This piece was written for rediff.com way back in 2000
If he walked down the road, his spectacles balanced on his nose, his 73-year-old face a map of a hundred lines, tie flapping in the breeze, his 5ft 4in figure hunched gently by age, he’d look like a retired schoolmaster.
Who would think that many, many years ago, in the time of your fathers, he was once young too. Still short, balanced on stilts masquerading as legs (‘bamboo legs’ he said they called him). The London Times wrote of him once, “Hockey is not worthwhile seeing if he is not playing.”
Still, today, when you pass him by, your eyes would settle briefly onto his ancient visage, then flicker past, your memory undisturbed.
We forget people, don’t we? But time is no excuse for forgetting him. In a land whose sporting history would fit into a thin book, he remains a quiet, dignified reminder of the truly heroic. In a land of 1 billion where a single Olympic medal of any hue in Sydney would send us into paroxysms of delight, the sombre man who sits in the Customs tent in Calcutta will never tell you that he has four. Gold 1948, gold 1952, gold 1956, silver 1960.
Leslie Claudius, the saint of the right-halfs, was, and is, a man amongst men.
Let me deviate for a moment.
Three years ago, while reading a biography of Michael Jordan I was struck by something he said: “I wish everybody had fire. But they don’t. You have players who have the talent but not the heart, you have players who have the heart but not the talent.” I was working at India Today then, and decided that morning to discover what made genius, what spark flamed within the great sportsman. On the list of men to meet, Sunil Gavaskar, Michael Ferreira, Prakash Padukone, the name Claudius was the first pencilled in.
The story was never completed, but we met one morning, at his much loved Customs tent. And even today, as I sit before my computer miles away in Australia, the typewritten notes of what he said lie before me. Only fools dustbin words of wisdom.
Claudius haunts me. Not because the Sydney Olympics beckon and we’re back to genuflecting in front of our personal Gods and praying desperately for a medal. It is more because we live in strange times, when sport has been stained by corruption, when possessing a hefty balance is the preferred virtue to sweating in the morning. I have no issue at all with sportsmen earning huge money (indeed Claudius would wish he did too), as long as it doesn’t remain the only fascination, the sole motivation.
It is a time of excess, when humility is a weakness, when rewards are never anything personal and fulfilling but arrive in the form of a sponsor, when men use statistics to glorify individual achievements though once, a pat on the back from the captain for what you did for the team, even if it was invisible to the crowds, was enough.
I yearn for a simpler time, when a country boy named Claudius, from a small Railway Colony in Bilaspur, bent his back every evening till he eventually ruled the world.
And, of course, that’s how it happened.
In those days BNR, Kharagpur, was quite a hockey centre, so big that they had two teams for the Beighton Cup, and Claudius was a nobody, watching awestruck from the sidelines his fellow Anglo Indians like Dickie Carr and Joe Galibardy and Carl Tapsall, each one an Olympian. And Carr coming over one day and barking, “YOUNG ’UN, YOU WANT TO PLAY?” and Claudius not believing his luck, saying “Yessir, yessir,” even though they had to saw three inches off the stick as he was so short.
And in what Claudius did then, we find a measure of this man and his time. Every day he came for practice and every day they showed him three things, like say just hitting or throw-ins, and every day when they were all gone, he stayed on at the practice ground, alone for four hours, bringing, he says “my technique to perfection.” In 15 days, he was in the first team.
This embrace of the work ethic became the Claudius signature. And throughout our conversation, he will return to one starting point, repeating again and again the same phrases: “There is no finish line, you can always learn” and “You have to keep pressure on yourself, you have to work on your weaknesses.”
It was not just talk. A Bible reader who thanked his God for his talent, he repaid this gift by coddling it. If he was impressed by Keshav Dutt’s body swerve, he would not just politely applaud, he would practice it, hour after hour, till he could do it as well. Mastering the craft became his pursuit, and of the stories he tells reluctantly, it is significant that they are not of some magical stickwork but of his rock-like technique. Laughing, he says, “When I met Michael Craig (former Australian player) in 1994, I told my wife, ‘This is that crazy chap who would push the ball to Dutch players and say hit’, he was so sure of stopping it.”
To understand Claudius, understand this. Some players are electric and thus their skills magnified, others are efficient and thus seem plainer. But merely because a man abandons showmanship and appears inconspicuous on the field, does not diminish his virtues. Claudius was quiet, he was also a player of industry, consistent, solid, reliable, measured, with a sense of anticipation that Nostradamus might have envied. Once, he so bemused the legendary KD Singh Babu with his tackles, that Babu told him, “Tu bahut chalu hain, how come you stop me everytime.”
He was clearly a man of method. Even though some of it may appear rather odd. Before matches, for instance, he wouldn’t have a bath or a shave, just brush his teeth, lie on the bed and wait, because he “didn’t want to waste any energy.” There was a preciseness too about his private life, to the point where he got married on the condition that the game came first. When his first son was born he left on tour, and as he said, “When I returned three months later he had no idea who I was.” But if he was negligent, then he explains, “These were choices I was willing to make.” And it is a mark of an old world gentleman that he says firmly, even if late, “I must congratulate my wife.”
Today, as egos run rampant and sacrifice and teamwork have become outdated, it is a fitting time for someone to get on the phone, call Leslie Claudius and say, “Sir, we would be grateful if you could come and talk to the team before the Olympics.”
And I think I know what he just might tell them. That he did not win alone, that he was just one cog in the wheel, but that he wanted to be the best cog that wheel could ever have. He was, too.
In his prime, all the right-halfs in India, like Mohinder Lal, decided there was no point trying to play this position, since Claudius owned it.
And so they, the rest of them, changed to playing left half.
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