Football's envy, hockey's pride


AMONG a glittering array of Indian legends, Leslie Walter Claudius stands out as arguably the greatest living hockey player today. His record in the Olympics of three gold medals (London 1948, Helsinki '52, Melbourne '56) and a silver medal (Rome '60) is unique. He was the first hockey player to compete in four Olympics and also the first to earn 100 international caps for his country. At Rome he became the first Anglo-Indian to lead the Indian team.

The Anglo-Indian community played a stellar role in the formative years of Indian hockey, the likes of Richard Allen, Eric Penniger and Pat Jensen among its brightest names. In fact, there were nine players from the community at the 1928 Amsterdam Olympics, the first time India sent a team, and eight at Berlin in 1936. But they migrated in great numbers, primarily to Australia, when India attained Independence in 1947.

Fortunately for Indian hockey, the Claudius family decided to stay back in India. Leslie would make his Olympic debut at the age of 21 a year later in London. But in his younger days it was the lure of football that kept him away from hockey. Growing up in Bilaspur (Madhya Pradesh), where he was born in a family of nine children on 25 March 1927, Leslie would often skip school in order to play football. A strange turn of events saw the teenager play his first game of hockey in 1946. By this time he had already represented the powerful Bengal Nagpur Railway (BNR) in the Indian Football Association Shield tournament as a left-half. He was watching a practice session between the `A' and `B' hockey teams of BNR in Kharagpur as they prepared for the prestigious Beighton Cup tournament in Calcutta. One of the teams found themselves short of a player and the captain, Dickie Carr, who had represented India at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, thrust a stick in young Leslie's hands and ordered him to make up the numbers.

Despite having little idea about the nuances of hockey, Leslie impressed Carr enough to be called up for a trial session the next day. A fortnight later he found himself part of the BNR team, rubbing shoulders with a bunch of Olympians. These experienced players inspired the young man and gave him valuable tips. The team finished runners-up in the Beighton Cup and such was the young man's joy at this result that he made the decision to give up football and concentrate on his new love. But before that he had a chance to represent Junior India against a junior European football team. Ultimately, it was the lure of the Olympics — the London Games were just a year away — that forced his hand.

Leslie Claudius (centre, flanked by members of his family) watches the men's hockey final between South Korea and the Netherlands at the Sydney Olympics.-VINO JOHN

It was a decision he would never regret and thus began the magnificent journey that would culminate in international hockey glory. It was his brilliant performance as centre half for the Port Commissioner's team in the Aga Khan tournament in Bombay in 1948 that brought him to national prominence. Though playing as a defender, he even managed to score a field goal and this caught the eye of the national selectors.

Despite playing with a fractured hand, he did enough in the selection trials that followed the Aga Khan tournament to book his berth to London. He was only 21 and had taken to the game just two years earlier. It was indeed a meteoric rise for the all-round sportsman who also played badminton to keep fit. Leslie managed just one match in London where India won their first gold as an Independent nation. Never again after the London games would he be a bench-warmer. But it did not deter him one bit. For the youngster, the Olympics were a heady experience. He would soon became a fixture in the national side thanks to his never-say-die attitude on the field which on occasions even saw him effect saves after the goal-keeper had been beaten. As long as he was in action, the mid-field was his domain. Supremely fit, he was indefatigable with a stick in his hand and brainy as well, instantly analyzing his opponents' strengths and weaknesses.

The 1950s was a glorious decade for Indian hockey, the lone setback being the loss at the hands of Pakistan in the 1958 Asian Games. In between came victories at Helsinki and Melbourne, which saw Claudius make it a hat-trick of Olympic gold medals. Claudius made a name for himself worldwide and such were his skills that an Indian team without his presence was unheard of throughout the decade.

He was first appointed as captain on the tour of Europe in 1959 with the immortal Dhyan Chand as coach of the team. India played 19 matches on the tour, winning 15, drawing three and losing just one. A year later at Rome came what he hoped would be the pinnacle of his career as he aimed to become the first hockey player to make it four gold medals in a row. It was not to be and this proved to be the biggest disappointment of his glittering career. India were still recovering from the setback two years earlier at the hands of Pakistan in the Asiad. There were dire predictions that India's golden spell at the Olympics — unbeaten in 30 matches since 1928 — would come to an end. Those predictions turned out to be true as Pakistan beat India by a lone goal in the final. It was perceived as a disaster for Indian hockey and came as a shattering anti-climax for Claudius who dearly wanted to bow out in a blaze of glory. Though it did not turn out as planned, the defeat in the final in no way should diminish his wonderful record.

Back home there was the expected backlash. That spelt the end of Claudius' international career. But he continued to serve Bengal and Calcutta Customs in domestic tournaments till his retirement in 1965. In 1971 he became the sixth hockey player to be presented with the prestigious Padma Shree award. It was a fitting reward for a great son of India who, till this day, carries himself with dignity and humility.