• India are hoping to end a 41-year wait for an Olympic hockey medal and their last line of defence is determined to help deliver that.


By Sandip Sikdar

PUBLISHED ON JUL 24, 2021 07:58 PM IST

Be it on or off the pitch, PR Sreejesh is arguably the most animated character in the Indian men’s hockey team. He was no different on Saturday as India took on New Zealand in their Tokyo Olympics opener at the Oi Hockey Stadium.

As the game entered the final quarter, and the clock ticked towards the 60-minute mark, his shrieks also rose in volume with the seasoned goalkeeper constantly barking instructions to his teammates.

These were crucial moments as India led 3-2 with New Zealand pushing for an equaliser. A win would kick-off India’s Olympic campaign on a positive note while a draw or loss to their lower-ranked opponent would hinder their chances of qualifying for the quarter-finals right at the start.

The 33-year-old Sreejesh, now a three-time Olympian, is in the thick of action with the Black Sticks, desperately chasing a goal, ramping up attacks on the Indian goal.

Sreejesh though stood like a rock between the New Zealand attacks and the goal in the last few minutes, and then seconds, making two match-winning saves from two back-to-back penalty corners, ensuring India took three points for the win.

Despite the multiple saves throughout the game—four penalty corners in the last few minutes of the first quarter itself—the highlight was Sreejesh’s save 18 seconds from the hooter when a full stretch and block with his left hand saved what could have been New Zealand’s equaliser. It emphasised the value the India goalie attaches to the Tokyo Games campaign.

“When I look back at my own career, I have a lot of FIH medals, medals almost in every tournament, but not one in World Cup or Olympics,” Sreejesh had told PTI before leaving for Tokyo.

From the disappointment of not winning a game at London 2012 to Belgium ousting India in the quarter-finals of Rio 2016, Sreejesh—who debuted for India in 2006—has been at the centre of previous frustrations and heartbreaks.

“It can be my last Olympics, so for me it’s about what more I can achieve as an athlete, what I can get from this Olympics? That can only be a medal. This is what is giving me extra energy. This is what is helping us to wake up from our bed every morning and work hard. This is a dream I am living for the last 15 years and willing to do so for the next 15 years,” he had said.

As he took off his helmet after the match, with the Tokyo temperature soaring to 33 degrees Celsius on a humid day, Sreejesh’s face was etched in delight, the seasoned goalkeeper proud of his contribution. His heroics would be needed even more when India face the mighty Australia in the second Pool A game on Sunday. Australia beat Japan 5-3 on Saturday.

India’s goals came via drag-flickers Rupinder Pal Singh (10th min) and Harmanpreet Singh (26th, 33rd) while Kane Russell (6th) and Stephen Jenness (43rd) scored for New Zealand.