You can easily picture him – spine bent over his hockey stick as he created magic and instilled trepidation in the rival defence. You can also imagine him as a leader with the spine to tell the officials what he really thought of them.
Both images of Dhanraj Pillay have effortlessly stuck in the minds of all those who know the man who turns 51 on Tuesday, 16 July.
Indeed, he is a rare hockey ace who has straddled two worlds.
The game has undoubtedly changed in the last two decades, the Indians trying to catch up with the hot pace at which the Australians and the Europeans play the game. With increasing demands placed on team-work, crisp passing and first-time hits, there is little room for individual craft to be showcased by anyone. It has left Dhanraj Pillay as the last of the larger-than-life heroes.
There have been wizards, blessed with more gifts than him, but their aura acquired sepia tones as they played when the printed word and radio commentary held sway. The likes of Ashok Kumar, Mohammed Shahid and Zafar Iqbal captivated fans later –Dhanraj Pillay’s stickwork stoked hope in hearts when the sport was beamed into our homes by cable and satellite broadcasters.
For most of his career, Pargat Singh or Dilip Tirkey were the bulwarks in the defence line and their contribution – as also that of Ashish Ballal as goalkeeper – was no less than Dhanraj Pillay’s.
Yet, even they will concede that the mercurial forward was quite the fans’ favourite, letting him acquire a larger-than-life persona at times.
Though the captain’s role on the hockey pitch is not as crucial as that of the coach, his presence was strong enough for coaches to take care not to over-ride him. Indeed, he was a leader and made no bones about it. It led to some unseemly skirmishes with teammates, but coaches would not intervene unless another temperamental player locked horns with Dhanraj Pillay.
Sometimes, just sometimes, it may have served to inflate the image of the man in his own mind and he would be offended when he perceived a lack of respect that he believed he deserved.
With his career running parallel to Sachin Tendulkar’s, Pillay could be caught comparing himself with the prolific cricketer and wondering why he was not as sought after by brands.
It may have taken him time to realise that he while was a gifted athlete, striving to keep Indian hockey relevant in modern times, his sport was not as much on TV as cricket was – and that his team was not winning as much as the cricket team was.
At a time when Sachin Tendulkar often captured a billion people’s imagination, Dhanraj Pillay himself did not have as many opportunities.
The 1998 Asian Games in Bangkok gave India its most memorable hockey moment in a long time. It was Dhanraj Pillay who scored the equaliser for India against South Korea in the final and forced it into extra-time and a penalty shootout. The team won the top prize, ending a 36-year gold medal drought in the continental games.
It is one of Indian sport’s greatest travesties that the leading goal-scorer in the Bangkok Asian Games was among a handful of players dropped from the side upon return. He had been most vocal.
In a stirring tale, Dhanraj Pillay not only staged a comeback but also won the player of the tournament award in the 2002 Champions Trophy in Cologne, Germany.
And what’s more, he played the two Olympic Games that followed the Asian Games in Sydney and Athens taking his tally of Olympic Games to four. Add four World Cup tournaments and as many Champions Trophy tournaments, his CV will make for most impressive reading. Small wonder then that clubs from around the world sought his services.
Over the decade-and-a-half that he played for India, he transitioned from newcomer in 1989 to senior statesman at the time of his farewell game in India colours, picking up nuances from his seniors to sharing his insights into the game with his peers and juniors. Yet, as his luck would have it, nothing, not even his brilliance, arrested the team’s slide on the global stage.
Despite the 1998 Asian Games being the team’s only big achievement during his India career, those who were privileged to watch Dhanraj Pillay unfurl his magic on the hockey pitch will have memories of his darting runs down the flank or through the middle or weaving his way into the striking circle with or without the ball. He was one of a kind as a player – and remains that way.
You can be sure that he will retain his aura and command respect that he so richly deserves. They do not make too many like Dhanraj Pillay anymore. And that is the reason he is still spoken of with admiration and awe. He may not bend his back over a hockey stick anymore but he will show spine when it comes to calling out officials when he sees room for improvement.
(G Rajaraman is a Delhi-based student of sport who has been writing and commenting for 35 years.)
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