With just few days left for the start of the biggest sporting spectacle on earth, the London Olympics, let us remember those unsung heroes of Indian sports, who despite having a remarkable time as a player, failed to get their deserved recognition later on in their lives and were forced to go into oblivion.
Ask any Indian hockey lover to name the greatest Indian to grace the hockey field, and I am sure, their answers would be confined to the Dhyan Chands and the Dhanraj Pillays. Shankar Laxman is a name hardly talked about when people sit and discuss the golden past of Indian Hockey. But for anyone who has followed Indian Hockey in the late 50s and early 60s might say that Shankar Laxman was arguably the greatest goalkeeper to have ever played for India.
Born in Mhow, Madhya Pradesh, Shankar Laxman started his sports career as a footballer, and it was only after he joined the army, that he switched over to hockey. Playing for Services, he immediately earned admirers due to his fearless and assured goalkeeping.
Shankar Laxman was part of India’s three successful Olympics campaigns where he won two golds – 1956 (Melbourne) and ’64 (Tokyo) to go along with a silver in the 1960 Olympics in Rome, where India lost out to Pakistan in the final.
His biggest moment of glory came in the 1964 Tokyo Olympics where India met Pakistan in the third consecutive Olympics final. The match was called a thriller even before it began and it did not disappoint. After India took the lead early in the second half, Pakistan, wanting to prove that their win in Rome four years ago wasn’t a fluke, went all-out with their attack. But that day, Laxman had a match of his life. Despite the lack of protective gear, he blunted Pakistan’s attacks with valiant goalkeeping and helped India regain the gold medal.
After the final, the manager of the silver medal winning Pakistani hockey team called Laxman “The Rock of Gibraltar”, as he was the sole obstacle between the Pakistani team and the gold medal. Hockey Circle, an Australian Hockey Magazine, referring to Laxman’s performance in the final quoted,
“…for Laxman, the ball was the size of a football. It was his afternoon of glory and fame.”
He also represented India in three Asian games starting in 1958 when hockey was first introduced in the Asiad in Tokyo, where India won the gold. The 1962 games in Jakarta was a disappointing tournament for him as India lost to Pakistan in the final and he was made the scapegoat for the loss. But he came back to captain India to a gold medal at the Bangkok games.
You just have to take a look at his stunning record to know how brilliant a goalkeeper he was. In three Olympic finals against Pakistan, he conceded just one goal and in three Asian Games finals, he conceded two.
But despite a superb effort of conceding just 3 goals in 6 finals, Laxman was given a raw deal by the Indian Hockey Federation when he was dropped from the squad for 1968 Mexico Olympics.
Dhyan Chand, in his autobiography, termed courage as the most important of all the attributes of a successful goalkeeper. In those days of unprotected goalies, Laxman was indeed courage personified. Playing with just pads as a protective gear, Laxman had nerves of steel and his gallantry was next to none. Charles Cornelius, former Indian hockey player, once quoted about Laxman:
‘Laxman was among the game’s greatest. He was an epitome of courage and a role-model for others of his ilk. Unfazed by any situation, he had the ability to defuse any crisis. His team-mates were at a loss to know how his pads grew broader and broader as the contest wore on.’
In a country where ex-sportsmen, apart from probably cricketers, are hardly looked after by their respective federations, Shankar Laxman lived the final years of his life in penury, and died at the age of 73 after suffering from gangrene in one leg in his native town Mhow.