By Tom Alter
e was not billed as the superstar who would bring home the the Commonwealth Games gold for his country. There were no tickets waiting for him so that he could fly off to Canada. Most important, he had not left Kuala Lumpur in a hurry when his team failed to qualify for the semi-finals.
All he had done was to lead his country's team with pride and passion into the semi-finals of the Commonwealth Games tournament. His team had come back from a tough defeat against Australia to win over South Africa and New Zealand when it really mattered.
Which was much more than the sneering cynics and critics had predicted. Even reaching the semi-finals was a victory in itself. The Indian team was playing with speed and confidence. Good, clean, fast hockey that had even the mighty Australians worried.
The Commonwealth Games semi-finals
In the semi-finals against Malaysia, India played 75 minutes of the most beautiful hockey you will see played in your lifetime - 75 minutes of art and skill and speed and stamina.
75 minutes, out of which India dominated 65 minutes while Malaysia just managed to stay even for 10.
75 minutes of breathtaking hockey, in which India took 13 shots on goal, and Malaysia only 3. In which India won 8 penalty corners, and Malaysia 3.
75 minutes in which the Malaysian goalkeeper made lucky save after lucky save, while the Indian goalkeeper touched the ball only once - only to let it go through his legs and into the goal. A ball which had already rebounded off three sticks, and could have gone anywhere. But didn't.
At the mercy of the Gods
After watching the match, the Australian coach said that India should have won 8-0. Eight goals in a match are not missed through lack of talent, effort or skill. Or even through bad luck. They are missed because the gods are unbelievably cruel - to allow a team to promise so much, and then snatch away from them the victory they so fully deserved.
Who know this better than Dhanraj Pillai, captain of the Indian hockey team. Lying flat on his back, arms flung wide, eyes closed in unbearable grief and fatigue. That one image of Dhanraj stretched out on the pitch tells a story so personal and so universal. Of one man's pride and passion being humbled by the whims and fancies of the gods.
The next day he rose again to play England in the bronze medal game, and in one breathtaking move, Dhanraj Pillai dodged seven - yes seven - English players in the 'D' before sprawling in the cruelest of dives in front of the English goal, the ball going wide.
And, of course, India did not win the bronze. India was simply the second-best team in Kuala Lumpur, and we did not even get the bronze. The cruelty of the gods would not end there on the hockey pitch.
We are what is wrong with Indian Sport
On the day of the semi-finals, no television news show carried the score of the India - Malaysia game, and the saga of Dhanraj and his team. Everyone was too interested in knowing which cricketer was going to Toronto for the Sahara Cup. Refugees from a cricket team that did not even reach the semi-finals were being treated like heroes.
We had to search the newspapers the next morning to find the score of the semi-finals hidden away in one corner. We had to wait until that afternoon - 24 hours after the actual event - to watch a tape-delayed telecast of the India-Malaysia semi-final.
How easily we criticise Dhanraj and his team. We sit in our cozy little drawing rooms and come up with our cozy little theories about what is wrong with Indian sport.
We are what is wrong with Indian sport.
I can only hope and pray that Dhanraj and his magnificient team will be allowed to represent the country at the Asian Games in Bangkok. There are still two months to go, and anything can go wrong in those two months.
While Dhanraj and his team await their fate at the hands of the selectors, our cricketers will be playing - and making money - in Zimbabwe, Sharjah, Dhaka and New Zealand.
All that the Indian hockey team did was play the best hockey seen at the Games and make the semi-finals. All that the cricketers did was play some of the dullest cricket seen at the Games and not make the semi-finals.
The gods are indeed cruel. I pray to those cruel gods - give Dhanraj and his team one more chance in the upcoming Asian Games. Please join me in that prayer.
Article courtesy The Sunday Observer, September 27 - October 3, 1998