Kolkata – Indian hockey legend Leslie Claudius is overwhelmed at being only one of three Indians – after fellow greats Dhyan Chand and Roop Singh – among 361 past and present athletes who will have London underground (metro) stations named after them in the run-up to the London Olympics starting July 27.
However, he is anguished at the current status of the national game. “Why do they (the Indian team) have to go for foreign coaches when we have people like (Dhanraj) Pillay, Ashok Kumar or Mohammed Shahid? We taught the world how to play the game and now they are teaching us.”
“I am honoured, especially to be named alongside the two greatest of sportsmen the world has seen,” Claudius, now 85, told IANS after being informed of the move.
Age and illness may have taken a toll on his body, but the enthusiasm of a sportsman is still intact. Spending his retired life in a cosmopolitan locality in central Kolkata, spending time with friends, and watching Sachin Tendulkar bat.
“Scoring a hundred hundreds is not a bloody joke, man”, says Claudius, harkening back to the language of a bygone era, while refusing to compare himself with cricket’s demigod. “I have my share of achievements, but Tendulkar is a true champion and deserves a Bharat Ratna for his feat.”
“If it is from hockey then it has to be Dhyan Chand. His brain was attached to his stick, with which he did the magical tricks on the field,” he says of the onetime the game’s wizard with whom he shared a great friendship.
Claudius, who accidentally took up the game and represented the country during the golden age of Indian hockey, went on to be a Guinness World Record holder for being part of a hockey team to win the maximum number of medals at the Olympics.
In a land of a billion-plus people where a single Olympic medal sends all convulsing in joy, the modest Claudius will never tell you that he won four golds, including three on the trot.
Initially a footballer for the Bengal Nagpur Railway, Claudius took up the stick during the 1946 Beighton Cup hockey tournament as a “forced last minute” replacement for a right half and went on to make the position his own so much that many others changed their playing positions fearing that so long as he was there they won’t get into the national team.
Within a year of donning the national colours, he debuted in the Olympics at London in 1948 and was part of the gold winning team for three successive games till 1956.
Talking about the game is never complete without the mention of Dhyan Chand.
Though he never played alongside him, Claudius has fond memories of the wizard with whom he shared a great friendship, often playing cards at his residence.
“He used to call me a gowraiya (sparrow). He thought I was like a small bird hopping around…wherever the ball was, I was there!
“As a selector he would often say ‘Claudius selects himself; now I have to select the rest of the team’!”
The man who has many a cherished memory as a player, however, regrets losing out to Pakistan in the final of the 1960 Rome Olympics, under his captaincy.
“We played brilliantly, powering ourselves into the final, but lost by just one goal. We, by far, were the best team in the competition, but even today that hurts. Had they (Pakistan) been better, I would have had no regrets,” said Claudius, unable to hide his emotions.
A sixth minute Ahmad Nasir goal crashed the hopes of the Indian team, which till then in the tournament had conceded a solitary goal, of becoming Olympic champions for the seventh time on the trot.
Claudius also has his grievances against Kolkata, which has been his family’s abode for generations. “The kids here don’t play hockey. They neglect our national game. Even for other games they do not support local clubs. They cheer for Manchester United and not Mohun Bagan or East Bengal.”
(Anurag Dey can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)