PR Sreejesh was only joking when, during a World Cup practice session last December, he said: ‘These kids need to be ready if oldies like me get injured some day.’
Little would he have known his words would sound prophetic five months later.
On Thursday, Vikas Dahiya — the young goalkeeper he was training on that foggy Lucknow afternoon — was named as Sreejesh’s replacement. An injury to his knee has ruled out Sreejesh.
The junior World Cup winner was named as one of the two goalkeepers for next month’s World League semifinals and a three-nation tournament before that. Akash Chikte is the other goalkeeper in the 18-member squad.
Since the 1990s, goalkeeping has been one area which India never had to bother about. But, of late, India’s options have been thinning and have relied — at times too much — on Sreejesh.
However, he twisted his knee during the Azlan Shah Cup match against Australia earlier this month, which will keep him out for at least three months. In absence of a back-up, the Indian team had been dreading this scenario for quite some time.
Hockey scouts across the country have been desperately hunting for reliable No.2 for the last couple of years while Hockey India flew in for+eign experts to conduct goalkeeping clinics.
Eventually, a goalkeeper mentored by Sreejesh has emerged as the best bet to replace him.
The India captain had put in extra hours with the junior goalkeepers for a month prior to the World Cup last year. And his influence on Dahiya was visible throughout the tournament, especially in the semifinals where he made two saves in the penalty shootouts against Australia.
Dahiya was a reserve goalkeeper for last year’s Champions Trophy and the Rio Olympics but was often overlooked after being criticised for conceding too many soft goals, especially from corners because of his positioning and reflexes.
His first instinct was to push the ball towards the centre than sideways.
“That wasn’t the right technique and Sreejesh bhai corrected it. The one month with him changed me as a goalkeeper,” Dahiya had said back then.
The impact of Sreejesh’s absence was apparent at the Azlan Shah Cup, where an inexperienced Chikte looked out of his depth when called upon the step-in.
The World League semifinals is the year’s first major tournament and will also act as a World Cup qualifier for the other countries. India are assured of a place by the virtue of being the hosts, which allows chief coach Roelant Oltmans the luxury of trying both the goalkeepers.
Oltmans, in fact, has made five changes to the team that competed at Azlan Shah. “The idea was to bring in a couple of changes in positions after Sultan Azlan Shah Cup. Like I had said before, there are three tours this year including Azlan Shah Cup where we would like to give opportunities to younger players,” Oltmans said.
With Sreejesh out, Manpreet Singh will lead the squad and Chinglensana Singh replaces SV Sunil as the vice-captain.
Striker Ramandeep Singh has been included in place of Affan Yousuf while SK Uthappa, Satbir Singh and Kothajit Singh too return to the squad.
Although the focus will be on the performance of the goalkeepers, Oltmans said he was more concerned about India’s goal-conversion rate. The Dutchman claimed India had ball possession of around 62 per cent on an average in almost all matches at the Azlan Shah.
However, they could not convert it into goals, which cost them a place in the final.
“We were fast and also when we compared statistics, we had better ball possession, which is a big improvement from previous years. But I would like to see our conversion rate in field goals and PC to improve from a 20 per cent and 24 per cent respectively,” Oltmans said.
Squad: Goalkeepers: Akash Chikte, Vikas Dahiya; Defenders: Pardeep Mor, Kothajit Singh, Surender Kumar, Rupinderpal Singh, Harmanpreet Singh; Midfielders: Chinglensana Singh (Vice Captain), SK Uthappa, Satbir Singh, Sardar Singh, Manpreet Singh (Captain), Harjeet Singh; Forwards: Ramandeep Singh, SV Sunil, Talwinder Singh, Mandeep Singh, Akashdeep Singh