At the end of the national camp, Suraj Karkera was called for the meeting he didn’t want to be a part of. India’s senior-team goalkeeper PR Sreejesh and junior team coach Harendra Singh had called him over to tell him he was not going to be a part of the squad for the Junior Hockey World Cup.
“They said that it wasn’t that I was a bad player, and this wasn’t the end of the road for me,” Karkera recalls the conciliatory words.
A year later, the goalkeeper now finds himself in contention for becoming Sreejesh’s replacement.
For a while, the question taunting Indian hockey has been ‘who after Sreejesh’. The 29-year-old has been an integral part of the national team, and was instrumental in India winning the 2014 Asian Games gold medal – which earned a direct entry into the Rio Olympics. A few names have cropped up since then, including the two – Vikas Dahiya and Krishan Pathak – that played the Junior World Cup last December.
But at the World League Final last week, Karkera emerged.
“Lots of people said that I’d missed my chance at the World Cup,” says the 22-year-old. “I knew they were better goalkeepers than me. But I was determined to get into the senior team.”
And he started pushing himself harder in training. The Mumbai lad remained a part of the national camps, and began to improve at a rapid rate. Most of the credit, however, he bestows on Sreejesh’s inputs during training. “We watch him closely and see what he does and do the same. We always feel that if he does something, we can do it as well,” Karkera says. “Because of that, he didn’t learn what we have when he was our age. We’re getting established because of him.”
It wasn’t till Sreejesh picked up an ACL injury at the Sultan Azlan Shah Cup in May that the younger custodians got their chance at international majors. Karkera got a shot in goal at the Asia Cup in October, helping India win the continental title for the first time in 10 years.
“I knew I had a responsibility,” he says. “There was excitement at being one of the younger players in the team. But the place I was in, I had to improve my level. It was all about working harder thereon.”
The youngster is the latest product of veteran coach Merzban ‘Bawa’ Patel’s academy, after the Walmiki brothers – Yuvraj and Devender – to have featured in the national team. And since the youngster hails from Mumbai, Karkera is perceived by many as the successor of former international goalkeeper Adrian D’Souza.
Karkera’s journey as a goalkeeper, however, started by chance. Playing in a school match, he was made to stand in goal because the team had no designated custodian. “Aise hi to goalkeeper bante hai,” he adds matter-of-factly.
Patel, however, saw a spark in his ward’s footwork – a result of a previous tryst with football – and decided it was worth the gamble. “He used to make a lot of saves with his feet. He got confidence because of it and then started adapting to becoming a proper goalie,” says Patel.
The amount of padding a goalkeeper needs also struck a chord with the youngster; it was the ‘cool’ position. “As kids, all that gear is like a toy for you,” Karkera says, smiling. “And then, we used to watch cricket matches and batsmen looked quite cool with their equipment. So this looked good too.”
Above all though, there was his willingness to learn and work. Patel remembers Karkera as the boy who used to make the most of the limited practice time available. There was also an eagerness with which he made the hour-long train journey to the Mumbai Hockey Association Stadium for the rare practice sessions on the astro turf.
“He has always been determined and self-motivated to compete,” Patel adds.
These were qualities that helped him bounce back after the disappointment of not making it to the World Cup-winning team last December. Now, he’s on the brink of becoming the next first choice in the senior squad.
Karkera is still not a sure-shot replacement for Sreejesh. There’s still much to prove. He had to split time on the pitch with the older Ashish Chikte at the World League Final. But in Karkera, India now has another answer to that goalkeeping question.