At the 1960 Rome Olympics, Leslie Claudius, captain of the Indian hockey team, was disconsolate. He had just led the team to a silver medal finish. “I never thought I would win a silver medal under my captaincy,” he told a reporter from The Times of India in 2000.
“I was so unlucky. I just can’t explain it.”
Claudius may have had reason to consider himself that after being part of teams that won the Olympic hockey gold three times in a row—at London in 1948, Helsinki in 1952 and in Melbourne 1956—but those who watched him play could consider themselves fortunate.
As the legendary Dhyan Chand, no mean wielder of the stick himself, said while picking the Indian team for the 1948 Games: “Claudius selects himself, now I have to select the rest of the team.”
Born in Bilaspur, the Anglo-Indian Claudius was based in Kolkata and started his sports career as a competent football player. Urban legend has it that in the course of a football tournament, there was a break between matches, and Claudius was invited to play a friendly hockey game by a bunch of players who were a man down. Hockey’s discovery of a prodigious talent was clearly football’s subsequent loss.
The diminutive 5’3” Claudius was a nifty right-half and part of the golden age of Indian hockey that lasted almost till the late 1970s, during which players dominated the sport with their skilful artistry on uneven grass pitches.
Vece Paes, who played in the 1972 Munich Olympics, remembers watching Claudius play two matches—an exhibition game in Bangalore soon after Rome and a Calcutta League final three years later.
“I remember him being a precise player who did the simple things in hockey remarkably well. His passing, his handling of the ball, his anticipation, they were all precise. He was also the coach and selector of the Bengal team when I made by debut in the Nationals as a 19-year-old. I owe my career to him,” said Paes in a phone interview.
“I was in the ninth standard when Bengal won the Rangaswamy Cup in 1962,” remembers Gopinath Ghosh, the treasurer of the Bengal Hockey Association. “His uncanny anticipation and athleticism helped us win that for the first time beating the mighty Punjab.”
Claudius is survived by his wife and three sons. Another son Robert, who played for India in the 1978 World Cup in Mexico, died young.
“Pop” Claudius was honoured ahead of this year’s London Olympics when the city’s transport authority renamed over 300 tube stations after Olympic legends. Six stops were named after hockey players, three of them Indians: Dhyan Chand, Roop Singh and Claudius.
India finished 12th at the London Games and Claudius wasn’t happy.
“It was in London where it all began for me (in 1948),” reported The Times of India in August. “Now, everything is over at the same place. It can’t get worse. Our hockey is dead.”
Part of the India team that won three Olympic gold medals in hockey, 85-year-old Leslie Claudius died in Kolkata on Thursday due to cirrhosis. With his passing, only four other players survive from the team that won the gold in 1948: Keshav Dutt, Grahanandan Singh, Jaswant Singh Rajput and Balbir Singh (senior).