Ask any ardent sports lover in India and the name Shankar Lakshman does not exactly ring a bell. Somewhere in the glamorous and glitzy world of cricket and the Indian Premier League we tend to ignore and forget some sporting heroes who played their part in shaping the sporting scheme in India and who deserve their fair share of applause.
These are some of the many sportspersons who defied odds and managed to carve a niche for themselves despite their disabilities and difficulties. But, for some reason, in spite of the many laurels they bring to the country, their work remains unappreciated. It is not just the poverty that hurts, but the trauma of anonymity.
Shankar Lakshman was the man who stood between gold for India and brutal Pakistan onslaughts in the 1964 Tokyo Olympics hockey final. Born on July 7, 1933 in the cantonment area of Mhow in Indore, Shankar Lakshman joined the army after passing his higher secondary from a local school.
He had begun his sports career as a footballer and was the captain of the football team in Kodaria village of Mhow. It was only after joining the army that he made the switch to hockey. The rest as they say, is history. Starting his career in 1955 playing for Services, he earned the plaudits for his daredevil goalkeeping. He kept goal at a time when the goalkeeper had only pads as protective gears.
Almost immediately he was called up to the national team setup on the back of an impressive run in the domestic circuit. He kept the goal for India in the 1956 Olympics final in Melbourne where India under Balbir Singh edged out Pakistan 1-0 to clinch the gold. He was also a member of the squad when hockey was first introduced in the 1958 Asian Games in Tokyo, and was the captain of the Indian team which won the gold at the 1966 Asian Games.
His opponents named him “The Rock of Gibraltar” for it was extremely difficult to get the ball past him. He played his last Olympics in 1964 when he pulled off a string of remarkable saves to help India beat arch-rivals Pakistan in a thriller.
The silver medal winning Pakistan team’s manager stated that Shankar Lakshman was the sole obstacle between Pakistan team and the goal medal.
Referring to his performance in the Tokyo finals the Australian hockey magazine Hockey Circle stated “… for Lakshman, the ball was the size of a football. It was his afternoon of glory and fame”. He captained the team to the gold at the 1966 Asian Games in Bangkok and was conferred with the Arjuna Award in 1965 and later the Padma Shri in 1967.
Despite his superb performances, Lakshman was treated shabbily by the Indian Hockey Federation and was left shocked when he was dropped from the squad for the 1968 Mexico Olympics and that tournament signaled the decline of Indian Hockey.
After missing selection, Lakshman quit playing hockey altogether. Following a series of protests, the Indian Hockey Federation was forced to roll back its decision. But the hurt was so deep that he declined the offer. India slipped to the third place in Mexico and Indian hockey could never be the same again.
He remained with the Army, retiring in 1979 as a captain of the Maratha Light Infantry. 13 years of illustrious career could only earn him the meager sum of Rs. 25,000, much of which was spent on his gangrene treatment. He spent the last few years of life in great agony and passed away on April 29, 2006 after years of suffering.
The man who brought laurels for the country struggled for financial help in the latter stages of his life with no help coming from either the Indian Hockey Federation or the Sports ministry. A sorry state of affairs in the country indeed.