Kolkata: P.R.Sreejesh, the rock under the bar for Indian hockey team, feels that they need to shed off the nerves quickly in their opening group league match at Tokyo Olympics against New Zealand on July 24 (Saturday).
“We need to shake off the nerves quickly and produce a good performance in the opening match. Getting off to a strong start is quite crucial in a tournament like the Olympics. It will give the right momentum for other matches in the group stage,” Sreejesh, one of the best goalkeepers in the business, said on reaching Tokyo on Sunday.
Speaking to Hockey India, Sreejesh said there is tremendous excitement among the players in the squad. “This is the moment we had all been waiting for. We can’t wait to get on with the matches and give our best and build our momentum match-by-match. I think no one can predict any team this time simply because we haven’t seen each other play over the past 15 months. There could be a lot of surprises too and we are mentally prepared for it.”
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Looking back at his journey in the sport, Sreejesh, who captained the Indian team in Rio Olympics in 2016 and will be making his third appearance at the spectacle, said: “Like every other athlete, I too grew up with the dream of representing India at the Olympic Games. My earliest Olympic memory was of PT Usha and because I come from Kerala, every household knew her name and how close she had come to winning a medal in the Olympics. In hockey of course, I looked up to Anna (Dhanraj Pillay) and followed his career closely,”
Though Sreejesh had made his international debut in 2006, he had to wait another six years to represent India at the Olympics. “Unfortunately, we didn’t qualify in 2008 for Beijing and hockey was facing a real slump in those days. The first big aim then was to qualify for the London Olympics. Though we had a dismal outing there, the players who stayed on in the core group knew we had to set the bar higher and focus on becoming a dominant team in Asia. We aimed at the 2014 Asian Games and a direct qualification for Rio,” he recalled.
Sreejesh believes that strong performances at the world stage, particularly the World League Final in Raipur in 2015 where India won bronze and a historic silver at the Champions Trophy in 2016 had put the team in a good footing for Rio. “It was a good team and we knew we were very capable of making it to the top four. The fact that quarter finals was introduced from 2016 Rio Olympics onwards was a big advantage. We were grouped in Pool B along with Germany, Netherlands, Argentina, Ireland and Canada. We knew we had to finish in the top three in our pool to get a relatively easier opponent in the quarters,” Sreejesh felt.
The Sreejesh-led blue shirts were poised to overcome this first hurdle as they had opened their campaign with a 3-2 win against Ireland, 1-2 loss against Germany, 2-1 win against Argentina, 1-2 loss against the Netherlands, it was a 2-2 draw against Canada that derailed India’s plans. “I don’t think anyone of us who were a part of that match can ever forget it. We conceded a penalty corner in the 52nd minute which was converted by Martin Tupper who had scored the previous goal too. I think that match put us out on contest in Rio though we qualified for the quarters,” felt Sreejesh.
This 2-2 draw against a lower-ranked Canada meant India had to play the formidable Belgium in quarter finals. “I think we would have liked to play Spain in the quarters but in the Olympics, no team can be taken lightly and we have learnt from our past mistakes. We were the only team that had won against Argentina, who eventually became the champions. We were a good team with great potential to make it to the podium but did not deliver when it mattered,” rued Sreejesh.