The same adamant streak that propelled Indian hockey goalkeeper P.R. Sreejesh to success is what makes him an unfussy eater too

Parattu Raveendran Sreejesh never wanted to play hockey. He wanted to be an athlete, like everyone else who plays any kind of sport in Kerala. As a kid, he started training as a sprinter but was just not fast enough.

He then moved to long jump and even flirted with volleyball before his coach at GV Raja Sports School, Trivandrum, told him to try goalkeeping for the school team. That was in Class VIII. Today, he is the best goalkeeper in the country and among the top ones in the world.

“My strength and my weakness is the same — my stubbornness to excel once I have made a choice. It helps me adjust to everything but also keeps me agitated, trying to get better,” says the 27-year-old from Ernakulam.

And so he is fine with whatever he gets to eat on tours, regardless of the taste buds, as long as it helps him stay fit and perform well on the field. “In places like Australia, we make do with pizzas or sandwiches or salads; same in Europe.”

He reasons, “Even though a lot of countries now claim to have Indian restaurants, it is too much of a hassle to look for one in an unknown city. And the food, more often than not, is not the kind of Indian we are used to. So, better to make do with the local stuff.”

At Shraman in Hotel Ashok, where we meet for lunch, he has to choose from a range of vegetarian fare that includes mainly rich cuisine. Sreejesh knows he has to be careful but allows himself this mini cheat-treat. “The present camp is just for conditioning and we do not have any major assignments coming up this year. So I can let go just a little,” he laughs as he settles for a paan patta chaat — an unusual combination of fried betel leaves with curd and spices.

“I am not a fussy eater. Give me my sambhar-rice any day over any of the fancy stuff at restaurants,” Sreejesh says. His penchant for betel leaves — a constant in most homes down South — is apparent in his choice of drink as well — paan ka sharbat.

It’s not just about adjusting to what’s available. Having played at the top level for quite a few years now, Sreejesh insists healthy food is now part of the subconscious for most players.

“When Jose Brasa came as coach, he brought Jesus Pallares as the trainer. Jesus was the one who first made us realise that eating properly was a science. It is not just about quantity or quality of food but also the type. Then David John came (with Michael Nobbs) and he took it further. The last one, Jason, added to their efforts,” he explains.

“The basic idea was the same — build muscles, increase stamina and strength and add flexibility and agility. If you compare our physiques now with three years ago, you will see the difference.”

His own favourite food, before he joined the Indian team, was tapioca and fish curry. “We call it kappa in Kerala. Sambhar-rice was routine fare so this was what I really loved. Now, of course, sambhar-rice itself is a luxury,” he adds wistfully.

His wife Aneeshya, he says, cooks excellent beef but he hardly gets to eat much at home. And with the menu here consisting mainly of Rajasthani vegetarian food, he settles for Jodhpuri paneer (it looks like chicken in gravy, he chuckles, much to the shock of the attendant) and Rajasthani papad mangoori ki sabzi, accompanied by spicy Bikaneri paratha. He knows he should avoid too much of spice but is confident enough of burning it off during the day’s evening training.

Having been in the shadows of senior goalkeepers for a large part of his career — despite having been part of the Indian team for more than six years Sreejesh came into prominence only after the inaugural Asian Champions Trophy in 2011, when he saved two penalty strokes in the final — the lanky Malayali is fiercely possessive of his spot in the team.

“I have promised myself I will never let my weight go over 83kg. Every time I lose weight, my reflexes improve vastly, but I need enough strength as well. I will never compromise on it. It has taken me so long to reach here, someone has to really push me off to take this spot,” he asserts.

The desserts arrive — phirni and shahi tukda — and Sreejesh tucks in happily. “Eat well, for you live only once. But don’t live to eat. Like everything else in life, there has to be a balance. Otherwise you will score an own goal,” he signs off on a philosophical note.