At one stage during the last Hockey India League (HIL), all Indian goalkeepers were warming benches. There weren’t many in the fray anyway, but those who were — including the likes of PR Sreejesh and former India captain Bharat Chetri — quickly fell out of favour.
Having a reliable figure in the goal to succeed has been vital if you look at two major tournaments preceding the HIL. The 2012 London Olympics and the 2010 World Cup were decided by the brilliance under the bar. Nathan Burgers’ heroics helped Australia lift the World Cup in Delhi and Nicolas Jacobi was the key to Germany’s success two years ago. So unheralded Irishmen, South Africans and second-choice Germans and Australians were preferred instead, underlining the faith, or the lack of it, the coaches had in Indian goalies.
As yet another World Cup kicks off today, one wonders if India’s inferiority in this department will cost them dear once again. Goalkeeping was India’s undoing at the London Games. While most teams opted for just one goalkeeper in the 16-man squad, India was one of only three teams that took two goalies.
It showed that the then coach Michael Nobbs either did not know who his first choice was, or worse still, did not have faith in him.Skipper Bharat Chetri was the original choice. After the first two games, PR Sreejesh came into the side for the third game, only to be replaced in the 54th minute of a 5-2 defeat to Germany. They chopped and changed for the rest of the tournament. Chetri, though not alone, had endured a nightmarish tournament and seemingly took the brunt, falling out of favour with the selectors and losing not only the captaincy, but his place in the team.
The decline has been alarming in the last two years. Sreejesh, naturally, is promoted to the first choice keeper but there is no clear back-up to him. And the constant weakness in this area has hampered the Indian team considerably over the last two years.
Mihir is a senior correspondent based in Mumbai.