By Rohit Mundayur
It was in the first week of March that 32 players assembled for the mens national camp at the Sports Authority of India’s (SAI) Bengaluru centre. The target was to select a squad that would travel to Germany and England for India’s FIH Pro League ties against the respective national teams in the two countries.
Over the course of the next three weeks, the COVID-19 pandemic forced sports calendars to come to a grinding halt and a nation-wide lockdown was imposed on March 25. What was supposed to be a four-week camp for the players ended up becoming a nearly three-month long stay within the campus with no scope for any regular training activities. The players were finally allowed to go home in mid-June.
“It was really different for us. We are used to being busy with activities, team meetings and things like that,” veteran goalkeeper PR Sreejesh told IANS while describing what life was like inside the SAI centre during the lockdown. “When the lockdown came around, our session timings got reduced. At best we used to get a training schedule and based on that we used to go out and do some basic training in small groups.
“So if we are not doing those activities we would be just sitting around. I used to wake up early because I read books and try to do something creative in my free time. I would do some yoga in the morning then have breakfast and then we would do our activities.
“Afternoon we would spend watching something on Netflix or anything like that. In the evening we would go for a walk in the campus. We would also do some training around that time, some running exercises or in the gym. So our training was really less compared to what we were doing earlier.”
A light at the end of the tunnel on the hockey front for the players is that they now know the revamped schedule of the Pro League and the Tokyo Olympics, both of which have been postponed to next year. “That is what we are training for, the Olympics. We know now that which days we will be playing which teams. It is a big motivation for us to bounce back from this COVID-19 period because for four months we have not been playing any active sport. But when the schedule came out, it was good for us, it gave us something to work towards,” said Sreejesh.
The men’s team first match when the Pro League returns would be against Argentina in April 2021 and Sreejesh said that they are looking at the Asian Champions Trophy scheduled for November this year as a potential return to action. Because they now have a semblance of a schedule for tournaments as opposed to the complete obscurity of the last three months, Sreejesh said that players can now treat this period as a long injury break without the dire implications that come with it.
Sreejesh knows a thing or two about long injury breaks — an ACL injury that he sustained in May 2017 during the Sultan Azlan Shah Cup had kept him out for nearly a year.
“Back then also it took me almost six to seven months to get back to normal training,” he said. “But it was different; then we had at least a short term target. We knew when is our next tournament and I could target that to bounce back.
“But in this period you are healthy and so you have to maintain that fitness. Secondly, you don’t really know when the next tournament is happening. For us the hope is the Asian Champions Trophy which is happening in November. So all the players plan accordingly; that these four months we should focus more on our basics.
“Also, when you are at home or away from training, it is very important that you look at all the matches you played previously and find out your own mistakes. You can find out your mistakes better than anyone else. So this is a time for us to find those mistakes and strengthen our basics. Once the tournament starts then definitely we will be prepared because we won’t really be playing any of the top sides in the Asian Champions Trophy.
“It is going to be tough for everyone to get back into that rhythm for international hockey but I do believe have the time to get back to it.”
When asked if he and other senior players had an extra role to fulfill in keeping the youngsters in the camp focussed on the task at hand, Sreejesh said: “I think it is the other way around. The younger players have a hyper thing inside them. They are just starting off and they want to play matches. So they must have been waiting to get back on the field far more than us.
“We have been playing for a long time so it is way more important for us to focus than for youngsters. Experience helps us to understand what all we need to get to peak performance in time for a tournament so in that we can help the younger players.”
Elite sports have made a partial comeback around the world over the course of the last three months but they have come with terms such as quarantine protocols and bio-secure bubbles. Australian cricketer David Warner had recently spoken about the extra time he may have to spend away from his family while on tours with the national team because of which he may re-evaluate his future in international cricket.
Sreejesh is aware of the challenges that come with travelling outside India in this situation but for now, he is focussing solely on getting back to the field.
“The first thing we are all eagerly waiting for is getting back to the field,” said the 33-year-old. “We are not even bothered about getting into quarantine, staying in the stadium and all that. The first thing is to get back to playing in the tournaments. When you think about hockey, it is more complicated because it is a very physical sport.
“In Europe it is easier for everyone to travel from one country to another and play a tournament. For us it will be tougher when we travel from India to any other country, it is a tricky situation. (But everyone knows) the health of the players is more important than anything. I think we should only be thinking about getting back to the field and not much else.”