Vikas Dahiya: An investment for the future

After a stellar effort in the Junior World Cup semifinal, goalkeeper Vikas Dahiya looks a bright prospect to succeed his senior custodian P. R. Sreejesh.

Vikas Dahiya... the goalkeeper starred in India's victory against Australia in the semifinals.   -  Rajeev Bhatt

A few minutes before the shootout in the Junior Hockey World Cup semifinal, Vikas Dahiya stood apart from his team and coaches, listening to P. R. Sreejesh, nodding constantly. Amidst the deafening cheer of over 10,000 people it was unclear if he could hear anything but the junior India goalkeeper was with his idol, who has won many shootouts in recent years and, as such, the best person to have in his corner.

The advice clearly worked, as Dahiya brought off two fine saves and almost managed a third, as India avenged its 2005 semifinal defeat to Australia and reached the final after 15 years. With every shot saved, Sreejesh, never one to hide his emotions, was getting worked up a little more before the rest of the Indian players crushed Dahiya whilst celebrating.

"The only thing Sree bhai told me was to stay on my feet. As long as I am standing, the pressure is on the striker and I can save. The moment a goalkeeper falls down, he gives the upper hand to the striker and a chance to score and that's all I thought about during the shoot-out," Dahiya said after the game.

This was his first big test of the tournament where every opposition has struck only sparingly. But the 21-year-old has been through pressure situations before. Adjudged the best goalkeeper in the 2015 Junior Asia Cup – which India won to qualify for the World Cup – he was picked as reserve goalkeeper for both the Champions Trophy and the Rio Olympics earlier this year, ahead of other senior players. Those experiences clearly have helped the trainee from the Sports Authority of India's Sonepat centre to get used to big games.

"Even though Vikas did not play any games at London or Rio, it is important to get used to the atmosphere. He was there during the shoot-out against Australia in the final of Champions Trophy, he saw what happened," said Sreejesh.

"Nothing is bigger than the Olympics and being there with the team, practising every day and then being in the stadium for the matches, it all contributes to developing a player mentally. Selecting him for these big events was an investment for the future, and I think it is now paying off. At such times, the pressure is not on the field but from outside. Ask me, I was there in 2005!"

The pain of losing the 2005 final was bad for Sreejesh, who was then a back-up for Adrian D'Souza. He admits this tournament is equally important for him as it's for his juniors.

"My boy made me proud out there. There are others, Krishan (Pathak), Akash (Chikte) and Abhinav (Pandey) among others and I am just happy that there are more players fighting for a spot. More the merrier, it only creates healthy competition and makes everyone better. That's how we have had some of the best goalkeepers all these years," said Sreejesh.

He has a point. Since the late 1990s, goalkeeping is one area that Indian hockey has had to struggle with the least. First there were Ashish Ballal and A. B. Subbaiah, pushed by Jude Menezes and Devesh Chauhan, followed by Kamaldeep Singh, Bharat Chetri and D'Souza pushing Chauhan. Then came Baljit Singh and Sreejesh. It's been a long line of good goalkeepers fighting for that one spot in the team, and each one has picked up points from his predecessor to get better.

"Don't watch the player, watch the ball, follow it, don't let it go past you. That's the basic advice from Sree bhai and I tried to do that only. We train specifically for shoot-outs every day, every session. It's all about building confidence and the more balls you save in practice, the better you get in the game," Dahiya explained.

Chauhan, who was named goalkeeper of the tournament in 2001, when India won its maiden Junior World Cup title, believes Dahiya would only get better from here. "It takes a goalkeeper at least 6-7 years to mature and the best goalkeepers are usually in their early 30s. Given that, he has a long road ahead and will only improve with time," he said.

Sreejesh believes he has done his bit in seeking a successor. "At some point, everyone has to quit. I am hopeful now that when I go, the next lot will be ready to continue the good run."