It’s been a season where goals saved have been more remarkable than the ones scored and goalkeepers have got as much due as the strikers, a rare occurrence. But even as three Indians – all drag-flickers – sit comfortably in the top-five scorer’s list of this Hockey India League, the same cannot be said of the goalkeepers.
All six teams have preferred employing a foreign custodian over their desi counterparts, another indication towards the emptying goalkeeping cupboard of Indian hockey.
The country’s No.1 shot-stopper, PR Sreejesh, too has been left warming the bench by Mumbai Magicians for a major part this season. He has lost his place to little-known Irishman David Harte, who has turned quite a few heads with his performances. Sushant Tirkey, Bharat Chetri and Sreenivas Rao too have all fallen down the pecking order in their respective teams with Harjot Singh being the only exception.
The 20-year-old Kalinga Lancers keeper has been one of the few the bright spots as far as Indian goal-keeping is concerned by giving an option apart from Sreejesh to the Indian team selectors.
But still, he is considered far too young and inexperienced to be thrown into the deep end of international hockey.
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The rest, including Sreejesh, have alas been pretty average.
The franchisees, who have spent loads of money in acquiring services of top international shot-stoppers, have not hesitated in getting their monies worth, while sacrificing relatively weaker Indian goalies.
“The clubs are spending a lot of money and they want results. So when you have the option of employing a world-class goalkeeper, why would they settle for an Indian who is not as good as them? We need to be practical in these matters,” says Sreejesh, as a matter-of-fact.
Sreejesh and Harte played alternate matches for the Magicians this season but it was the Irishman who featured in crunch matches. Other franchisees too have adopted a similar philosophy apart from Delhi Waveriders, who do not have a single Indian goalkeeper in their squad, opting for German Nicolas Jacobi and Dutchman Pirmin Blaak instead.
Jacobi has arguable been the best custodian so far along with Holland’s Jaap Stockman. Despite being more than 6-foot tall with beefy frames, the two goalkeepers have shown remarkable agility. “India does not have very strong goalkeepers,” says Ajitpal. “The foreign keepers are quick to bend and move despite being so huge. They cover all angles in front of the goal. If you look at Indian goalkeepers who are tall, they are very slow to react and are not able to balance their body,” he adds.
The national team has suffered the most in recent times due to poor goalkeeping. While Sreejesh has been a constant in the playing XI for last few years, touring without an experienced second goalkeeper has had a severe impact on the team.
Chetri has been shown the door after the Olympics debacle while youngster Tirkey has failed to live up to the expectations.
In the inaugural season, teams chose to put an Indian in front of the goal and use an extra foreign hand in the outfield. That, however, hasn’t been the case this year as the teams have stressed on having a strong player under the bars, even if it means sacrificing on the quality up front. “That also shows they are better than us even in the outfield! They are better than us in all departments, technically and physically. We should be humble enough to acknowledge that and use HIL to learn new things from them,” Ajitpal says.
Australian goalkeeper George Bazeley, who plays for UP Wizards, says India needs to be patient in grooming the custodians. “Sreejesh won’t hit his peak until he is 30. Take Jaap for example, he is 29 and is starting to hit his peak now. Now he is really dominant in the goal. Give Sreejesh (25) his time and he will come out really good,” he says. “I am impressed with Harjot. He is getting opportunities and is taking his chances. He did well at the Junior World Cup. Though he was unlucky at times, he is a prospect coming through.”