* Commonwealth Games, Gold Coast, India vs Pakistan: Pakistan, trailing by a goal, win a penalty corner right at the hooter. Ali Mubashar drills one low and hard towards PR Sreejesh’s right. Sreejesh reacts late, the ball beats him comfortably.
* Champions Trophy, Breda, India vs Australia: Jake Whetton plays a wobbly ball inside the ‘D’, Sreejesh tries to clear it with his right foot but the kick is weak. Trent Mitton slams the rebound home.
* World Cup, Bhubaneswar, India vs Belgium: Alexander Hendrickx pushes low and hard towards Sreejesh’s right. The goalkeeper is slow to react and the ball sneaks between the legs.
For a major part of this decade, the 30-year-old goalkeeper’s hulk-like presence has been a crucial factor in the national team’s revival. But now, opponents seem to have figured out a hole in the Indian wall — low, to the goalkeeper’s right.
In the three above-mentioned instances this year, rival teams exploited this weakness. And these aren’t the only cases. At the Champions Trophy, Dutchman Jeroen Hertzberger’s powerful shot low to the right beat Sreejesh; luckily for India, the goal was disallowed because the free hit that led to it wasn’t taken from the correct position. In the same tournament, Belgium’s Loick Luypaert snuck in a drag-flick in the same direction.
Malaysia exploited the chink in Sreejesh’s armour to stage a comeback twice in the Asian Games semifinal before ousting the defending champions, and the trend continued on Sunday. The strategy of India’s opponents seems obvious: target the goalkeeper’s right, either through direct shots or deflections. Sreejesh has often been slow to react, rather late in moving his right leg, which allows the ball whiz past him.
Right has always been Sreejesh’s weaker side, but his quick reflexes papered over the crack earlier. Curiously, it has become this glaring only after his return from a right knee injury this year. More than physical, it is argued that the injury has had a psychological impact on the goalkeeper, who looks unsure and second-guessing his instincts. The debate over his place in the team has only added to his insecurities.
Indeed, Sreejesh isn’t the same goalkeeper since returning from the injury. The custodian was at the top of his game before a freak collision with an Australian forward at the Sultan Azlan Shah Cup in March 2017 injured his anterior cruciate ligament. The tiny band of tissue in the centre of the knee has been the downfall of several top athletes. Sreejesh needed two surgeries to reconstruct it, followed by several months of rehab before he could return to the hockey field.
But the return isn’t always smooth.
Performance impeding injury
An ACL tear would have been classified as a career-ending injury two or three decades ago, but modern medical procedures have ensured that most athletes are able to make a comeback. In sports that demand a lot of mobility, high speed and change of direction, recovery may take time. But more often than not, an athlete has managed to return – gymnast Dipa Karmakar, Sreejesh and fellow hockey player Birendra Lakra are some Indian athletes to have done that in recent months.
But various studies have concluded that the performance is often impacted. A study by Arthroscopy Association of North America revealed that the batting average of Major League Baseball’s position players (all players except the pitcher) saw a decline of 12 per cent if they suffered an injury to their rear batting leg. Similarly, in America’s National Football League, the performance dropped by a third.
It’s a shame that hockey, a sport where the risk of such injury is high, does not have such in-depth research. But Shrikant Iyengar, a Delhi-based physiotherapist who has been associated with the sport for more than a decade, believes the injury does not leave such a major impact on a players’ performance.
Iyengar has treated several Indian athletes and was closely monitoring Sreejesh’s rehab. According to him, more than physical, an ACL tear is an ‘emotionally challenging’ injury. “The moment a person fit suffers this injury, he first has to undergo a surgery and then there is a protocol-based rehab. So the actual process of surgery is very traumatic… then you have to use crutches for three to four weeks, you aren’t allowed to put too much weight on your legs and practically, you are re-learning to stand on that leg and walk. Put simply, mentally it is challenging,” Iyengar says.
The mental battle
For someone like Sreejesh, who feeds off positive energy, the mental bit becomes all the more crucial. Especially because the bar is perhaps unfairly high for him, because of the lofty standards he has set for himself. And also because of the pressure of dealing with the expectations every time he wears the India jersey, given his importance to the national team.
The eight-month injury layoff was the longest time Sreejesh has stayed away from hockey since he started playing. And even though Indian hockey has reached a stage where injured players are taken care of, and not left to fend for themselves, the fight to stay relevant amidst emerging faces and changing coaches can be excruciating.
Sreejesh, who was the captain at the time of his injury, didn’t just have to prove he was fit, but also show he was still better than Suraj Karkera and Krishan Pathak, two goalkeepers in their early 20s, as the team management pushed for the inclusion of youngsters ahead of ageing, unfit veterans.
The mixed signals from Hockey India and the team management have not helped his case either. After the team’s failure to win a medal at the Commonwealth Games, he was elevated to captaincy again. Under his leadership, the team won its second successive Champions Trophy silver in June. And then, the Asian Games debacle happened.
An avid reader of philosophy and sports psychology books, Sreejesh penned handwritten letters to each member of the squad, urging them to ‘put country before self’ and ‘touch pinnacle of success’ in Jakarta. But the team crumbled under pressure. They lost to Malaysia in the semifinals, missing out on what many within the team expected to be a sure-shot gold.
Sreejesh was guilty of conceding two soft goals, which allowed Malaysia to take the match into the shootout, where he was once again trumped. But his confidence seems to have taken a massive hit after Hockey India and the team management almost pinned the entire blame for failing to defend the gold on him. Taking the captaincy away from Sreejesh in the aftermath was a clear indication of that.
Those close to him say that even though Sreejesh has taken recent goings-on in his stride, they have affected him. And the dip in form is seen as a direct consequence of it.