Leslie Claudius’s memory is no longer as sharp as his hockey once was. He fumbles with dates and needs a few seconds to remember his eldest son’s name (it is Leslie Jr). Certain events from 64 summers ago, however, remain etched in his mind.
“It was a helluva thrill for me,” Claudius, who turned 85 on March 25, says of the 1948 London Olympics where he joined a long line of Anglo-Indians to represent India in hockey. Over the next 12 years, Claudius, who describes himself as “one of the finest right-halfs India has produced”, won three straight team gold followed by a silver. Only compatriot Udham Singh has won as many Olympic medals in hockey.
And to think that Claudius might have never played the game! He was a budding footballer when in 1945, he moved to Kharagpur, a sports centre, from Bilaspur, his birthplace. One day he was watching a practice hockey match where one team found itself a man short. Fellow Anglo-Indian Dicky Carr, who won gold with the Indian hockey team in the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics, threw a stick to Claudius and told him to come and play. He did and how.
“It seemed that hockey came quite easily to me and I became better and better,” says Claudius. Just over two years later, he was in the Olympics team.
The 1948 Games were the first where independent India participated. Claudius, who was 21, remembers the opening ceremony on July 29 and the applause he and his team received from the Wembley crowd as world champions (India had won the hockey gold in the previous Olympics in Berlin in 1936).
Bradman’s last Test
Almost nothing, however, has been written about the curious sporting pilgrimage Claudius undertook on the day of the closing ceremony, August 14. That day, Claudius went to the Oval “to see Don Bradman play his last Test.”
Cricket did not interest Claudius. “I went to see such a man play who was known throughout the world as one of the best. I was very inquisitive to see what sort of a cricketer Bradman was.”
It ended in disappointment, because after England had been bundled cheaply, Bradman was out for a two-ball duck, falling to Eric Hollies’s googly.
Claudius played only one group league match in London, but thrived in the easy sociability of English life. He hated the next Olympics in Helsinki because “there was no social enjoyment”. He played only the semifinal and the final. Claudius did not miss a match in 1956 Melbourne and in 1960 Rome, where he was captain.
Claudius no longer has his four Olympic medals. They were stolen sometime in the 1960s while workers were painting his flat. Claudius never pursued the matter. He says, “The man who stole them may be the sole breadwinner of his family and I don’t want to ruin his life.”