Like any tragedy, the first stage of PR Sreejesh’s reaction to injury was denial. A day after colliding with an Australian forward at the Sultan Azlan Shah Cup last year, the custodian met with then coach Roelant Oltmans.
“He told me the injury was quite bad, but I told him to stop joking,” he recalls. The physiotherapist confirmed the worst, though. “I had ACL, MCL, and meniscus injuries on my right knee,” he adds. In other words, his knee was done.
It kept him out for eight months, which now seem like a lifetime to him. He even had to learn how to walk again. Finally, the 29-year-old made his comeback to the national team a month ago when he travelled to New Zealand for a four-nation test series. Now, he finds himself in the list of 33 probables for the Sultan Azlan Shah Cup next month, and the Commonwealth Games in April.
“This was the goal for the last eight months,” he says. “I had to learn how to walk again, so it feels good to get what you’ve worked so hard for in all that time. I had butterflies in the stomach again in that comeback match.”
His return has brought back that formidable presence in the team. In goal, there is now a leader who was the hero in the Asian Games final shoot-out in 2014. He’s shunned the uncertainty of injury time to come back with a calmer mind. And in that period of turmoil, he had the “best distractions” possible.
“When a player gets injured, all negative thoughts come in,” he says. “Then you bump into people who have had that problem and they start telling you about how difficult it is and that doesn’t help. But my wife was expecting our second child at the time, so there was something much better for me to look forward to.”
Sreejesh didn’t get much time with his family when his daughter was born four years ago, as he had to travel with the national team to Glasgow for the Commonwealth Games, and then to Incheon for the Asian Games. This time, though, he has been more hands on with his son.
“When you’re in the hockey team, you’re treated like a VIP. There are people around you looking after you, making sure you get 7-8 hours of undisturbed sleep every day,” he says. “Now I had to wake up at night to change diapers, get the feeding bottle. I learnt how to be a father.”
Once his leg allowed, Sreejesh took the opportunity to visit local schools, steadily realising a world beyond sport.
“I saw life as a normal human being, I saw the future I had. It was like a rehearsal for normal life after hockey,” he says. “That’s why I felt so calm when I got back to the national team because I could see hockey in a different way. There’s life beyond the game.”
There was no pressure to get fit quickly and comeback to the Indian team. But there was some anxiety when he got back to the national camp.
“People were saying, ‘thank God you’re back Sree, now we will play well,’” he says. “There are expectations of me to guide and boost morale. When you’re the goalkeeper, the outfielders need to know that there’s someone at the back to save them if they make mistakes.”
In New Zealand, he got his first piece of competitive action for eight months. In his absence, the likes of Akash Chikte and Suraj Karkera had staked claim on a position that Sreejesh had commanded for years.
His return has come at a crucial juncture for the Indian team, as they prepare for a year cramped with important tournaments: Commonwealth Games, Asian Games, and the World Cup.
“Your name never stands for anything, only performances do. Now I need to prove it to everyone and myself that I can perform well again,” he says.
It’s as good a time as any for him to underline his status as the India no 1.