'Modern hockey demands 150 percent fitness', says Dhanraj Pillay
India's legendary former captain and mercurial striker Dhanraj Pillay discusses the skill and thrill associated with the national game
Dhanraj Pillay hailed from such a modest background in Khadki, Pune that he could not even own a hockey stick in his childhood. It’s been a tough journey to Mumbai and then across the globe as he went around earning laurels for the country by wielding his stick like a magic wand. Post his playing days, he’s been a coach, manager, mentor and currently in- charge of the Mumbai arm of Air India Sports Promotion Board.
On the sidelines of mid-day Masterclass, he spoke about hockey’s transition from grass to artificial turf, European domination in the sport and of course his brilliant captaincy that saw India win gold at the 1998 Bangkok Asian Games.
At 51, you are still fit as ever. What is the secret of your fitness?
I was very dedicated to the game. hockey was my passion. I couldn’t have imagined doing anything else. It’s in my genes. My elder brothers were very fit and by watching them, I learnt the importance of fitness. I’m very thankful that I trained under one of the best coaches — Joaquim Carvalho.
Can you tell us about the changing landscape of hockey over the years — the transition from playing on grass to artificial turf?
Till 2005, it was all about skillful hockey. Teams like the Netherlands, Germany, England, Australia, India, and Pakistan played skillful and artistic hockey. But then the rules changed and hockey has now become so fast. When I watch hockey on TV now, I pinch myself [ and ask] if I played this sport or someone else did? Today, only if you have 150 percent fitness, can you play for 60 minutes. So, any youngster, who wants to pursue the game, must be fit enough and should work very hard.
What makes the Europeans so successful in hockey?
The Europeans were the first to introduce astroturf. By the time it came to Asia, especially India and Pakistan, it was too late.
The Europeans had already mastered their skills on artificial turf. In India, it came to Patiala in 1976, and that too only half the ground had astroturf. We got full-fledged turf only for the New Delhi Asian Games in 1982. That’s the reason they [ Europeans] are a superpower in hockey.
You led India to one of its most famous wins — the 1998 Asian Games gold in Bangkok. You were also the highest goal scorer. Can you tell us about that experience?
We had at least seven to eight senior players in that line- up.
MK Kaushik was our coach. He was also the best coach at the 1998 Asian Games. I remember, Olympian Merwyn Fernandes came to train our forward line. Kaushik gave us [ forwards] a free hand. he told me to handle the forward line. Our combination — Sabu Varkey, Mukesh Kumar, Baljit Singh Dhillon — was the best. We had one of the best defence lines too in Dilip Tirkey, Lazarus Barla, and Anil Aldrin.
In goal, we had Ashish Ballal and AB Subbaiah [ reserve goalkeeper]. The world witnessed some skillful hockey in that tournament. It changed a lot of things in Indian hockey too. Many of us went on to play the 2000 Sydney Olympics as well as the 2004 Athens Olympics.
Dhanraj Pillay: I quit traveling by train because of mid-day
"In 1998, I was selected in the World XI team by the International Hockey Federation ( FIH). One day, I was traveling by train to Churchgate for a match. Most of us sportsmen and women in Mumbai would buy mid- day because they covered all sports and not just cricket. I too was reading mid-day when someone clicked a photograph of me without my knowledge and sent it to the newspaper. The next day it was published with the headline, ‘ Dhanraj Pillay still travels by train after being selected in the World XI team’. From that day, I decided to stop traveling anywhere by train. Even if I had to travel home to Pune, I hired a taxi because I did not want the name of hockey to be affected because of me."
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