Sreejesh: We now believe we can beat any team

In an exclusive interview from Valencia, the talismanic goalkeeper talks about the team's surprising run and the hurt that drives the players to keep getting better.

Sreejesh believes India now has the hunger and the belief to win against any opponent.   -  Getty Images

P.R. Sreejesh created history before the recent Champions Trophy commenced by becoming the first ever player from the state of Kerala to lead the national hockey side. By the end of the competition, his team had created another by reaching the final and winning a maiden silver.

The side has some distance to go before it can be a serious medal prospect at the upcoming Rio Olympics. It suffered a 4-0 rout in the hands of Germany in the opening tie of the Six Nations Hockey tournament in Valencia, Spain on Monday. But the team's heartening performance at the elite tournament in London cannot be forgotten.

In an exclusive interview from Valencia, the talismanic goalkeeper talks about the team's surprising run at the Champions Trophy and the hurt that drives the players to keep getting better.

Considering it was India's first-ever Champions Trophy final, how happy was the team after the game?

To be honest, no one was too happy. The general feeling was that we had lost the gold rather than won silver. After the game was over, even the juniormost player was sad and for me, that was the biggest plus point of the tournament -- that hurt, pain, hunger to win. To give an example, back home when you burn the paddy husk, often there is a tiny spark of fire lit at the very bottom. It remains unseen and but slowly grows and spreads like a fire. That spark is now present in every player and every one has the belief that they can beat any team if they do well.

You are considered the king of shootouts. What exactly goes through your mind during one and how was it during the final against Australia?

I was fairly confident of us winning and not because I am exceptional. I do not see the score during a shootout or think of what happened during a particular shot. I am only thinking of the next ball that I have to save.

See, there are two types of confidences that I take strength from – one is what I have on myself, that I can save at least two or three during a shootout. The other is the support I get from the rest of the team, not only in terms of encouragement but also the fact that while I save, the others do their bit and score also.

In the final, the situation was different. Our first shot went wide and then one that I saved was disallowed and retaken. If your team scores, the motivation is completely different when you go up against the opponent. We were unlucky not to score thrice but that happens sometimes in sports -- you cannot predict anything, specially a shootout. I guess it just was their day.

India looked a different side in the final compared to the lost pool game a day before. What went through the team in the 24 hours between the two matches?

The biggest realisation was that we did not play our normal game, the way we wanted to or we could. We all expected Australia to play an attacking game because that's their style. But that day, in the pool game, they were defensive and waited for us to commit mistakes that they would capitalise on. It took the team by surprise. In fact, I admit that the second quarter was perhaps our worst game in the tournament.

At half time the coach made us realise that we were not supposed to follow the opposition in the way we play. He told us that the opposition was doing what it wanted; we had to do what we wanted to. The last two quarters were much better and in the fourth quarter we finally played the way we wanted to.

That set the template for the final. I think the Australians expected us to remain defensive and we also had a strong defensive formation to start with but they were surprised when we began on an attacking note and kept at it. I think that made them change their plans but we were able to counter whatever they tried. We dominated the game and even though they earned a lot of penalty corners, we knew how to thwart them.

You spoke of the hunger to win. How hungry was this team before the final and now after winning silver?

To be honest, we knew we had already created history by reaching the final. But that was not our aim. I know a lot of people felt we were finalists because of the draw between Belgium and Great Britain, that they kept us in the medal race. But that is not true. Other than Australia, only we had two wins in the league stages. All the players felt they had to prove that India deserved to be in the final. We also knew that getting to play back-to-back matches against the same opponent in a major tournament is a rare opportunity and we had to make the best of it.

If two teams could not get a result that's not our problem. We knew we had to take the chance we got and make the best of it, show that we were finalists because we were good.

How important is the next six-nation tournament in Valencia in terms of India's preparations, given the fact that all six teams would be present at Rio?

Very important. Along with the Champions Trophy, this long tour of Europe will help us understand not only our positive and negatives but also how to adapt to different situations both in competition and during a game. Across the two events, we would play against nine of the 11 teams at Rio. We are aware that the other teams' compositions at Rio may be different from what they have here but we also know that the final 16 would be from amongst the ones being tested here, as is the case with India as well. We are also experimenting with our core group.

Also, we all know that the Olympics is a completely different ball game altogether both in terms of competition and the atmosphere. Even though the senior players have been through it before but still it remains a new experience. There is a lot of crowd, a lot of pressure and it is difficult for most players to get adjusted to it. These two tournaments will help both the seniors and the juniors to get used to all that and play their natural game despite all the distractions.

I do not agree with those who say that teams preparing for Olympics do not play tough at these events. When all your opponents are Rio-bound, every team wants to win and dominate the rest of the field. It also gives a psychological advantage when they face off at the Olympics. We would be looking to do the same but not at the cost of either revealing all our plans or sacrificing our natural game.

(As appeared in sportstar.thehindu.com on June 28, 2016)