For more than 45 minutes on Wednesday, P. R. Sreejesh was busy trying to swat away the flies and sundry insects and stay awake in the game. India’s opening World Cup match against South Africa saw the opposition take a grand total of four shots at the Indian goal through the 60 minutes.
It wasn’t something India planned, of course, but it did make Sreejesh’s job difficult on the field. The Indian goalkeeper had to not just stay focussed even as his entire team was parked at the other end of the field, he also had to make sure that on the rare occasions the ball did come towards him, he was ready to communicate with his defenders.
For a long time, India has depended on Sreejesh under the bar to keep it in the game or the competition. Given the importance of results in any tournament in the Indian set-up, no coach has tried to risk playing the second goalkeeper in crucial games. That has left not just Sreejesh overworked and riddled with injuries but also the second line – Krishan Pathak and Suraj Karkera at the moment – devoid of crucial match practice under pressure.
“Now it is not like that. At the Asian Champions Trophy we played both Pathak and Sreejesh in each half. At the Asian Games also, he got enough chances to play. We are not really worried about the second line but when the main goalkeeper is available, no team will risk not playing him. At the same time, if the need arises, someone has to step up and be counted. That’s the only way,” India coach Harendra Singh insisted.
But goalkeeping, by and large, has remained a specialist job where there has been little tinkering by most teams. Pakistan depends on Imran Butt. Holland’s go-to man remains Pirmin Blaak. Belgium would not think of replacing Vincent Vanasche. And David Harte is Ireland’s talisman. At the moment, Australia seems to be the only team with two custodians at the same level – Andrew Charter and Tyler Lovell.
Malaysia though did get a chance to test Hairi during the Asian Champions Trophy, purely due to Kumar Subramaniam’s hand injury. “It was a good outing for Hairi at ACT and I won’t be reluctant to put him in any match here at any moment. He took on the pressure of ACT really well. He is ready for the job,” coach Roelant Oltmans insisted.
Sreejesh himself admitted it gets difficult sometimes. “Normally we try to stay focussed by communicating with the defenders. But in a place like Bhubaneswar where the crowd makes so much noise, that isn’t easy. So we try other ways, get alert the moment the ball crosses our 25-yard line. With a bigger team like Belgium, the intensity is more, there we get alert the moment the ball crosses the half line,” Sreejesh said.
Harendra admitted switching gears between games is not easy. “A goalkeeper needs to face balls and get the chance to move around to stay match active. When it doesn’t happen in competition, we try to make up during training. But it is difficult and that’s where the mental strength and focus of the player comes into play,” he said.
So how does he rate India’s back-up? “For us, the difference between Sreejesh and the other two at the moment is 40-60. And those are odds I don’t mind for the second line,” Harendra said.
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