With the Rio Olympics just around the corner, perhaps it is time to revisit some of India’s Olympics legends of yore, who, having donned the national colours, made our country proud on a global platform.
And what better way to start-off than Dhanraj Pillay, the Magician with a Hockey Stick? The former captain of the Indian National Hockey Squad has done no less than to merit his name written in golden letters in the history of Indian sports.
Born to a lowly Tamil Family on 16th July 1968 at Khadki, near Pune, Maharashtra, Dhanraj was the fourth of five sons in the household of Nagalingam and Anandalamma Pillay. Nagalingam was employed as a groundsman at the Ordnance Factory staff colony, where Dhanraj got his first taste of the sport, drawn to it by the rich legacy of Indian hockey. He credits his successes to his mother, who encouraged all five sons to stick to the sport in spite of their financial instability.
Earned nickname ‘Toofan’ in hockey community
It was evident early on that his playing style was largely inspired by the legendary Mohammed Shahid, who later went to become his teammate for a brief spell in the national camps. His elder brother Ramesh, playing at that time, for RCF Mumbai, had already served for the country in few short stints. His experience and guidance came in handy in developing such a budding talent as Dhanraj and channelling his prodigious skill in the correct path.
As a mature player, Dhanraj was noted for his shrewd attacking sensibilities, playing as a striker and particularly as a pacy forward, earning him the nickname Toofan in the hockey community. He could run up to 100m in 11.6secs while carrying the ball forward which is a mind-boggling statistics even by today’s standards. His ball distribution was also commendable which allowed him to play a more creative role as a playmaker, behind the strikers, as age caught up with him later in his career.
Ramesh also helped in forming the steely mental façade that was to signify Pillay over the years as he was a constant name on the roster over a career spanning 15 long years. Dhanraj credits his prolonged career to his strict fitness regime and his headstrong attitude to never quit before the final whistle. Although his mercurial temper and tendency to speak his mind got him in trouble with authorities in his later days, these very qualities enabled him to lead the team from the front as a captain and own up to responsibilities.
"My brother Ramesh also played the game...Having seen the ups and downs, he told me during my first stint at the national camp that representing the country once or twice was easy, but staying on in the team demanded hard work and sacrifice. That advice stayed with me for my whole career.." - excerpt from the book 'My Olympic Journey' by Deo and Bose.
Became the talk of the town when he was 17 years
Starting off at 17 years of age, Dhanraj appeared at the Junior National Hockey Tournament at Manipur. He became the talk of the town in Delhi, putting in exemplary performances in the Sanjay Gandhi Tournament 1987 and the National Hockey Tournament 1988 back-to-back. Under the tutelage of the great J.M.Carvalho at Mahindra & Mahindra, Dhanraj rubbed shoulders with internationals like Marcellus Gomes and Mark Patterson early on in his career.
He made his debut in International Hockey with the Allwyn Asia Cup Tournament in New Delhi in 1989 and was soon selected as a member of the National Squad travelling to Barcelona for 1992 Olympic Games. He was the first player from Pune to be picked for the Olympics in 56 years.
The campaign ended in heartbreak since India failed to qualify for the medal round due to internal strife and poor team spirit. The 1996 Atlanta Games started off brightly with India sailing through the qualifications.
But history repeated itself, as India failed yet again to make the medal round in spite of putting up a spirited performance in the league stages. The Millennial Sydney Olympics were the closest shot for the Pillay-led Indian Hockey Squad as they lost out the qualification spot to South Korea on a technicality in spite of being level on points and goals.
Only player to play 4 World Cups, Olympics, CT and Asian Games
Thereafter Dhanraj was led again and again into confrontations with the management and administration over the better treatment of players, wages, performance bonuses and what-not, which took a hit in his career. He was dropped and later had to come back to play in a non-captain role. It is sad that such a legend as himself had to bow out of the sport under unwelcome circumstances and was only made to play for a few minutes in his final appearance for India.
He is one of the most successful captains in annals of Indian hockey having led the team to victorious campaigns in the 1998 and 2002 Asian Games as well as the 2003 Asia Cup. Scoring more than 170 goals in his career, he is the only player to have played 4 World Cups, 4 Olympic Games, 4 Champions Trophies and 4 Asian Games. In the process, he notched up some personal awards too including the Player of the Tournament Award at the 2002 Champions Trophy in Germany.
He was honoured with the Padma Shri (2000) and the Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna Award(1999). The latter went on to embalm a lot of his animosity towards the administrations, in his own words.
He has been involved with Indian Hockey in a managerial role and we only hope that under his continued guidance better things are in store for Indian hockey in the near future.