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Leslie Claudius, an Enduring Spirit (8/2/2008)
--K.Arumugam
Anglo-Indians, barely a million population in the colonial days, contributed immensely towards hockey taking its root in the Indian sub-continent. Many of the successful domestic teams were exclusively manned by them with only a sprinkling of players from other clans.

There were nine Anglo-Indians in the 1928 Olympic hockey team, 3 in 1932 and 8 in the historic 1936 Berlin team. Most of them were among the playing eleven. They were so gifted and talented that prompted chronicler Jeremy Potter to portray them as 'A mixture of bloods which for some reason produces the best hockey players in the world.'

Leslie Walter Claudius, the talented right-half, held on the legacy of the Anglo-Indians even as many of them left the country after India's independence. Only Anglo-Indian to captain the Indian team (1960 Olympics), the mid-fielder was also the first player in the world to play four Olympics hockey (1948 to 1960).

Hard to believe as it is, Claudius the Olympian might never have been, for the player had no love for hockey. For a boy whose passion was football, such unique achievements in a different sport might sound like a fairy tale.

In 1946, an onlooker Leslie padded up for hockey when Dickie Carr, 1936 Olympic team member, asked him to make up the eleven. Only thing he knew then was to stop the ball and push it to the player ahead of him. Shortly, he faced a dilemma to make a choice between football and hockey. He chose the latter as it offered better chance to be at the Olympics.

Within two years since taking up the game, he realized his dream of becoming an Olympian. With London Olympics gold, Claudius was delighted though his regret was that he figured in only one match. He went on to play three more Olympics where he played all the matches.

He would never give up ball possession or the hope of triumph. He was flamboyant and aggressive and despite being a mid-fielder, one could often see him in striking circles. Whenever chips were down he would emerge the saviour. Many times saved even after the goalkeeper was beaten.

In Claudius' career, there was no off-day. For him to lay-off meant losing fitness. His expertise at both football and badminton not only kept him extremely fit but also avoided any monotony. Such was his brilliance that he was often said to wield a 'stick which is connected to his brain'.

After the 1948 Olympics, Claudius became an inseparable part of all Indian teams in international games that included the 1952 Olympics, an East African tour the same year, the Malaysia tour in 1954, the New Zealand and Australia tours 1955, the Melbourne Olympics, the third Asian Games in 1958 and the Europe tour in 1949. in 1960, he was elevated to Olympic captaincy, a fitting tribute for his service to the game.

The 1960 Rome Olympics presented a period of suspense for India with arch-rival Pakistan's ascendancy to gold. He said, "Pakistan scored an early goal. That goal snapped our confidence. We never recovered. We had our chances to get on level terms but were not snapped up. Had we scored the equaliser, we would have won the match."

The Rome loss was considered a national loss, the backlash was severe. His illustrious international career came to an end with that. Claudius joined the 'Padamshree' fraternity in 1971. Bengal Olympic Association declared him as the Best Player of the Century in 2000.

His son Bobby briefly represented the country in hockey before his untimely death.

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