Life in Hockey for Leslie Walter Claudius
His fallible physique represents falsely the strength within the 'bamboo-legged' boy. It was quiet unassuming, that this boy could climb heights of glory. But a tangible symbol signifying the approval was awaited for Leslie Claudius, who moved about aimlessly into the field of hockey by downright chance. Claudius had played hockey during the golden era of Indian hockey.
At that time India prevailed supreme in the game. There were six teams who represented the country and the standard was so impressive that their brilliant performance would tranquilize the crowds.
Career in Hockey for Leslie Walter Claudius
To catch a glimpse of the world champions, sports lovers used to crowd together. The winners of gold medals inspired sports-loving youngsters. From his teenager, Claudius was no exception. He had dreams of becoming a flourishing sportsman. It was a dream that appeared improbable to be realized, as he was a footballer. As he recalls "I was initially a footballer". Claudius was playing for the Bengal Nagpur Railways team. His career in the game hockey began during the 1946 Beighton Cup hockey tournament. His team BNR was one of the biggest hockey outfits of the forties and fifties, which had two prestigious teams - First XI and Second XI - which participated only in the Beighton Cup.
The centre-half of the First XI, just before the match, was fallen injured. BNR Second XI was then asked to provide a replacement. Claudius was watching the game. Suddenly, much to his astonishment, found towards him a hockey stick being thrown by the team's captain, Dickie Carr. Dickie Carr used to play football with him. He asked Claudius to join the game as the replacement. Then only he had realized that than a footballer, he was keener on being a hockey player.
Claudius could not accept as true his luck. He took up the luck as challenge and got into the field. He continued for the next 10 days to play for the First XI. With the regular coaching his natural flair for the game was heightened. The coach moved the regular centre-half to deep defence, keeping him in the same position, and pulled the right back out of the game. Thus the time came for Claudius to say farewell to football and this strongly marked the beginning of his hockey career.
The team lost in the finals in spite of playing glorious hockey. But Claudius persisted to make better his skills with every tournament, with every game. Claudius with fondness remembers that during his initial years in the game, he was to an extraordinary extent promoted by Olympians like Joe Gallibardy, Carl Tapsel and Dickie Carr who played for BNR too. As he recollects "They even had my hockey stick cut shorter by three inches so that I could use it more effectively."
He has affectionate memories of Dhyan Chand who was a good friend of his, even though he never played with the heroes of Indian hockey like Dhyan Chand and Roop Singh. On his own words: "His stick work was brilliant. "Once I remember the audience even examined his stick to check if there was glue on it! When I was playing, he was a selector. He called me a sparrow. He thought I was like a small bird hopping around wherever the ball was I was there! And Dhyan Chand would say, "Claudius selects himself, now I have to select the rest of the team!"
Leslie Walter Claudius in Olympics
Leslie Claudius was selected within a year to play in the 1948 London Olympics as a result of such assistance and his persistence. These were celebrated days for him. For that 21-year-old Claudius, the opening ceremony of Olympic was an intoxicating experience. The whole populace of the country greeted them whilst transporting them to the heaven According to him in spite of the absence of coaches at that time; the Indian team was outstandingly skilled. Claudius has produced a world record by playing in four consecutive Olympics: 1948 in London, 1952 in Helsinki, 1956 in Melbourne and 1960 in Rome. From 1948 to 1960, Claudius represented India in the field of hockey.
The Indian team, including Claudius, was triumphant in the first three Olympics. But the 1960 games in Rome was not that flourishing. Later in an interview, Leslie Claudius said "Our team played brilliant hockey. We were the superior team yet we did not take advantage of our superiority. That's why it was sad. Even today that hurts. If they were better, then there would be no regrets."
It was a missed opportunity to the Indian team. A misunderstanding took place between both the defenders as they thought that other was going for the ball but it dribbled past. The advantage of this lapse was taken by Pakistan and they won by one goal. For Claudius this was especially casting down. The late fifties experienced the contention from Pakistan and European countries that were threatening India's supremacy. Claudius adds somewhat in a wistful manner but cannot help, 'The Indian Hockey Federation should have seen the signals. But it was the beginning of the end for Indian hockey'.
A decade after his retirement from international hockey, Claudius received the Padma Shri. Leslie Claudius later was offered the post of observer as a selector. In the year 1982, he accepted the post of observer on the technical committee. But could not serve the post for long as his job as an observer involved a tremendous amount of travelling. Thus it led him to quit the post in 1984. Hockey, the sport seems to be predestined in most states where it once flourished. The immensely talented Leslie Claudius however felt that in West Bengal, hockey is somewhat a seasonal game. To him 'a lack of opportunity and proper coaching prevent its young talent from maturing into top-class players. Schools and clubs have no facilities for this sport. The gear is expensive. Even the surface has changed. Today the world plays hockey on Astroturf, a synthetic surface and not grass'.
After 36 years of service Leslie Claudius retired from the Kolkata customs as an assistant collector. But he has not been able to break all ties with the sport. He joined the Umpires Association of Bengal, a group which was then trying to revive hockey in the districts. On his words "I think it is a lost cause. In our time a good sportsman got a good job. Now there is nothing in hockey. But I have gained so much from the game, I can't say No. If I can do anything for the game, I would gladly do it."
This introvert, young player who had been brought up in Bilaspur in Madhya Pradesh had never anticipated that he would be a hero and is still a name in the field of hockey.
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