Leslie Claudius: A true legend of hockey

Kolkata, Dec 20 (IANS) Leslie Walter Claudius was a hockey legend in the truest sense of the term, perhaps the greatest right half the game has ever seen.

One of the last surviving colossal figures of the golden years of Indian hockey, he epitomised sportsmanship and humility, while smoothly carrying forward the legacy of the game's wizard Dhyan Chand.

A midfield dynamo belying a short five feet four inches frame, Claudius was through his international career the livewire of the Indian teams - effectively feeding the forwards with precision passes and the very next moment falling back to bolster the defence.

"Hockey is not worthwhile seeing if he is not playing," the London Times once wrote of the genius, articulating a sense of awe.

Born March 25, 1927 in Bilaspur, Claudius strayed into the hockey field by sheer chance, but later etched his name in the Guinness Book of World Records alongside compatriot Udham Singh for being part of a hockey team to win maximum number of medals at the Olympic Games.

Claudius initially dabbled in soccer for the Bengal Nagpur Railway, but switched to the stick game as a right half during the 1946 Beighton Cup hockey tournament as a 'forced last minute' replacement.

He later made the right half position so much his own that several players changed their playing position as they feared so long as Claudius was there, they would not get into the national team.

After the 1948 Olympics, Claudius became an inseparable part of the Indian team participating in international games that included an East African tour (1952), the Malaysia tour (1954), the New Zealand and Australia tours (1955), the third Asian Games in 1958 and the Europe tour (1949).

To his Olympic gold medals in 1948 London, 1952 Helsinki and 1956 Melbourne, he added a silver in 1960 Rome Games when he captained the team. He was the first player ever to earn 100 caps.

"His half-line distribution and tackling was unparalleled. His anticipation and covering were just out of the world," another Olympic great Gurbux Singh said.

Claudius, who had many a cherished memories as a player, however, had a lifelong regret - losing out 0-1 to Pakistan in the final of the Rome Olympics. It was the first time India missed out on a Olympic gold.

"We played brilliantly powering ourselves into the final but lost it by just one goal. Even today that hurts," he had told IANS in one of his last interviews.

He retired from international hockey after the 1960 Olympics, but continued to compete domestically till the 1965 season.

In 1971, Claudius became the sixth Indian hockey player to be given the prestigious Padmashree award by the government and also served as the team manager for the 1974 and 1978 Asian Games. He was also a national selector for a few years.

As manager and selector, he had only one advice for his boys: "The game should be played in the spirit of the game and you should never lose temper."

Many felt he deserved the country's highest award - the Bharat Ratna. But his choice for the award were hockey wizard Dhyan Chand and the cricket's demigod Sachin Tendulkar.

"Scoring hundred hundreds is not a bloody joke man," he had told IANS about Tendulkar's feat.

Months before he died, Claudius got a rare honour during the 2012 Olympics, when the organisers named 361 tube stations after Olympic legends. Six of the stops were re-christened after hockey players, three of them Indians - Dhyan Chand, Roop Singh and Leslie Claudius. Bushey was named after Claudius.

While he enjoyed much success in the field, there were some setbacks on the personal front. Claudius lost his young son Robert, who too had represented the Indian hockey team, to a car accident. Again, his medals were stolen by some workers doing up his modest flat in the city.

A gentleman to the core, the large hearted Claudius refused to lodge a complaint or even sit and grudge the loss. "Let the workers keep the medals, perhaps their need is greater than mine," he had said.

The otherwise jovial Claudius was much pained at the gradual demise of Indian hockey. After the country's worst ever Olympic outing at the London Games this year, he pronounced Indian hockey as 'dead'.

"It was in London where it all began for me (in the 1948 Olympics). Now, everything is over at the same place. It can't get worse. Our hockey is dead," he had said after India failed to win a single match and finished last.

Whether partying and socialising with friends or making elaborate arrangements for a lavish Christmas celebrations, the sportsman's enthusiasm in Claudius had not dimmed even after decades of quitting the game.

"He had always been full of life. Whether with friends or with family and kids, he was always game for celebrations. His arrangements for Christmas were always lavish," wife Vilia Claudius said.

Claudius died Thursday after a prolonged battle with cirrhosis of liver.