Sorrow and disappointment behind him, Pathak ready to roll
He was a standby to primary goalkeeper PR Sreejesh at Tokyo and didn't receive a medal but is ready to shine at the World Cup
When you look back at photographs of the Indian hockey team on August 5, 2021, you see 19 boys grinning ear to ear, their eyes moist, holding or biting the precious bronze medal hanging from their necks.
Among so many medals, it is easy to miss a certain Krishan Bahadur Pathak smiling like others but without the metal. Of the 19 boys who travelled to the Tokyo Olympics, only Pathak returned without the prize as he was a standby to primary goalkeeper PR Sreejesh and did not get to play even a single game at the Oi Hockey Stadium.
Unlike international hockey federation (FIH) tournaments where the squad is 18, Olympics allows an outfit of only 16. Pathak, Varun Kumar and Simranjeet Singh travelled to Tokyo as standbys after FIH and International Olympic Committee (IOC) introduced the alternate player rule due to Covid-19. While Varun and Simranjeet got games, Pathak remained on the bench.
But the 25-year-old says it doesn’t bother him as the team is his family, crediting the togetherness for their achievements. “The team is like my family. It has been since my junior days. They make sure no one is drowning in despair so we are always doing something together," says the goalkeeper, who has 80 international caps under his belt.
“After the pandemic, we’ve become even closer and got attached to each other emotionally. We discuss all situations openly. That is what makes our team so great. It's the emotional bond we have with each other and the understanding we offer to each other."
There’s another reason why Pathak feels that extra connect with the team. The goalie lost his mother when he was only 12 and his father a few years later when he was travelling with the junior national team to England in 2016. So practically, the hockey team has been his family ever since.
"Even now, particularly on the days when the team does well or we've come back from a tour, winning laurels for the country, I feel extremely sad that my parents are not here to share my happiness. It does feel very empty at times but my teammates always ensure I’m never left to myself in the room. Somehow, they know when I am low and there is always someone in the room to lift your spirit," said Pathak, who was part of India’s Junior World Cup winning team in 2016.
Ever since his debut in 2018, Pathak, a product of the famous Surjit Singh Academy in Jalandhar, has always been Sreejesh’s understudy, the team’s second keeper. He has done well to not just have maintained his spot for the last five years but has also grown in the role, keeping at bay many other keepers aspiring to take that spot.
"He has grown a lot (as a keeper). Last time I felt that Sreejesh and Krishan were definitely No 1 and 2 with quite some space in their level. But now it’s much closer because (chief coach) Graham (Reid) has given Krishan quite some matches so his confidence is much higher. He played some really important matches and played really well so that is a big confidence booster," says famous goalkeeping trainer Dennis van de Pol.
Van de Pol, who is a coach with Drijver Goalie Academy as well as the Royal Dutch Hockey Association (KNHB), trained Indian keepers in a brief stint in 2019 and virtually in 2020-21 before the Olympics. He returned to Bengaluru in December to train Indian keepers ahead of the all-important World Cup. Significantly, the Dutchman will also assist the team during the World Cup in Odisha. “Now, Krishan is also getting more into the leader position that Sreejesh has. He is also telling the guys what to do, something that wasn’t there last time,” said van de Pol.
Ever since joining the setup in 2019, Reid has regularly made Sreejesh and Pathak switch every quarter during games. The idea was to give the second keeper as much exposure as possible so that when the time arrives, Krishan is ready to face anyone. “I don’t think you can ever say he lacks motivation. That is the key for him; his professionalism. During the Pro League too, he stepped up when required and if he's required to do that during the World Cup, I am very confident that he will," said the Australian.
Training, playing and sharing thoughts with a stalwart like Sreejesh, a two-time FIH Goalkeeper of the Year, also helped the 25-year-old raise his own standards, recently manifested by two Player-of-the-Match awards Pathak earned during Pro League games against Spain.
"I was a second goalie myself and that’s really the hard part about being a goalie – there's just one spot. Missing an Olympic medal of course motivates you a lot that ‘I want to take that spot next time’. I’m 100% sure he wants to go for it and take that spot as quickly as possible and not wait until Sreejesh will quit. Since the last time I was there, Krishan had made the most improvements. That’s a really strong point for him and good for India to know they have a such a strong goalie behind Sreejesh," says van de Pol.
Unlike the Olympics, Pathak will play at the World Cup – his second at home after Bhubaneswar 2018 – and is motivated than ever to return home with a medal. “We really want to win a medal at this World Cup. We want to avoid a repeat of 2018 at all costs (India lost to Netherlands 1-2 in quarter-finals),” concluded Pathak.