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Excerpts: Dhanraj's Early Life (2/24/2004)
--K. Arumugam

On Sunday 1st June 2003, the public address system at the Perth Hockey Stadium (Australia) blared. Players of both India and Australia who had lined up for the Challenge Cup final match listened. “Congratulations Mr. Dhanraj Pillay…” the announcer paused for a while before continuing: “The Indian captain is playing his 264th international match today. We are happy to inform that Dhanraj Pillay now has the maximum appearances in world hockey.”

The entire stadium erupted into applause in appreciation of a rare achievement. An Indian the most capped player in the world! Dhanraj, 35 years young, bowed to the crowd in acknowledgment. The Indians settled in Perth organised a grand party that night in his honour and the entire Indian team joined in the celebration. Ever since the Indian captain picked up a hockey stick, he has brought many laurels to Mother India. Perth was the latest.

undefined Dhanraj Pillay was good at both football and hockey in his school days. As he grew up, hockey became a passion, football remained a fascination. He first played for India in 1989. Since then, he has been regularly representing the country at various tournaments. He has figured in all hockey competitions in the world like the Summer Olympics, World Cup, Asian Games, Champions Trophy. Till 2003, he played top level hockey for 14 years on the trot.

Hockey is a speedy game and a player has to be extremely fit to just survive at world levels. Normally hockey players retire after five or six years into their international career, a lucky few manage to last a decade. Dhanraj’s 14 years of international hockey is an unique record for which he has shed a lot of sweat and tears. He practiced day in and day out, maintained a healthy lifestyle, stayed away from vices and remained focussed on the game, so much so that hockey became his life, his dream. Hockey is still everything for him now.

As a young boy, Dhanraj liked scoring goals. So he wanted to become a forward. His coaches too encouraged him in this, bringing out a natural flair in him. He therefore learnt the art of scoring goals very fast and effectively too, kept on improving scoring opportunities. Even against tough opponents, he could score goals on the strength of fast feet and speedier brain.

Dhanraj running with the ball ahead of chasing defenders is a treat to watch. Once inside the striking circle, he always attempted to score goals directly. He had variety and deception too. He can beat the goalkeeper from any angle. Scoring goal is a difficult job in hockey. Goalkeepers are always alert, defenders are tough guys who won’t easily allow the ball to go into the net. Unless one is alert, quick and opportunistic, goals cannot be generated.

So scoring a goal is always a challenge. Dhanraj liked the challenge, managing about 200 goals in all so far in his career. His stylish goals will remain etched in the eyes of the spectators. Those who watched him in motion will not easily forget the magical moment.

Dhanraj scored 11 goals at the 1998 Asian Games in Bangkok (Thailand), the highest individual score for any country there. These goals got India the gold, the second Asiad title in 40 years (the previous gold was won in 1966 at Bangkok). In between these two landmark Asiad Games, India had played the final many times but lost out every time. Dhanraj thus wrote a new, glorious chapter for Indian hockey at Bangkok.

The whole nation celebrated the historic victory. Processions were taken out in his home town Pune. Dhanraj was garlanded wherever he went. The Government of India awarded him the prestigious Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna in recognition of his class and inspirational leadership, the first hockey player to be honoured. He has come a long way, from a poor family in Khadki to India’s sporting icon.

Dhanraj was born on 15th July 1968 in a poor family in Khadki (Pune district of Maharashtra). He was youngest of four brothers and a sister. His father Nagalingam is a migrant labour. His forefathers came to Pune from Tamil Nadu in search of employment. Dhanraj’s father worked as a groundsman in the Ordnance Factory. Mother Andalamma is a housewife. Circumstances did not allow his parents to benefit from education. Dhanraj joined Tamil High School in Kirkee.

His teacher Sedhulaxmi says, “He was mischievous, not good at studies, just average.” Boy Dhanraj did not concentrate on studies. He had his own world— hockey. After all, Khadki had a sporting environment, with many hockey stalwarts training at the ground his father maintained. Hockey in particular was very popular, so not surprising Dhanraj got hooked.

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