Hockey's Genius - Dhyan Chand

Rohit Brijnath, Associate Editor - India Today Magazine

They say you can judge a man's legend by the quality of myths that surround him. By that measure itself, Dhyan Chand was an extraordinary man. To hear tales of his craftsmanship was to wonder whether his stick was designed by Merlin himself.

They broke his stick in Holland to check if there was a magnet inside; in Japan they decided it was glue; in Germany, Adolf Hitler even wanted to buy it.

It sounds all silliness and hocus-pocus, and maybe it was. But, one thing strikes you - they never said this about anybody else, did they? Whenever a tale journeys through time, exaggeration inadvertently rides along. Yet however inventive the teller gets, there is a point, he knows, beyond which belief is suspended.

A magnet in the stick? If they said this about Mohammed Shaheed we would have guffawed; for Dhyan Chand it just fits.

There's another thing here. Modern players use advertising to give their deeds and personalities greater flourish; they do not allow us to forget them either, for television, the accumulated memory of our times, is their evidence.

Dhyan Chand had nothing, no reams of literature to record his brilliance, no highlight films for us to gasp at. How come then this reverence has come to rest?

And so we return again to the stories, the building blocks of his legend. We are told that a statue of him exists in a sports club in Vienna, whose form speaks of a certain awe; it is of a man with four arms and four sticks. We are instructed that at penalty corners, he would stop the ball with his own hand, then rise and strike it with a smooth swiftness (normally it takes two men).

We are informed by his son Ashok Kumar, that in his 50s he would shame Indian goalkeepers in practice by dropping the ball and then on the half volley driving them into the corner of the net. Not once but 10 times out of 10.

We are advised that his stickwork was studied, but it was so fast that even slow film offered no clues to his magic. You had to wonder, as someone wrote, did the poets come to watch him, and the playwrights, for he was drama. And, of course, he was not just beautiful, he won.

We see that not just in the three Olympic golds (1928 Amsterdam, 1932 Los Angeles, 1936 Berlin), but in his goals. Two statistics stand out. In 1932, India scored 338 goals in 37 matches, 133 being his contribution. In 1947, he accompanied a young team to East Africa (no Dhyan Chand, no tour, said the invitation) and he, 42 and semi-retired, ended up as the second highest scorer with 61 goals in 22 games.

Still, it would seem on first impression that this was a man born with blessed hands, a flamboyant soloist (his mentor Bale Tiwari would scold him for dribbling), not a honest member of the orchestra.

This is where, Keshav Dutt, Olympic gold medallist, tells us, we mistake him. "His real talent lay above his shoulders. His was easily the hockey brain of the century. He could see a hockey field the way a chess player sees the board. He knew where his teammates were, and more importantly where his opponents were - without looking. It was almost psychic."

Remember Maradona in the 1986 World Cup final, swivelling blind to send the ball 30 yards or so for Buruchaga to score the winning goal. To not see but to know, to figure the geometry of a field with a blindfold on, that is an idea of a player's completeness.

In team games you can tell genius by the man who arranges the grand design of the play. Dutt saw this too in Dhyan Chand. "He treated everybody as pieces on a board meant for his use. He'd know from his own movement how the defense was forming, and where the gaps were. In other words, he was the only imponderable, everybody else (opposition included) fell in predictable patterns around him."

So, of course, when everybody else thought he was going to shoot, he passed. Not because he was unselfish (and he was), but to induce surprise. And when he passed to you, you did not want to miss.

On that 1947 East African tour, he put through a wondrous ball to K. D. Singh 'Babu', then turned his back and walked away. When Babu later asked the reason for this odd behaviour, he was told, "If you could not get a goal from that, you did not deserve to be on my team."

What these stories are telling us is this: there are good players, great players, and then those who come close to perfection's embrace. They are not practitioners of a sporting craft, they become its definition; they are not heroes, they are the caliper by which other men's heroism is measured.

Pele, Jack Nicklaus, Mohammad Ali, Don Bradman come fastest to mind, and Dhyan Chand too has a seat reserved at this table.

Here's a sweet tale on the side. In 1935, Bradman and Dhyan Chand met in Australia, and it is a measure of this man's innocence that Dhyan Chand writes, "The picture of that meeting I will cherish all my life." Did Bradman know who he had met?

To say he was an icon is correct, but only a context can provide a precise measure of such status. Gurbux Singh, 1964 Olympian, provides it when he says, "When I grew up, to achieve anything in sport was to do it in hockey."

As the century turned into its last quarter, hockey held pre-eminence, lifted by India's first Olympic gold in 1928, and kept there till the 1970s by a conveyor belt (so terribly rusted now) that rolled out champions like fast food.

It is said Dhyan Chand's greatness was elevated by the illustrious company he kept on the field; conversely, how fine he must have been to stand so taller than them all. There is a beauty to hear the grey-bearded Gurbux Singh, breathless, talking about how even in 1959, way past his best, no man at the Indian training camp could win the ball in a bully-off with him.

It makes it sadder still that even this man, as he turned grey, should tell his sons not to play hockey for it gave him so little in return. He coached for a while, then settled in his beloved Jhansi, still the fisherman, the hunter of deer, who loved to cook - but short of money.

"Once he went to a tournament in Ahmedabad, and they turned him away not knowing who he was," says Ashok. "And he never saw any comfort."

When Dhyan Chand fell ill, liver cancer as it turned out, and came to Delhi's All India Institute of Medical Sciences, they dumped him in the general ward. A journalist's article eventually got him moved to a special room, but the fact that public memory had to be jogged tells its own story.

In Jhansi they had a funeral, not in the ghat, but on the ground that he played on. Players came, but it seemed a little too late. It made it hard to forget the first few words of his autobiography 'Goal': "You are doubtless aware that I am a common man."

Dhyan Chand wasn't, but he died like one.