Sreejesh: We want to change what happened in London

In Rio, Sreejesh is determined to make amends. "This time, we have a dream. London 2012 was a disaster and that pain is still in all our hearts. We want to change that," he said.

P. R. Sreejesh aims for a podium finish at the Rio Games.   -  K. Murali Kumar

P.R. Sreejesh’s stock has risen steadily for a few years now, and things reached a peak last week, when he was named captain of the Indian hockey team for the Olympic Games. Yet, as is the case with a number of elite sportsmen, all this success has come at a personal cost. “I miss being a father,” he says, staring wistfully into the grass outside the men’s hostel at the Sports Authority of India here.

“My daughter is two years old now and she recognises me, but still I’m missing that attachment. When she was four days old, I left for Glasgow for the Commonwealth Games. When I came back, it was only after two months. I spent a week with her and then left for the National camp.

"Every two months I go home for a couple of days and then I have to leave again. So I’ve missed watching her grow up; I’ve missed out on all that enjoyment. A kid needs security from her father and that is what I can’t give her. But I feel proud because I’m doing this for my country.”

Sreejesh downplays his elevation to the captaincy, in place of long-time skipper Sardar Singh. “Sardar is one of the senior-most players in the side and he understands what the situation is. Things that have happened outside the ground have been putting some pressure on him. Even the captaincy is a burden,” he said.

“I don’t believe there is a negative impact on the team. Captaincy on the field is the responsibility of 11 players. One individual cannot change anything. Like at the Champions Trophy, different players will wear the armband. Before, it was: ‘Sardar, what to do? Sardar, what to do?’ Now, it can be Sreejesh or Manpreet or Sunil who answer that. Everyone has that power, that responsibility.”

The 28-year-old went to the last Olympic Games as second-choice goalkeeper behind Bharat Chettri, who was captain, but has since established himself as the undisputed number one. He may have matured as a player but he has, Sreejesh insists, changed little as a person.

“Even now, the coaches tell me: ‘Show some maturity’. Because I fight with the juniors, just for fun. The coaches say: ‘Sreejesh, you’re a senior’. But I don’t want to change; what I am is why I am here. That’s why people like me. I don’t want people thinking I’ve changed because I’m a senior.”

Sreejesh is one of the six members remaining from the side that travelled to London in 2012. The pain of finishing last, it would seem, has been impossible for any of them to erase.

“The days that followed were dark. It hurt a lot. When you go out into the street and people smile at you, it never feels like a normal smile. You feel it’s an insult, that there’s some meaning behind it. Whenever you see your pads and the Indian jersey, it hurts. You feel you let your country down,” he said.

“After that last match (against South Africa), it was difficult for us to look each other in the eye. The next day, even if you’re sitting with food, you can’t eat.”

In Rio, Sreejesh is determined to make amends. “This time, we have a dream. London 2012 was a disaster and that pain is still in all our hearts. We want to change that,” he said. “This team is capable of winning a medal. The target is to come back with a medal but now the players have to decide what colour we want.”