1. Dhyan Chand
Well, I am his son. And that itself is a great feeling. What a player, my father, Dhyan Chand was! Dhyan Chand wouldn’t have been playing hockey if destiny had not stepped forward in the form of Major-Subedar Bally Tiwari. Thanks to him, Dhyan Chand decided to pick up a hockey stick at the age of 16. There was no stopping him then as everything else took a back seat. It was only hockey and hockey. The game became such an important part of his life that the family just ceased to exist for my father. Anybody who saw him said: Here is a truly great player.
Not many noticed the sacrifices the family made so that he could continue with his game. Financially, we were never secure and Dhyan Chand, so immersed in the game, never really got the true picture.
In fact, later on when my elder brother Rajkumar and I started playing hockey, we got a mouthful from the family saying, don’t play hockey as there is nothing in it financially. As a player, I don’t think anybody would have come close to what Dhyan Chand was all about. He had mastered the art of scoring from any angle. His placing, scoop and subtle deflections on the crosses from the flanks were just out of the world. It was said that give ten scoring chances to Dhyan Chand and he would have the scoreline reading 10-0.
By the time the 1968 Olympics came along he had stopped playing competitive hockey. His friend Shankar Laxman requested him to come down to the national team training camp. Dhyan Chand was asked to take ten shots at goal. He missed only once!
Dhyan Chand was always reluctant to miss important matches. In the 1936 Berlin Olympics, India lost to Germany 1-4 in a practice tie. Suddenly, there was panic in the Indian camp. A team meeting was called that was attended by manager Pankaj Gupta, coach Jagannath and Dhyan Chand. All the three agreed that the right flank was not performing to potential. An SOS was sent to India asking Col Dara to join the team. The Indians, however, reached the final and started without Dhyan Chand who was not feeling well. At the break, India led 1-0. The second half saw Dhyan Chand removing his shoes and taking the field. Bare-foot, he tore the German defence apart as India went on to score seven more in the second half. The final scoreline: India 8, Germany 1.
2. Roop Singh
I think Roop Singh was the best inside-left India has ever produced. His power, anticipation and stickwork were all superb. Add to that a powerful hit and he was a complete player. There were times when Dhyan Chand used to warn him to be careful with his hit otherwise someone could get injured. Gyan Singh, a doyen of Indian hockey, once said about Roop that he was the only inside-left he had seen scoring goals from the crosses sent by the outside-left. Like his hits, Roop’s penalty corner shots too were all powerful.
Roop lived in style and believed in dressing well. In fact, just before the team was to leave for the 1932 Olympics, he refused to go because he didn’t have the right clothes for the ocassion. Dhyan Chand, had to look around for some new clothes before Roop finally agreed to go. He was also one of those few players who never argued with the umpire on any umpiring decision. After the final of the 1936 Berlin Olympics, the Germans were so impressed with him that they named a street after him. For the family it was a matter of great pride. A great player, he went through difficult times, though he was in the armed forces of the Maharaja of Scindia.
3. Kunwar Digvijay Singh Babu
Everybody fondly called him `Babu Saheb’. Hockey was his passion and only love. The Lucknow hockey stadium and Babu Saheb were inseperable. Of all the coaches I have seen, he was the very best. The best quality about his coaching was that he never explained it on paper. Always entered the field and showed us the way to do it. And once you saw him explaining a particular move, you never ever committed the same mistake again.
Babu Saheb was an all-rounder in the true sense of the term: he played cricket, tennis and table-tennis with a high degree of competence. As I slowly learnt the finer points of hockey from him, we both developed a fine rapport. I had met Babu Saheb for the first time at Bijnore (Uttar Pradesh) during a hockey tournament. I was then playing for the Jhansi Institute and we had just beaten the Sikh Light Infantry to enter the final. He praised my game then and we were together for nine years. He was my guru. Whenever I was in Lucknow, I always made it a point to meet him. Babu Saheb played in the 1968 Mexico Olympics and he was the key man in assisting Balbir Senior to score so many goals.
In the 1972 Munich Olympics, Babu Saheb was the team coach and the camp was in lucknow. The training was absolutely different. He used to be there, whistle in hand. And when he blew the whistle the play had to stop there and then. Surjit Singh and Aslam Sher Khan were in the team then and when Babu Saheb came out to play, even they had a problem stopping him.
Babu’s death was a huge loss. It was during the 1978 Buenos Aires World Cup that we heard the news of his death. He had shot himself with his revolver. Many said that he had been a victim of political harassment. It was difficult to believe that a man who had given his everything to the Lucknow stadium could be accused of having misused the funds. He probably couldn’t take the insults. A sad end for such a great player. I still feel the pain of losing him.
4. Leslie Claudius
Patience was his watchword. In my opinion, he was the best right-half India has ever produced. Leslie played four Olympics and that shows his consistency and staying power. It was difficult to find a player as devoted as him. But it was sad that we lost the Olympic gold medal for the first time under his captaincy in the 1960 Rome Olympics. A beautiful player, he could be relied upon to give hundred percent. His half-line distribution and tackling was unparalled.
I have heard that even after a goalkeeper got beaten, Leslie would be on the goal line effecting a save. Leslie’s anticipation and covering were just out of the world. Coming from an Anglo-Indian background, Leslie was a gutsy player who till his retirement played for Customs only. I was one of the fortunate players to have learnt from him. One thing he always stressed was that you should play the game in the spirit of the game and never lose your temper.
Leslie was our manager during the 1978 Bangkok Asian Games and was always motivating us and correcting our mistakes. People who interacted with Leslie always found him sober yet he was packed with that essential quality killer instinct. In 1997 India played with Pakistan in a veteran series in Dubai and he was the manager of the side. I was also a part of the team along with players like Ajit Pal Singh and Jallaludin. Though it was a veteran series, Leslie was more serious than us and badly wanted to win the matches. Sometimes, I wonder, where does he get all that motivation from.
5. Balbir Singh Sr
He was one of the best centre-forwards India has ever produced. And who was his inspiration? None other than the legendary Dhyan Chand. A great oppurtunist who never let a chance go abegging in the striking circle. He had his own style and many a time, a half volley was swiftly turned in goal. Unfortunately, television was not there telecasting live the matches, otherwise hockey fans could have seen some breathtaking goals from Balbir’s stick and also learnt about the art of scoring goals. Some players have the knack of scoring goals - Balbir was one of them. The word `defeat’ was never in the dictionary of Balbir. He was one of the most successful team managers leading the team to a silver medal in the 1971 World Cup and to the World Championship in the 1975 World Cup. Apart from being one of the greatest players India has produced, he was also one of the politest men I have ever seen or met.
Inam Saab was my idol. Right from the day I saw him, I have tried to model myself on his style of play. Inam was always known as an aggressive player and I have rarely seen that kind of killer instinct in any Indian player. It is sad that India never really could utilise him to his true potential. He was a sentimental player and that was one reason why he was misunderstood. The anger was always visible on him whenever he missed a goal. He was a player who wanted to win at all costs. Inam’s ball-control and dribble were legendary. In fact, when my elder brother RajKumar used to come to Jhansi, he used to talk about Inam’s skills.
From then onwards, I had made Inam my guru. Inam was a perfectionist and always played with a perfect plan. I had the honour of playing alongside him in the 1968 Olympics. Because Inam used to play in the inside-left position, I had to shift to the outside-right. We also played together for the Indian Airlines team. With him in the team, I always had to play right-out. But he was a far better player at the inside-left position. Inam Bhai played with a very light stick, 17 ounces, but his hit was sometimes more powerful than even Surjit Singh’s who played with a 27-ounce stick. Another great quality in Inam was that he would somehow sense the opponents tactics and outmaneuver them.
Inam’s biggest failing was his short temper and that was possibly one reason why he couldn’t make it to the 1972 Olympic team. The people who wanted him out sacrificed him for Kulwant Singh who was not even a patch on him. I am positive that if Inam would have been in the 1972 team, we would have performed better. It’s a tragedy that a gifted player like him was never utilised properly.
7. B. P Govinda
His full name was Bilimoria Putaswamy Govinda. Try prouncing that! If I ever formed a deadly combination, it was with Govinda. On the field, we were like the terror twins. Rarely did a defence match up to us. From 1970-82, we both played for India and the Indian Airlines. Govinda was probably the fastest player I have ever seen in the striking circle. He was deadly in the circle because of his precision shooting. He could play in any position be it centre-forward, outside-left and inside-left. But his main position was that of a centre-forward. Along with being a superb forward, Govinda was also a master of the scoop. It was Govinda’s goal that won us the match against Pakistan in the 1973 World Cup. He was a player who never said no to a challenge. In the 1973 World Cup final, the sudden death was on against Holland and almost everybody had wriggled out of taking the stroke. Nobody was willing to take the scoop that would decide the world champion. Govinda said he would but unfortunately the push went against the post. Fans who had seen him play, and those who have played alongside him will always remember him dare-devil attitude.
In 1971, at the Shivaji Stadium in New Delhi, Indian Airlines was playing a match against the Combined Police team. I got the ball on the left and tapped it to Govinda who beat the entire defence but in the end couldn’t control it and crashed against the post with such force that it was totally shattered. Govinda was bleeding but he came back into the ground with a bandage.
In the veteran series in Dubai in 1997, a ball caught him on the temple. He was bleeding from the cut but refused to off the field. Finally, we forced him off, but a couple of minutes later he was back with a dressing on the wound. Killer instinct and a love for the game will always be Govinda’s assets.
8. Surjit Singh.
No doubt about it, Surjit Singh was a full-blooded defender. A great full back. There were very few forwards who were not impressed with his clean tackling. I think he was India’s greatest right-full back. It was unfortunate that destiny snatched away such a great player when he was organising his own benefit match. While driving back from Pakistan, the car turned on a steep incline and hit a tree. By the time help came, Surjit was dead. Those who saw his body said that he had tried his best to wriggle out from under the car. Maybe he would have survived if the accident would have happened in the day but help came late at night and by that time, a great player had passed.
He had immaculate ball control and his distribution was world class. And he had that quality that good defenders should have scoring off penalty corners. In the 1973 World Cup, he scored two goals against Holland off superbly taken penalty corners. Even in the 1974 Asian Games, he scored some remarkable goals.
In the 1975 World Cup final, we were 0-1 down against Pakistan before Surjit scored off a penalty corner. And then I came and scored the match-winner. Surjit was very aggressive on the field but off it he was a gentle and humble soul. It was his play that won him so many admirers in Pakistan. I consider myself fortunate to have played alongside such a great player.
9. Mohammed Shahid
The very mention of his name would draw crowds to a stadium. Great ball control but yet another great player who was never properly utilised. I met him for the first time in Lucknow and the moment I saw him on the turf I knew he had the qualities of a classy player.
Shahid, going through the opposition defence, was like seeing a snake move with the ball. In the 1979 Agha Khan Cup, he played for Lucknow Sports Hostel and then was picked for the Indian team for the Kuala Lumpur. From then he went from strength to strength. Shahid was a classic inside-forward and if he had been utilised properly in the 1988 Seoul Olympics in that crucial match against England, we would have made it to the semi-finals. The coach Ganesh, didn’t utilise him properly and a player of his quality came on only in the second half. There have been allegations of individual play against Shahid but I don’t agree with those views. He was a brilliant Individual player so utilise him as a brilliant individual player.
Unfortunately, his beautiful skills went against him. The fans came to watch him and that was the biggest honour for him. I have always believed that we can beat the Europeans with skills and not by strength. Field goals are our forte while the Europeans have the penalty corner expertise. The unfortunate part of Shahid’s career was that he was blamed for the team’s failure.
Nobody blamed the half-line or said that the centre-forward missed easy goals. We should not criticise players like Shahid but be proud of their skills. One thing that I will always remember about his play was his fast-push which was almost as powerful as a hit. It is thanks to players like Mohammed Shahid that hockey is still a popular game.
10. Dhanraj Pillai
Are you surprised that I have named Dhanraj Pillai in the list? I didn’t think twice before writing his name down because in the present team, he is the most talented player. And a crowd puller in the mould of Mohammed Shahid. Pillai’s name is enough to bring in the fans. The biggest quality in Pillai is that he will do anything for a win. Sometimes, you can see that the entire team has given up but Pillai will keep on trying to forge a move. Of course, he has his weaknesses. The biggest being is suspect temperament. Like Inam-ur-Rehman, Pillai also tends to lose his temper in a match and that is when his game crashes. He has often been criticised about his short temper. And the only time he kept it in check was at the 1998 Bangkok Asian Games. The result under Pillai’s captaincy, India won the gold medal after 32 years.
Pillai has the killer instinct. A rare trait in Indian sportsmen. I have always been like an elder brother to Pillai and when after the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, he wanted to quit, I advised him to keep playing. And thanks to that Pillai win a gold at the Asiad.
He is a sentimental and a moody player and that’s why it is important for the coach to know how to handle him. Most of the coaches only criticise him. Doing that will not help Indian hockey.
After winning the gold medal at the Asian Games, Pillai and six other players were sacked from the team. A decision that will surely destroy Indian hockey. All because these six players wanted match fees. I sincerely hope that the Indian Hockey Federation sees reason and brings in India’s best centre-forward to play till the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games.
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