Parattu  Raveendran Sreejesh is living a dream. On Tuesday, the star Indian goalkeeper was presented with the ultimate challenge—to lead the Indian hockey team in the Rio Olympics. For the 30-year-old Keralite it was the realisation of a  dream which he had seen nearly 20 years back. “Yes, when I was playing as a 10-year-old at the school level, I had a dream that I would be leading my country in the Olympics,” Sreejesh told this newspaper.

When asked whether captaining India increased the pressure on him, Sreejesh replied in the negative. “No. I don’t think it will put me under any sort of pressure. Far from it, this will be a challenge for me. I think captaining the country for the Olympics is the ultimate challenge for any player,” Sreejesh said.

Sreejesh who has been blessed with a daughter, Sreekutty, said that his two-year-old daughter was delighted when she heard the news. “I told my wife (Aneesha) in Kochi about my new role and she said that my daughter was dancing around in joy. I  think even she was able to understand the importance of that call,” Sreejesh said in jest.

Sreejesh, who has replaced Sardar Singh as captain, is also confident that the latter would be at his best in Rio. “I think he (Sardar) is a class act and for India to finish on the podium it is quite important that he does well.  I am sure that we will be counting on him to do well,” he said.

Sreejesh who counts his gold medal at the Asian Games as one of the highest points of his playing career, said that his performance as skipper in the recently concluded Champions Trophy in London had given him confidence. “We were competing against the best teams in the world and we won the silver medal against all odds. I was captaining the team in a major  tournament for the first time and felt that I could inspire my teammates to give their best. The Champions Trophy was an acid test for me,” he said.

In the 16-member squad announced by Hockey India (HI) chief Narinder Batra, injured defender Birendra Lakra has been excluded and Surender Kumar has been named his replacement. S.V. Sunil has been named Sreejesh’s deputy.

In the Rio Olympics, India have been clubbed with giants Germany and the Netherlands. Interestingly, this is the first Olympics where the hockey competition will have quarter-finals after the league stage. The top four teams from each of the two groups progress to the last-eight stage.

Sreejesh’s motivation to perform well at the Rio Olympics stems from disappointment he had to endure at the London Olympics. “The London Olympics was one of the most disappointing moments in my career. We finished last among the 12 countries and I am quite determined to make amends for that disappointment,” Sreejesh said.

Sreejesh felt that the decision to relieve Sardar of the captaincy will help the midfielder play more freely. Sreejesh said Sardar remains one of the best players of the team and felt that a person is abound to be affected by what is happening around you.

Sreejesh’s team will miss a key player, Birendra Lakra, who failed to prove his fitness after undergoing a right knee surgery.

The Dutch coach of the Indian team Ronald Oltmans expressed his grief over Lakra’s absence. “I feel like crying. I am in pain because he can’t be with the team. He is a brilliant hard-working chap. Unfortunately, he couldn’t regain fitness after the surgery,” Oltmans said.

The other defenders are Harmanpreet Singh, Rupinder Pal Singh, Kothajit Singh, Surender Kumar, V.R. Raghunath. Harmanpreet, Raghunatah and Rupinder are penalty corner exponents.

In the midfield, Sardar will be there among other midfielders, S.K. Uthappa, Davinder Walmiki, Manpreet Singh and Chinglensana Singh. Dharamvir Singh missed out though he was a candidate the selectors debated a lot about.  The attack line will be led by Sunil and the other forwards are Akashdeep Singh, Ramandeep Singh, Nikkin Thimmiah. Mandeep Singh and Talwinder Singh are the ones who missed the bus.

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