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Does Indian men’s hockey goalkeeping bench strength exude promise?

The sheer consistency of the PR Sreejesh almost makes us lose sight of whether the team think-tank needs to build a goalkeeping bench strength.

Does Indian men’s hockey goalkeeping bench strength exude promise?
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By

Suhrid Barua

Published: 24 Sep 2019 6:08 AM GMT

There is always a great deal of buzz generated about the Indian men’s hockey team’s ‘heavy reliance’ on vastly experienced goalkeeper PR Sreejesh. In fact, the sheer consistency of the 33-year-old shot-stopper over the years almost makes us lose sight of whether the team think-tank needs to build a goalkeeping bench strength. The man from Kerala has had a decorated 13-year international career (with the senior team) since making his debut at the 2006 South Asian Games (SAG) in Colombo – featuring in three World Cups – 2010, 2014 and 2018, two Olympics – 2012 and 2016, two Commonwealth Games (2014 and 2018) and two Asian Games – 2014 and 2018.

The talk of Indian men’s hockey team’s goalkeeping bench strength brings into focus the names of Krishan Bahadur Pathak, Suraj Karkera and Akash Chikte – the youngsters who have donned the role of the reserve goalkeeper to Sreejesh over the last few years.

Krishan Bahadur Pathak, who made his senior international debut at the 2018 Sultan Azlan Shah Cup in Malaysia, has been part of the national team set-up for the last year and a half. The 22-year-old has been the number one choice reserve goalkeeper to Sreejesh in three tourneys this year – Sultan Azlan Shah Cup, Australia Tour and FIH Men’s Series Finals. He was handed a bigger role – the mantle of being the first-choice goalkeeper at the Olympic Test Event in Japan, where Suraj Karkera was picked as the reserve goalkeeper as Sreejesh was rested. It could be observed that the Indian team management is looking to give Pathak as much game time experience as possible.

At the 2019 Sultan Azlan Shah Cup, Pathak played in the entire first half of India’s opening tie against Japan (which India won 2-0) and was again deployed in the opening quarter of the India-Malaysia match (which India won 4-2) before he was replaced by Sreejesh. He was entrusted with the responsibility to handle the shootout responsibilities in the final against Korea which India lost 2-4 after being tied 1-1 in regulation time. Even during the Australia tour, he was handed significant game time.

Krishan B. Pathak has been the number one choice reserve goalkeeper to Sreejesh in three tourneys this year
Krishan B. Pathak has been the number one choice reserve goalkeeper to Sreejesh in three tourneys this year

There is no denying the fact that Pathak has gained considerable experience by virtue of being in the national fold since mid-2018 till date. The youngster was a part of the national team in three major tourneys last year as well – World Cup, FIH Champions Trophy and Asian Games.

Suraj Karkera, who made his senior international debut at the 2017 Europe tour, got the opportunity to prove his worth in the Olympic Test Event alongside Pathak. The Mumbai youngster, who was the reserve goalkeeper to Sreejesh at the 2018 Commonwealth Games before losing that place to Pathak, is also considered highly in hockey circles.

Suraj Karkera is also considered highly in hockey circles.
Suraj Karkera is also considered highly in hockey circles.

Akash Chikte, who made his senior international debut at the 2016 Sultan Azlan Shah Cup, is another young goalkeeper, who has exuded promise but his career got derailed a bit after he was served with a two-year ban by the National Anti-Doping Agency (NADA) for taking a prohibited substance – a ban that has been reduced to thirteen months.

The 27-year-old Pune lad had last played for India at the 2017 Hockey World League Final Round held in India – he was also part of the team that won the gold at the 2017 Asia Cup and had also featured in the 2017 Hockey World League Semifinal. Interestingly, the 2017 Hockey World League Final Round and the 2017 Asia Cup were tourneys where Suraj Karkera performed goalkeeping duties along with Akash.

So how has the Indian men’s hockey team’s goalkeeping bench strength shaped up so far? 

Two-time Olympian and former Indian shot-stopper Devesh Chauhan says:

Sreejesh has been a great servant of Indian hockey, and he seems to be getting better and better with every match and carries loads of experience under his belt. However, it is also imperative that India has its next line of goalkeepers ready. Pathak is our best bet after Sreejesh although the skill gap between Pathak, Suraj Karkera and Akash Chikte is not much as all three are promising.

Chauhan, who represented India at the 2000 Sydney Olympics and 2004 Athens Olympics, thinks highly of Pathak. “He has been around in the Indian team for a long time, and he is getting more game time now, which will increase his confidence and enable him to take more responsibilities under the cage. I like Pathak’s agility and body movements, which is so important for any goalkeeper. No matter how fit you are, you cannot be a good goalkeeper if you don’t score high on agility and body movements,” he pointed out.

The sheer consistency of PR Sreejesh over the years is unmatched among the goalkeepers
The sheer consistency of PR Sreejesh over the years is unmatched among the goalkeepers

Former Indian men’s hockey team chief coach Harendra Singh believes it is critical that the likes of Krishan Bahadur Pathak, Suraj Karkera and Akash Chikte are persisted with alongside Sreejesh:

If you look at the global trends, you will find that goalkeepers tend to mature and peak in the late twenties. Even Sreejesh has peaked only after 26 or 27. I just hope that Krishan Bahadur Pathak, Suraj Karkera and Akash Chikte are persisted for another four-five years in the team set-up so that they are allowed to mature and peak. Pathak is very athletic and daring, while I like Suraj’s agility – Akash has also got good goalkeeping skills, and I have seen from his junior hockey days.

Harendra, who coached the bronze-winning Indian team at the 2018 Asian Games as well as at the 2018 World Cup, believes that Sreejesh should be figure only in major tournaments. “There is no point in playing Sreejesh in Invitational tourneys and Test matches. Pathak, Suraj and Akash can be deployed in such tourneys and groomed for future battles. This will help Sreejesh prolong his career and help stay injury-free – I think Sreejesh was overused during the 2012-2017 period by various coaches that led to a knee injury, which kept him of out of international action for eight months in 2017.”

The 2016 Junior Men’s World Cup-winning coach reckons the team can draft in three goalkeepers in the side whenever possible. “I understand that it is not possible to pick three goalkeepers in a 16 or 18-member squads, but when we pick 20 or 21-member squads, having three shot-stoppers is not at all a bad idea.”

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