In a class of his own

Baljit Singh Dhillon may not have won an Olympic medal or a World Cup, yet, in his heyday, he was a player who was much respected, admired and feared.

Baljit Singh Dhillon's retirement from competitive hockey was ill-timed. The Sher-e-Jalandhar team that he led in the Premier Hockey League drew a lot of flak for its miserable on-field behaviour. Three of Baljit Dhillon's team-mates, Tejbir Singh, Kamaldeep Singh and Maninder Singh, received three-year bans for their maltreatment of the senior international umpire, Satinder Sharma, during the PHL final. There is even a report indicting Baljit Dhillon of assaulting a rival player.

These negative things, however, cannot deprive Baljit Dhillon, 33, of the tribute he richly deserves as a player. His contribution to Indian hockey is significant. It is a pity that he had to bid adieu in such unfortunate circumstances.

As a former India captain and an international with over 300 caps, Dhillon has a place in the hall of fame. He may not have won an Olympic medal or a World Cup, yet, in his heyday, Dhillon was a player who was much respected, admired and feared.

Dhillon symbolised the renowned Sansarpur ethos. A touch of elegance was always ingrained in his style of play. None could miss that trace of aesthetics when he dribbled and dodged. In full flow, he presented a spectacle of all the graces of hockey, the Asian touch as it is called. Those who were fortunate enough to witness the goal Dhillon scored against Australia in the final of the four-nation tournament in Sydney in 2003 would vouch for his class.

What separated Dhillon from the rest was his versatility. He was lethal as a striker, slippery as an eel as a dribbler and an uncanny playmaker. And above all, he enjoyed being a drag-flicker. Coach Cedric D'Souza placed a lot of faith in Dhillon's ability to convert penalty corners.

It is debatable whether Dhillon would have dominated in the late 1990s had not Dhanraj Pillay managed to corner so much of media attention and space. The chroniclers are never tired of talking about the supposed rivalry between the two on and off the field. There were even suggestions that Dhillon nursed a dislike for Dhanraj's domineering attitude. The ego clash between the two players was a subject of many an analysis.

Critically evaluated, Dhanraj and Dhillon are different personalities. Dhanraj was more enterprising, an extrovert, temperamental and brash. Dhillon was just the opposite — reserved, not the one to throw tantrums and a quiet worker. The similarities between the two were that both had outstanding stick work, body feints and created those wonderful corridors for the rest to function. As age caught up with Dhillon he, just like Dhanraj, preferred to play as a feeder.

Baljit Dhillon picked up hockey's nuances in the by-lanes of Jalandhar and breathed the cool, crisp air of Sansarpur. He was not even a product of the famous Sports School in Jalandhar. Only after joining Khalsa College, did he have systematised training.

The turning point in Dhillon's career was the Junior National camp in Bangalore in 1991. Two coaches, credited with an extraordinary eye for spotting talent, P. A. Raphael of SAI and Sukhbir Singh Grewal of Indian Airlines, realised the wealth of their find. Still, it was not easy getting international recognition. A tour of South Africa under Zafar Iqbal established `Balli,' as Dhillon came to be referred to by colleagues, as a star.

Thereafter, everything was hunky-dory. Dhillon blossomed into a player of class and was selected for the Indian team for the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. Then came the Commonwealth Games in Kuala Lumpur and the Asian Games gold in Bangkok in 1998. He led India to victory against Pakistan in the Prime Minister's Gold Cup in Dhaka in 2001.

Elevated to the role of captain for the Kuala Lumpur World Cup in 2002, Dhillon was caught in the vortex of a controversy that led to the sacking of Cedric midway through the tournament. The chaos that followed is now history, but he continued to be in the limelight despite his differences with Dhanraj Pillay and donned the India colours at the Athens Olympics.

At the domestic level, playing for Punjab and Punjab Police, Dhillon enjoyed the status of an icon. Dhillon, indeed, was an accomplished player who relished every moment on the field, as he surged ahead with the ball glued to his stick.

Both the connoisseurs and the critics marvelled at this star player's skill.

S. Thyagarajan A step forward

Jatin worked hard for years as a scorer in cricket tournaments conducted by his father Parmod Sood. The 19-year-old boy, sponsored by the Delhi and District Cricket Association, topped in the fourth BCCI examination for Statisticians and Scorers. Eighty-one candidates appeared for the test out of which 26 passed.

He will receive the Anandji Dossa Scholarship. "I would love to see my son scoring in an international match," said Parmod. Jatin promises to fulfil his father's desire.

Vijay Lokapally