Sometimes, it can be very difficult to love thy neighbour as thyself. Especially if the neighbours are nursing animosity after a war. But given that he was a peace-loving man, hockey legend Leslie Claudius “told us to be friendly with players from Pakistan. This was just not done before the 1978 Asian Games in Bangkok,” recalls V Baskaran, captain of the 1980 Moscow Olympics gold-winning Indian hockey team.
A winner of three Olympic gold medals (and a silver), Claudius succumbed to liver cirrhosis in Kolkata on Thursday, marking the end of an era. He was 85.
Recipient of the Padma Shri in 1971, the prolific player was a member of India’s golden generation of hockey that won the Olympic gold in London 1948, Helsinki 1952 and Melbourne 1956. At Rome in 1960, he led India to a silver-medal finish, which made him a Guinness world record-holder for the maximum number of Olympic medals in hockey.
“I was fortunate to be coached by him in the late 1970s. He had an innovative coaching style. The things which foreign coaches now tell hockey players about deflections to release pressure situation, was dinned into us in the 1970s. I never saw him lose his temper. If anyone committed a blunder, he used just one expletive — ‘sala’,” former India skipper and left-winger Zafar Iqbal said of Claudius.
Everyone who knew Claudius had an anecdote to share. “There was no money at the time he played. And money certainly was not the motivating factor for the players of that generation. It was the pride of playing for India. We grew up hearing stories about the Indian hockey wizards — the great Major Dhyan Chand, Udham Singh and Claudius. There was no chest thumping, but the artistry of these legends drew large crowds to the stadiums,” said Ajit Pal Singh, who captained India to World Cup glory in 1975.
The Bilaspur-born Claudius was one of the five surviving members (Keshav Dutt, Grahanandan Singh, Jaswant Singh Rajput and Balbir Singh Senior are the others) of the 1948 squad that won the gold in London when it hosted Olympics 64 years ago.
One of the finest right-half players, tragedy struck early when Claudius lost his younger son Robert (Bobby) in a fatal road accident in 1978. The very talented Bobby had also represented India in the Mexico World Cup in 1978. Along with Dhyan Chand and Ashok Kumar, Leslie and Bobby Claudius were another father-son duo who had represented India at the international events.
“That was really a tragic moment for him. Bobby was very intelligent, just like his father. I could not believe that he died at such a young age. Claudius saab never recovered from that tragedy,” said Zafar. Rest in Peace, India’s original stickmeister.