It was as if the World Cup hadn’t finished at all. As if you were back at the Greenfields stadium and not Glasgow Green. Wave after wave of New Zealand attackers raided the Indian striking-circle, every time finding a way past a rather flimsy defensive line. Once past that, though, they ran into a wall, one which moved, jumped and at times violently flung itself in the path of danger. In what has now become a familiar sight, PR Sreejesh repelled attack after attack, only for his errant defence to gift the Black Sticks with more opportunities.
It was just a warm-up match played in front of empty stands at the picturesque Glasgow Green stadium; almost as if India’s chief coach Terry Walsh ordered the match to be played behind closed doors to ensure their opponents do not spy on his most valuable asset.
India lost 2-3 but Walsh was unperturbed. The Australian even had words of praise for his goalkeeper, but Sreejesh seemed far from satisfied.
“During these warm-ups, I haven’t been up to my best. I have learned a few things over the course of the World Cup and I am trying to introduce them into my game before this tournament,” he says.
It won’t be an exaggeration to say that India would have finished at the bottom of the 12-team World Cup in The Hague last month if not for the 26-year-old’s heroics. So brilliant was the goalie’s performance that captain Sardar Singh exhorted his teammates to lift their game substantially to match Sreejesh’s level before the team departed for Glasgow.
Like the World Cup, India’s fortunes over the next 10 days will depend a lot on the Keralite. Sreejesh, capped 100 times for India, is the only goalkeeper in the 16-man squad, but he isn’t deterred by the pressure to stay fit as well as produce superlative performances.
“It is a testament to my ability that the selectors have decided to go in with only one keeper. There is always pressure, but being the only keeper in the squad allows me clarity, as well as puts a lot of responsibility on me. That is something I enjoy, giving my teammates confidence from the back,” he says.
The 26-year-old says that sessions with former Dutch national goalkeeping coach Martijn Drijver just before the World Cup did him a world of good.
Sreejesh is quick to add that having gained creditable international experience is also boosting his confidence and his mental strength. “Most good goalkeepers start hitting their peak after they cross 25. Devesh Chauhan was at his best at 27, Bharat Chetri reached his peak around that time. I am confident that I am almost there, and I think this tournament will be a defining one for me,” he says.
India conceding goals deep in the second half was identified as a major problem in the aftermath of the World Cup. Sreejesh says the team has accepted the problem and has hit upon a rather simple solution. “Once we enter the last 10 minutes, we aim to keep the ball in the other half. We don’t really want to create anything in our own half, though that’s easier said than done,” he chuckles.