Dhanraj Pillay
Dhanraj PillayFile photo

Indian hockey has a chance to break 41-year Jinx at Olympics: Former captain Dhanraj Pillay

New Delhi, July 15, 2021

Four-time Olympian and former captain Dhanraj Pillay says that the Indian hockey team has a good chance to break the 41-year jinx and finish on the podium in the Tokyo Olympics.

"I think the mistake we did at every Olympic Games was that we went with the mind set of aiming for the final instead of taking it match-by-match. Though we had the best teams each time, things did not materialize for us to finish on the podium," Pillay said.

"I am very confident that the Manpreet-led team will do it this time. They have been doing well in the last five years. Fitness is their biggest asset. In those days, we didn't have the kind of support system they have now.

"This team has done wonders, won hearts of millions of fans with their recent performances, particularly the Champions Trophy (in 2016 and 2018) and the World League Finals (2015 and 2017) results. I know they can do it this time," he said.

On Monday, the dashing striker of his era sent a personalized letter to skippers Manpreet Singh and Rani Rampal wishing the men's and women's teams' good luck. "Since I am also in Bangalore, I would have loved to meet them in person but due to protocols, I did not," he said.

"I sent them a letter wishing them the very best and I wanted to convey to them that they should be careful about their diet when they are in the Olympic village. I wanted to convey to them that they should enjoy the best part of their athletic life by being calm and relaxed."

"To both Men and Women's team, I want to say, don't think about the podium finish. Go match by match and stick together as one unit right until the last day, the last match of the tournament," he said.

Writing for Hockey India's Flashback Series, Pillay recalled interesting incidents from his first Olympic Games in 1992 and missing out on a semi-final berth at Sydney in 2000.

Pillay made debut for the country in 1989 and was selected for 1992 Olympic squad coached by Balkrishan Singh. "I was a junior in the team. Ajit Lakra and I were probably the youngest players in that squad for the 1992 Barcelona Olympics. It was always my dream to play at the Olympics. I really worked hard for that. From 1989 onwards, people had started recognizing me.

"In 89' I played the Asia Cup in Delhi (where India won silver) and after that we went to Holland where I really made a mark. I think we beat Pakistan 4-2; it was a good tournament for me and from there on I never looked back," recalled the 52-year-old stalwart.

"I played right-out and centre forward. I looked up to Jude (Felix) a lot. He was a very stylish player, I used to watch his game before I came into the Indian team. Jude played for Southern Railways, and to be part of the Indian team consisting of such great players was a great experience. Pargat was a very strict captain and always serious during practice. There were times when he would even scold us if we slacked," added Pillay.

Though India had a dismal outing in Barcelona, finishing between 5-8 placing bracket, and in Atlanta, too, they had a forgettable tournament losing even their classification matches to South Korea (6-8 tiebreaker) and Great Britain (3-4), he was of the view that the closest they came to a semi-final berth was at Sydney. But a 1-1 draw against Poland in the league stage put an end to India's hopes yet again.

"The night before a match, I always had the habit of visualizing my game. How I would receive the ball from Baljit Singh Dhillon or Mukesh Kumar. I would visualize the ground and the players. If I can't score, then how I can make a PC. Those days, even crosses used to be very important in the game," he said.

Before tie against Poland, India had beaten Argentina 3-0, held Australia 2-2, lost to Korea 0-2 and pipped Spain 3-2. "The team was doing well, and no one even dreamt that we would draw against Poland. Against Poland, we were confident of winning by three goals. There was slight rain that day during the match and I feel that hampered our plans, too.

"Even a 2-2 draw would have put us in the semis. But with 1.46 mins left, Poland scored an equalizer. We got two chances before the final whistle, but we couldn't convert," Pillay recalled.

The tearaway striker's fourth Olympics at Athens in 2004 also ended in a disappointment as the team struggled with injuries. Three defeats in four group matches put India out of contention. Their only win was against South Africa and worse still was India's loss against Pakistan in the classification playoff before a 5-2 win against Korea to finish 7th.


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