Sportstar Archives: Dhanraj Pillay, the first Khel Ratna awardee in hockey

DHANRAJ PILLAY is the first hockey player to be bestowed with the Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna award. He spoke to Sportstar about his preparations for Sydney 2000 Olympics.

India's Dhanraj Pillay looks on during the men's hockey match between India and South Africa in the pre-Olympic four-nation hockey championship at Perth, Australia, on April 13, 2000.   -  VINO JOHN

DHANRAJ PILLAY is back in Mumbai after a short stint with Stuttgart Kickers in the German first division hockey league, fitter and wiser after the experience. He is particularly impressed by the way the Germans go about their business of preparing for the Sydney Olympic Games under coach Paul Lissek.  

"Paul Lissek is a travelling coach. He collects a group of four players in a particular city - Frankfurt, Munich or Berlin based on their proximity and works for a week on honing their skills. The four players chosen are specialists in a specific aspect of the game - goalkeepers, defenders or penalty corner hitters/pushers. He concentrates on fine-tuning them at the centre," said the 29-year-old Indian international, who has been chosen for the Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna award. "Lissek works on technique and strategy with every group of four. The players are expected to look after their own fitness which is tested before a major competition."

The interview as it appeared in the print edition

Pillay feels that this is a training approach which India too can adopt. "Our coach can go to a place where any national-level tournament is going on and work with groups instead of expecting him to pay equal attention to every international at one centre, as is happening now," he said.

The Indian Olympic probables are now assembled in Bangalore under coach Vasudevan Baskaran for the last stage of their Sydney preparations.

The former India skipper, employed with Mahindras in Mumbai. played four matches for Stuttgart Kickers in the second leg of the eight-team German league. The quarterfinal phase commences in October after the Sydney Olympics, when he will go back to Germany. He admits that the German experience forced him to change his perspective about hockey.

"I was heavily marked, sometimes by two defenders, right through the match. Scoring goals was difficult in the centre-forward position, though I managed to score seven in 11 games, over two legs. I was told by the coach to play deep, drawing my markers out of their normal defensive positions, and focus on creating goals for the other forwards," observed the Indian spearhead.

The list of Khel Ratna awardees includes some of the giants of Indian sport. Pillay who is the first hockey player to be bestowed with the honour spoke to Sportstar.


Do you think you have done enough for the country to deserve the honour, or is there more to come?

I think I am the right person to get the Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna award. I was expecting it last year after we won the Bangkok Asian Games hockey gold, but it has come this year. Whatever I did for my country, it has given me back in the form of this honour.

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Skipper Ramandeep Singh has been chosen for the Arjuna award. Indian hockey is in the news now, leading to more people following the Indian team and the expectations are high. Are you ready to live up to that?

The awareness about hockey has increased. On the flight back from Frankfurt, many people came to me and talked about their expectations from the Indian hockey team. They seemed to have lost interest in cricket due to the problems the game is facing now. Everything is available on the Internet about hockey and other sports, so people are aware of what is happening. The Asian Games gold at Bangkok followed by the victory in the four-nation tourney at Perth has given us the confidence to face up to the challenge at Sydney. The Olympics is a different ball-game, but we are capable of doing well.  

Do you think Indian men's hockey has made significant strides in the last two years?

We have three months of hard work ahead. We have to work on penalty corners, both conversion and defence. We have to play according to the situation, plan match-to-match and work step by step. If we do the homework here, then I am confident that the team can face any kind of opposition at the Olympics.

The stint in the German first division league is a new experience for you. Are you a different player from the one who played for India at Perth?

Fitness-wise, yes. Playing competitive hockey in Germany has improved my fitness level. They do a lot of endurance work there. Before I joined Stuttgart Kickers, I was put through a range of fitness tests, especially to ascertain the strength of my back and legs and I got through without any problem. Football was part of our training sessions on non-match days. Having played the sport in my early days, in Pune, I enjoyed the opportunity to show them my speed with the ball. I didn't do any tackling though.  

Germany has a rich hockey tradition but is going through difficult times. Is it a passing phase or a sign of the times?

A sign of the times... Holland and Australia who have realised the need to mix speed and fitness with Asian skills, are ahead of Germany, which will be depending only on experienced players at Sydney. No young talent is coming through in time for the Olympics. It will take some time for Germany to get out of this phase because everywhere the same European style of hit-and-run hockey is played. From the national team down to the club-level, everyone plays the same type of game. Club hockey is a professional sport in Germany.  

“I think I am the right person to get the Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna award. I was expecting it last year after we won the Bangkok Asian Games hockey gold, but it has come this year. Whatever I did for my country, it has given me back in the form of this honour.” - Dhanraj Pillay

Our players are employed...salaried class. Apart from this basic difference, how is the system in Bundesliga different from ours?

Germany has a club-league, just like our Nationals, but it is played on a format similar to our National Football League. The Super Division has eight teams and the games are held on a home-and-away basis. We have company teams, they have clubs sponsored by companies. For example. Audi is associated with Stuttgart Kickers which also has Brueninger, one of the biggest shopping malls, as a major sponsor. The club players are mainly students who play the game, others hold regular office jobs. There are no hockey professionals.

Is any other Asian player involved in the German league? What was your role at Stuttgart?

I don't know of any other Asians playing there, though Australians and Dutch internationals are attached to German clubs. My role was to adjust to the situation. Since I was marked heavily, my coach expected me to draw the rival defenders and feed balls to other Stuttgart strikers. I enjoyed the feeding role. but the young players in the team did not know how to exploit the defenders' attention on me. I think they will get used to it by the time the German league resumes in October. If any Indian was playing along side, he would have been far more successful in scoring goals.  

You will be a marked man again at Sydney because of your reputation as a striker. Will you be willing to play a similar feeder role and let the other Indians do the scoring?  

Of course. If I am not able to score, I will only be more happy creating chances for others, who can score goals easily. Fortunately we have strikers in Mukesh Kumar, Sameer Dad and Gagan Ajit Singh who know what to do in the event of 'Pillay' being marked.

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Any comparison to Jagbir Singh, the first Indian star to play for Stuttgart Kickers? Do you feel any of the Indian internationals can survive a season in the German first division, considering the standards prevailing there?  

Jagbir Singh is quite popular there. However, he was more a skillful player who operated in the goalmouth. My job was to run up and down the flanks, draw markers out and create passes.

As for the current Indians surviving a season in Germany. I feel any of our world-class players - Mukesh. Sabu Varkey, Mohd Riaz, Dilip Tirkey and Baljit Dhillon - can do well provided they get used to the conditions, overcome the language and food problems, the coach's instructions to a group which are in German. I felt lonely and bored, but now feel at home. Basically, my experience in the English (Indian Gymkhana Club) and French (FC Lyon) leagues also helped.


(This interview was first published in the Sportstar magazine in 2000.)

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