Sreejesh looks to raise the bar Sreejesh looks to raise the bar

Sreejesh looks to raise the bar Sreejesh looks to raise the bar

India's captain says unity is the driving force of the team as it attempts to chart a new course

Sreejesh looks to raise the bar Sreejesh looks to raise the bar

It was August 11, 2012 and India were up against South Africa in what was their last and supposedly face-saving game at the London Olympics.

Having lost all their pool games, the Indians were facing the South Africans in a play-off tie for the 11th and the 12th positions. A win would not have given them much cheer after what had been dismal show at the Riverbank arena, a loss would see them sink deeper into their misery. It was very much the latter as the Indians sunk to a 2-3 loss.

"It was one such time when nothing seemed to go your way. Passes were not coming through, defence lacked shape and we once again lost," said P R Sreejesh who was in goal in that match.

India finished 12th, bringing an end to what was their worst performance in the quadrennial event. A team that had seen its golden generation dominate the sport like none other had reached a new low.

Fast forward four years. The Indian team has -- to a great extent - wiped out the scars from London with their recent performances and is gearing up for another journey to the Olympic arena.

Sreejesh too has moved on. Rich in experience, he now has an added responsibility, the one that of the captain. "It's a great honour. I see it as a great responsibility that the team has bestowed on me and I will try my best to live up to it," said Sreejesh.

Lingering pain

The goalkeeper is one of the seven players who were a part of the side that played at the London Olympic Games. However for Sreejesh, the horrific memory is more of a driving force to excel on the biggest stage.

"Yes it still lingers in my heart. It pokes you every time someone talks about it. But I am using it as a motivation. The problems we faced there and the criticism we received after returning home, is something that I don't want to live through again.

"Every time I am tried of training, 2012 Games hit me hard and I go again. How much ever you train, it's never enough for the Games," he revealed.

Sreejesh has been India's first choice 'keeper for over three years. While his deputies have come and gone, none have been able to dislodge the 30-year-old from his role. His mobility and game awareness makes him one of the best in the world and a great deal will be expected from him at Rio. So, does this pressure of expectation affect him?

"I don't see it as pressure. I look at the experience that I have gained. Moreover, these group of players have been together for three years. So there's a certain bond and camaraderie in the team which is reflected on the pitch too. More than the pressure, it;s the experience that I share with the young guys. It's up to me to help them through a period like this when all the eyes are on you and every move of yours in closely monitored," he continued.

Build-up phase

India's build-up to the Games has been satisfactory. While they finished runners-up at the Sultan Azlan Shah Cup and the Champions Trophy, the 6-nation tournament in Spain showed the drawbacks that coach Roelant Oltmans is keen to weed out.

"It's (the build-up) been good. Winning a medal at an FIH tournament (Champions Trophy) is never an easy job, the boys did a wonderful job. The silver medal will definitely go a long way in motivating us to do well at Rio," opined the skipper.

"Later in Valencia, it was about experimenting with the side. Seeing who can do well in what position. If you need someone to fill in for a player, who can be that player. So there the result was not of importance. But the side did well.

"We had a certain plan and an objective. And I think we were successful in achieveing our goal," he added.

While the country is busy hoping and praying for a medal from hockey at the Games, for the skipper it's something beyond that.

"I am not looking at the goal," he said. "For me it's a pledge that I make to my fellow countrymen that in every game I play, I will give my best and try to get the best result out of it. "We're not looking at the Olympics as a whole, but just one game at a time.

"That's something that we have learned from the London Games. There's no point in calculating the whole tournament. No point in pre-determining who we can beat and who will beat us. It's hockey and the team that plays better will win on the day. So that's something we want to do at Rio. Take one game at a time and approach it like it's the final. But having been with the team for this long, a top-six or even a podium finish looks achievable," he stated.

DH News Service