The battle to become Indian hockey's keeper for Paris | Hockey - Hindustan Times

The battle to become Indian hockey's keeper for Paris

Apr 19, 2024 08:03 PM IST

Sreejesh and Pathak have their own strengths but only 16 players can be sent to the Olympics and that means only one will be picked

PR Sreejesh had his arm wrapped around Krishan Bahadur Pathak’s shoulders as they walked off the pitch after a match against Australia last week. They discussed the game but there were also smiles and laughter as they disappeared into the change room of the Perth Hockey Stadium.

India goalkeepers PR Sreejesh and Krishan Bahadur Pathak(Hockey India)
India goalkeepers PR Sreejesh and Krishan Bahadur Pathak(Hockey India)

The camaraderie between the two custodians has been witnessed by fans for the last six years. They spend most of their time together, not just during tours but also in camp where they train with the same goal of guarding the two posts.

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But the two friends are also rivals at present, in a race against each other. “I can’t say much as they are in a big battle right now. Both are doing great. That's the only thing I'm going to say about them at the moment,” says India’s intermittent goalkeeping coach Dennis van de Pol.

Unlike most bilateral tours or international hockey federation (FIH) tournaments where the squads are at least 18 strong, federations can only send 16 players to the Olympics, meaning that only one goalkeeper will make the cut for Paris while the other will be a standby.

Three years ago, it was Sreejesh who helped India claim that elusive bronze and Pathak returned as the only member of the squad to not medal in Tokyo. While saying that the team’s win was his win too, not having India’s first Olympic hockey medal in 41 years around his neck must have hurt.

But a lot has changed in the last three years. Pathak is no longer a newbie as his 121 India caps show and he has played a crucial role in helping India win many matches and tournaments, including the Asian Games gold last year.

“Pathak’s patience and stick saves are the strong points that make him standout,” says van de Pol, who will rejoin the team in Antwerp and London next month for the Pro League.

Pathak has grown in confidence and stature due to a particular strategy of changing goalkeepers every quarter that has allowed him to play as much hockey as Sreejesh since his debut in 2018. Put in place by former chief coach Graham Reid and continued by his successor Craig Fulton, the idea is to provide enough exposure to the second goalkeeper so that when the time comes, he is ready to face the heat.

The tactic worked wonders for Pathak as he has become a match for three-time Olympian Sreejesh. "I want to make the squad and play the Olympics as the second goalkeeper will only go as standby. The coach hasn’t said anything yet. It is up to him and the selectors. My job is to give my best and do whatever the team requires," says Pathak, who will turn 27 next week.

Knowing he can’t substitute Sreejesh’s experience, Pathak has been spending extra hours off the pitch to read opponents more deeply, analyse their attacking trends, positions from where they attack, their penalty corner (PC) set ups.

“If you do all this, you don't have to worry during the match because you’ll know from where they'll attack. It's implanted in your mind. These factors have improved my game,” says Pathak.

Though he has enough experience against penalty corners (PC), perhaps Pathak’s biggest weak link could prove to be inexperience in shootouts. In his six-year career, Pathak has only taken part in six penalty shootouts, winning and losing three each.

In the same time frame, Sreejesh has participated in 14 shootouts, clearly showing that the Kerala custodian was the preferred choice of coaches Fulton, Reid and Harendra Singh when it came to the final test. “For Sreejesh, his intelligent gameplay and shootouts make him stand out,” admits van de Pol.

Shootouts are an inevitability in the knockout rounds of all major competitions. Belgium beat Australia via penalties to win their maiden Olympic gold three years back. Germany outwitted Belgium in the shootouts to claim the World Cup crown last year in Bhubaneswar.

One could argue that after 321 matches, Sreejesh’s body, which will turn 36 next month, will be tired in its 18th year of international hockey.

“I don’t think it is a tough task for any goalkeeper to play 60 minutes. We train every day for four hours. We train to not just be fit for 60 minutes but also play back-to-back matches. Physically we are fit, mentally we are ready. Before Paris, we will play full matches. It is not going to be a problem," says Sreejesh, adding that he never takes his place in the team for granted.

“You should never be in a comfort zone. If you are, you will never do your best and never work hard. I always tell myself before every match that I need to focus, work hard and need to do my best to be there for the Olympics. You need to be sharp enough. It's not only a physical but also a mental game. You need to handle the pressure and be there."

Indeed, it won't be an easy decision and the final call will be down to Fulton who has the best view in the house in this photo finish.

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    From badminton to cricket, Sandip Sikdar writes on many sporting disciplines. He has the experience of working in digital, news agency as well as print organisations. Motorsport remains his first love.

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