There is an anecdote from his career that Dhanraj Pillay tells with particular relish. In it, he’s barely 22 years of age. In it, he’s playing against Pakistan, even then considered the greatest nemesis by the Indian hockey team. In it, he’s running circles around the Pakistani players. In it, there’s Pakistan coach Islahuddin bellowing ‘woh kaale ko pakdo (mark that dark guy)’ at his defenders. In it, the defenders try and fail. For, the 22-year-old was uncatchable.
He would remain so for decades.
“That match gave me a lot of confidence. I never looked back after that. Their coach’s yelling will stay in my mind forever. We went on to win that match and I scored two goals,” says Pillay.
On Sunday, many summers after that young Pillay had traumatised the Pakistani defence, India will play arch-rivals Pakistan at the Hockey World League Semi-Finals in London. A lot of things have changed in the interim: teams from the subcontinent have adapted technical and tactical hockey centred around passing rather than individual dribbling, matches have become 60-minute affairs instead of 70.
But one thing hasn’t changed.
“It was something that was said in the dressing room, ‘Lose to anyone, but don’t lose to Pakistan.’ I’m sure even the Pakistanis always took the pitch with the same mindset. This is something that has prevailed since the time of the partition (in 1947). When you play Pakistan, you always try to give better than your best,” Pillay says.
Pillay knows a thing or two about giving his best against Pakistan. He has been the architect of many memorable victories over them, none more so than the 5-2 victory he inflicted on Pakistan in 1995 at the inaugural South Asian Federation Games (SAF Games).
Pillay scored three goals against Pakistan, the reigning World Cup champions at that time, in that match to drive the country’s hockey fans into delirium.
“After that match, I became a household name in the country. The Pakistani players used to hit me on the pitch and would resort to any measures to upset my rhythm,” Dhanraj recollects.
He adds that even when India were not playing Pakistan, things tended to boil over. He recollects a match from the 1990 World Cup, held in Pakistan. Pakistan were in the final of the World Cup, but India had to make do with playing classification matches for the ninth spot having finished last in their six-team group.
During one of the matches in Lahore, the players noticed smoke emanating from the stands. The game was soon stopped by the officials when it became apparent that the Indian Tricolour was being burnt in the stands.
“We were guests of their country, and this was the treatment being meted out to us. We were hurting from the inside to see our flag being burnt. The FIH technical director came up to our coach and told him that we had the option not to play if we wanted as it was too dangerous,” Pillay recalls.
While India eventually ended that tournament in 10th spot, Pakistan lost the final to the Netherlands.
Sunday’s match, being played in London, will certainly not see tensions boiling over like they did 27 years ago, but players will still be keen to give better than their best on the pitch.
Players would do well to remember the locker room diktat: ‘Lose to anyone, don’t lose to Pakistan.’
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Updated Date: Jun 18, 2017 11:52:32 IST