If P R Sreejesh had not become a hockey goalkeeper, he could have easily tried his luck at being a stand up comedian. After all, the pre-requisite for both the professions is an alert mind to read the situation and an ability to react quickly without much running around.
The 25-year-old, who will become the first home-bred hockey player from Kerala to represent India in the Olympics, admits that his primary reason for becoming the goalkeeper in the school hockey team was because he thought he would be confined to the circle and won’t have to run much.
“But then nobody told me that I would have to take hundreds of body blows during practice,” says Sreejesh, who had joined the G V Raja sports school to train for shot put but shifted to hockey after finding the competition in the school too difficult to master.
Taking those blows with a bamboo made gear was not a laughing matter but the mischievous child, who had to stay quiet at home due to a very strict father, kept motivating himself by either playing a prank on his fellow players or projecting himself as a joker of the pack.
“We goalkeepers anyway look like we have come from a different planet with all the gear we wear. So I don’t mind if people have a laugh at my expense or make fun of me till that helps maintain a healthy atmosphere and even motivates them to give their best,” says Sreejesh while not missing an opportunity to make a smart ass comment at his team members who are passing by.
The comments continue through the team’s practice session as the Indian Overseas Bank employee juggles between making saves and following them with witty one-liners to chide the fellow players for not being able to beat him.
The constant blabbering does raise the intensity of the session and at times Sreejesh ends up being at the receiving end with the other squad members, including coach Michael Nobbs, throwing jibes at the custodian for every ball he lets in.
They especially enjoys the dual between Sreejesh and team’s penalty corner specialist Sandeep Singh as both of them have a go at each other every time one scores over the other and roots for anyone who is on the top at the particular moment.
“It’s all in good faith. We play together and enjoy together,” says Sreejesh, who played an important role in helping India win the inaugural Asian Champions trophy and the Olympic qualifiers in New Delhi.
However, it wasn’t an enjoyable journey for Sreejesh till he made it to the national squad. The Ernakulam born player made numerous train trips to New Delhi sitting next to the toilet zone to attend national camps and was rejected not less than half a dozen times.
“They used to announce the camps at the last minute. And with no reservation, there was no choice but to sit with all the kit near the door during the three-day train journey,” recalls Sreejesh.
His first break came during Indian junior team’s tour to Australia in 2004. Though India lost the Test series there, Sreejesh was impressive under the bar. He continued to be in an out of the squad since then till his performance in the Lanco Super Series in Australia helped him cement his place in the national team.
“That tour gave me tremendous confidence. I told myself that if I can save goals with such a wide goal post (the goal post was a meter wider than regular), then I can perform far better in regular conditions,” he adds.
Since then, Sreejesh has been a regular member of the Indian squad and apart from defending the Indian citadel also has the additional responsibility of motivating the team when the chips are down. The 25-year-old isn’t willing to share his methods but insists that things come to him naturally and he doesn’t need to make an effort to lift the team’s spirit.
“Once when we were playing against Australia, everyone was already feeling the pressure and the tension was getting to all of us. So while we were walking out, I just shouted that I will today concede not less than 12 goals. That broke the ice and though we did not manage to win, we played our hearts out.”
In London, Nobbs is likely to rotate Sreejesh and Indian team captain Bharat Chettri since the former is considered to be good against penalty corner specialists while the latter is superior in field play.
Ask Sreejesh about will we see him playing a full game at the Olympics and he responds saying watch out for the Harley Davidson helmet. The Kerala custodian has got a custom-made head gear with a graphic of the high end bike which he dreams of buying one day.
“Now when I play, I have one Harley in my head and the other outside. Hopefully one day I can own one as well,” he adds.
May be an exceptional performance in London could bring him closer to that dream.