said even as Sreejesh and coach Roelant Otlmans agreed.

“Captaincy is like a dream. But like at the Champions Trophy, there is a leadership group in the team. We will rotate the armband which helps divide responsibility and when all the seniors share the burden, the juniors also realise the importance of their role in the team. Sardar is one of the best players in the world and definitely part of the leadership group,” Sreejesh said.

It was a bigger achievement for Sushila, who not only recovered from a serious knee injury suffered a few months ago but also stepped into the shoes of Ritu Rani, the seasoned former captain who was dropped from Rio squad for lack of focus.

“When she was initially injured, I thought she’s gone,” coach Neil Hawgood admitted, adding that he spent a lot of time talking to doctors and sportspersons back home in Australia including a few who played at the Olympics without the ACL — the muscle that Sushila injured — before deciding not to go for surgery.

“The focus was on developing strength and in the end she came back just in time for the Australia tour and adjusting to all this pressure of leading the side while coming back from injury, it was good to watch,” Hawgood said. “Her determination to train and push herself and her resilience through this injury proved these are the people you need in tough times,” he added.

While the women go into uncharted territory — the only time Indian women’s hockey team played at the Olympics was on invitation in 1980 — the men are keen to erase the humiliation of finishing last four years ago. Seven of the 16 were at London and Sreejesh admitted that wiping off that hurt was the biggest motivation for the boys.

“We want to change what happened in 2012. We also want to re-create history and the players are intelligent enough to work for it,” he said.

Dhanraj Pillay had advice for the women. “You may see a Martina Hingis or Usain Bolt walking around at Olympics and you can meet and talk to them. But you are also proud representatives of your country and are there on merit, just like them. So don’t bother about the stars and concentrate on your game. If you do well, you will be stars too,” he told Rani Rampal.

While the men return to Bengaluru for a week before flying to Madrid for a five-day tour on July 23, the women leave on Thursday for USA where they would play a series of practice matches against the host and Canada before moving to Rio.



Squad

Men

Goalkeeper: P.R. Sreejesh (c); Defenders: Harmanpreet Singh, Rupinderpal Singh, V.R. Raghunath, Surender Kumar, Kothajit Singh; Midfielders: Manpreet Singh, Sardar Singh, S.K. Uthappa, Danish Mujtaba, Devinder Walmiki, Chinglensana Singh; Forwards: S.V. Sunil, Akashdeep Singh, Ramandeep singh, Nikkin Thimmaiah.

Stand-byes: Pradeep Mor, Vikas Dahiya.



Women

Goalkeeper: Savita Punia; Defenders: Deep Grace Ekka, Deepika Thakur, Namita Toppo, Sunita Lakra, Sushila Chanu (c); Midfielders: Lilima Minz, Renuka Yadav, Nikki Pradhan, Monika, Navjot Kaur; Forwards: Anuradha Devi, Poonam Rani, Vandana Katariya, Preeti Dubey, Rani Rampal.

Stand-byes: Hnialum Lalruatfeli, Rajani Etimarpu.