The stars of the Indian men’s hockey team have returned to their familiar stomping ground at the Sports Authority of India’s (SAI) Bengaluru centre ahead of the 2022 Commonwealth Games in Birmingham, United Kingdom, but it was not always going to be this way. Not more than about two months ago, it looked like the players training for the CWG would be fresh-faced youngsters set to make their debuts at a big tournament for India while the seniors trained for the Asian Games.
But with the Asian Games now postponed and expected to take place only next year, Hockey India decided to send their first team to Birmingham after all, which means Manpreet Singh returned as captain and the likes of talismanic goalkeeper PR Sreejesh are now sweating it out in the complex. Sreejesh said that the postponement of the Asian Games was “a blessing in disguise” in a way because the senior players were not too happy about missing out on Birmingham 2022 simply because they were, well, seniors.
“Every player in the world wants to play these kinds of big tournaments like the CWG, Asian Games, World Cup or the Olympics. When they had said that we were going to miss the Commonwealth Games it was a disappointment for us. But then the postponement happened and we got the opportunity to go for the CWG. Now, there is a responsibility on us to perform better in the CWG because we are snatching someone else’s opportunity,” Sreejesh told Hindustantimes.com.
The flipside is that those younger players who were in the team slated to be led by former India captain Sardar Singh will not get to play in the CWG. They played in the 2022 Asia Cup in Jakarta, Indonesia and won bronze. Sreejesh said that some of the senior players had a word with the youngsters and they have understood what it takes to represent India in a big tournament.
“That team which went to the Asia Cup, even they knew how inexperienced they are for a major event. Apart from four-five players the whole squad was made of youngsters and it was pretty tough to handle it, even though they managed to finish with a bronze medal there. I think they realised how good they have to be to be in the team for the Commonwealth Games.
“They realised the reality and there were a couple of them who were disappointed and saying, ‘Bhaiyya this was an opportunity for us to play in the Commonwealth Games’. So I said this time you were in a tournament as part of the A-team, next time you try to get into the main team so that you can play these big tournaments,” said Sreejesh.
The 34-year-old said that the performance of the players in the Asia Cup shows that those who are established in the senior squad have to always be on their toes and this provides some “healthy competition” within the setup.
“The Indian hockey team is like a hot plate. Everyone wants to get into it and it really is about how they are able to capitalise on the opportunity. A couple of them performed really well in the Asia Cup so they might even get a chance to play in the main team and a few of them realised how hard they have to work to be there in the senior team. That is giving a wake-up call to the senior players. These guys are performing really well so we need to perform really well to maintain our place in the squad. So it is all give and take, we are pushing each other really hard and having a healthy internal competition. This is helping develop the team,” said Sreejesh.
India had played four matches as part of the Pro League against Olympic champions Belgium and world No.3 Netherlands. While they had won just one of the four matches on penalties, they were all closely fought contests.
“You learn something from every match. We played pretty well in the last four matches against Belgium and the Netherlands. When you play against teams like those it gives us more confidence and that becomes useful in matches against other teams. We need to look after all areas whether it be attack, defence, penalty corners, PC defence, shootout and shootout defence. We are working on everything.
“It is important to have a target. CWG is our short-term target now. We need to perform and win a medal there, that is our target. Every day we step on to the field we decide upon certain objectives. Some may say that they want to concentrate more on their basics today, some may say they want to focus on their passing skills. Whenever we train, we focus on that particular objective and try to do the best. That is how we as individuals contribute to the team’s performance. Definitely, when we see someone not performing upto the mark the players take the initiative to tell them that this is not the way to go,” he said.
The men’s hockey team has come quite a long way since the disappointment of the 2018 Commonwealth Games, from which they returned without a medal. In the intervening years, they most notably broke a 41-year-old wait for an Olympic medal by winning bronze at the Tokyo Olympics last year. Sreejesh was in the thick of that campaign and said that while they will draw motivation from the way they fought during the knockout stages, the players have no plans to rest on their laurels.
“Last time we lost the medal matches (of the 2018 CWG) which we were pretty disappointed about but I think we learnt from there and rectified that in the next tournaments. The same way, here we have an opportunity and we are sharing that story with the youngsters, that the real tournament starts in the semis and final. The pressure, playing style, speed, everything is different. You have to be mentally prepared for that and we do that while we train here. We put ourselves in that kind of pressure and train.
“We can’t dream about what we have achieved in the past. That chapter (winning the Olympic medal) is over now. This is a new team, a new tournament. So definitely we can’t think that ok, I have got an Olympic bronze medal and I have achieved everything. We need to shift gears, think about the new hurdles coming your way and overcome them. Definitely you take motivation from those matches, the way we scored, all those saves, but we have to get over it and think of a better encounter tomorrow,” he said.
Hockey is a fairly recent addition to the core sports of the Commonwealth Games, having first featured only in 1998. Australia have won gold in every edition and Sreejesh said that India, who have two silvers, are now aiming for nothing less than the top medal. “We have won the silver medal. Definitely we want to change that colour, upgrade it and that is our target,” he said.