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Friday, Oct 18, 2019

Dear Me: If you have the talent, no one can stop you - Dhanraj Pillay

Dhanraj Pillay, former Indian hockey team captain, writes to his younger self not to get blinded by the spotlight of fame

other-sports Updated: Jul 27, 2017 12:07 IST
Dhanraj Pillay
Dhanraj Pillay
Dhanraj Pillay played 400 matches for Indian hockey team from 1988 to 2004 and scored 170 goals.
Dhanraj Pillay played 400 matches for Indian hockey team from 1988 to 2004 and scored 170 goals. (Illustration: Mohit Suneja)

Dear 14-year-old Dhanraj,

Did you get asked by that one teacher again why you bother coming to school? That’s been happening a lot, isn’t it? You’re not a particularly studious kid. But those words hurt, don’t they? I know you’re upset. Seething. But trust me, fate has something bigger in store for you. You’re a misfit in school, but many years from now, there will be a chapter on you in school textbooks. And you will get there because of hockey. That’s right, hockey!

Let me tell you how.

In the fishbowl that is Khadki, where you were born, you only have two options: you either go to work at the ammunition factory where your father works or leave to seek employment elsewhere. Evenings in the sleepy town are to be spent playing carrom or trying to avoid trouble. But often in Khadki, trouble finds you.

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Your elder brother Ramesh understands this. That is why he will make you come and stay with him in Mumbai in a couple of years. Ramesh is proof that even kids from Khadki can make it big. At first, it won’t seem like you can follow in his footsteps. There will be a day when you are laughed off by the state’s hockey officials when you ask if you can make it to the national team.

But you put your head down and keep working hard. You know you will make it one day. And you do!

At 21, you will make your debut for India against China in the Allwyn Asia Cup. Yes, you! The boy who grew up playing hockey on a dusty patch of ground in Pune.

Then in a couple of months, you will be playing in the BMW tournament. India is playing Pakistan and you’re in the starting XI. This is it. Your turning point.

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When you boarded the flight to the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona, it was a dream come true. At the Games Village, you are amid greatness. There’s the US basketball Dream Team and there’s Carl Lewis. Looking at them makes you expect more from yourself.

You’re still a wide-eyed youngster. Shy. This Olympic world is alien to you. But you find your place on the hockey pitch. You don’t just fit in, you belong. With the ball at your stick, you’re an artist. You catch everyone’s attention and the offers pour in from foreign clubs.

A French hockey team, Lyon, wants you to play for them. The money is good. So you go to play there for three months. At Lyon, in Tony Fernandes you find the teacher you never had. Under Tony sir, your guru, your stamina and fitness levels will go up. It is here that you hone the biggest weapon in your arsenal: a sudden burst of pace with the ball.

Your stints at Lyon leave you a changed man. More confident. Faster. Fitter. Hungrier. And it shows. At the 1994 World Cup, even though India finish fifth, you’re the only Indian to be picked for the World XI.

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But it is one year later, at the South Asian Games in Chennai, when you will actually become a household name. You score a hattrick in India’s 5-2 win against arch-rivals Pakistan. It was a grudge match. You will never forget that moment.

But remember Dhan, the bright spotlight of fame can often blind. So don’t get carried away in the flow. When you are older, you will see players who are incredibly talented. You feel they could even replace you one day. But they don’t. They let the attention get to their heads. And they lose their way.

You may be the poster boy for Indian hockey. But don’t forget to stay grounded. There’s one thing that Ramesh once said that I have always kept in mind: Making it to the Indian team is difficult, but staying there takes a lot of commitment, dedication and sacrifices.

In the coming few years, you see exhilarating highs and experience dreadful lows. There will be an eighth place finish at the 1996 Olympics, and a ninth place finish at the 1998 World Cup. But a few months later, at the Asian Games you will taste victory as the captain.

You return and are gifted a swanky house by Balasaheb Thackeray, a dream come true for a poor boy from Khadki.

You should be overjoyed, instead you’re left seething. You will learn this soon enough, Dhan, but often in India, you have to go to war for your own rights. You may be a world class player, but the authorities still stick six of you in one cramped room during national camps. You are made to sleep on mattresses laid out on the floor.

And when you dare to ask for match fees after leading the country to Asian Games gold, you’re dropped. Just like that.

Many years later, you often wonder whether it was prudent to have taken on the officials. But if not you, then who? Since you were a child barely taller than a hockey stick, you’ve never been one to take injustice lying down. You’re not about to start now.

Your talent does not allow the federation to keep you off the turf for long. You find yourself in the team for the 2000 Sydney Olympics. It is a team widely believed to be medal contenders. We feel like medal contenders. But it wasn’t meant to be. Sometimes in sport, dejection springs out of the unlikeliest of mouse holes. On this occasion, it occurs in a group stage match against Poland, a team with little hockey history. India is 1-0 up, with just one minute 40 seconds remaining. You’re on the cusp of a semifinal spot. And then Poland score.

The wind knocked out of us, we end up finishing seventh. You have suffered heartbreak in your career before. But this is different. This one leaves a scar. It leaves you shattered. Broken. You may not believe me, but in this moment you lose the will to play. You break down each time you think about the defeat.

But this is not how your story ends.

Remember those days when you travelled 30 kilometres in the morning just to get to training at 7am while you were with Mahindra and Mahindra in Mumbai? You didn’t go through all that for months to give up so easily.

You will make it to another Olympics. You know this is going to be your last. You hope that at least this one time, the association hands you the honour of being the captain. But you are left disappointed. It is around this time that you realise that your career is drawing to a close. Against better judgement, you harbor hope that you will at least be given a send-off match. A testimonial of sorts. It never comes.

I’m writing to you from 2017, Dhan. Things have changed so much in the sport. Matches last just 60 minutes now. Oh, and instead of halves, we play for four quarters. But for you, nothing will change. You still look at a hockey stick and the memories come rushing back.

Each time you played, you wore your heart on the sleeve and your face contorts into a mask of intensity. You never smile on the turf. But it’s not because you’re not enjoying yourself. It’s because you were immersed in your game.

You may not have gotten the testimonial match or the Olympic captaincy, but the sport has given you so much more.

You’re a boy from a middle-class family in Khadki who made it to four Olympics. Became an Arjuna Awardee. A Khel Ratna. A Padma Shri. So don’t let anyone tell you that a boy from Pune can’t make it to the Indian team.

— Dhanraj Pillay

(As told to Amit Kamath)

First Published: Jul 26, 2017 22:24 IST

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