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Shankar Laxman, the incomparable goalkeeper (8/2/2008)
The venue is Tokyo; the year 1964; the date 23rd October and the occasion, Olympic hockey final. Five minutes into resumption of play, India tastes a goal through Mohinder Lal. It ignites the fire in Pakistan's belly. The fleet-footed Pakistan forwards attack ferociously and also earn a plethora of penalty corners. However, those were held in check by the cool authority of the goalkeeper. India's moment of glory returns. India regained the gold it lost to Pakistan four years ago.

The victors in the field, the eleven excited Indians, rush to the circle and lift the goal-keeper in a frenzy. India's 1964 gold gained at the Komaza Park is truly the goal-keeper's game. The stocky Shankar Laxman was the hero of the day.

Hockey Circle, a journal of repute observed, "Pakistan fought well but veteran keeper Shankar Laxman saved brilliantly penalty corner shots. There were other shots and other saves, for, Laxman the ball was the size of a football. It was his afternoon of glory and fame".

In fact, Laxman had a point to prove at Tokyo. Two years before, after the 1958 Asian Games where Pakistan won the gold, critics were out with knives at his throat. Manager Jamie Jameson, father of England Test cricketer John Jameson, observed in his report, “Laxman has had his day. He saved but the manner in which he did so seemed more luck than judgment.”

Tokyo was Laxman's third Olympics. His feats in the two previous appearances too were no less exciting. At Melbourne in 1956, Ranganathan Francis, a refugee from Burma, was on his third Olympics, but the 23-year old Laxman was preferred. At Rome four years later, younger C. Deshmuthu was the other goalkeeper with Laxman. Here too Laxman played the final. R.A.Christry faced the same fate as that of Deshmuthu in 1964.

In three Olympics finals, all against the same rival (Pakistan), the outcome was decided by a lone goal. In the 1956 and 1964 Olympics, no Pakistani could send a shot past Laxman, unlike what Naseer Bunda did at Rome in 1960.

History was made when Shankar Laxman was invited to lead India in the 1966 Asian Games. Thus, he became the first goalkeeper in the world to lead his country. Matching the occasion, he unfolded a magnum opus here too by winning our maiden Asian Games gold.

In all, Shankar Laxman played three Olympics and three Asian Games finals. In four out of the six finals no goal scored past him. In the remaining two, he conceded only three goals. Six finals and three goals must rank a wonderful record for any goal-keeper.

Fittingly, he received the Arjuna award after the Tokyo Olympics gold and Padamshree after the Bangkok Asian Games gold, to become the only goal-keeper to be honoured so.

The significance of Shankar Laxman was felt in his absence too. After he hung his boots, no Indian goalie survived the rigours of three Olympics.

Once Ranganathan Francis portrayed the role of goalkeeper thus, "Like the inner fortress of a city when the outer wall has fallen, a goalkeeper stands alone between his team and destruction.

Sadly for India after Laxman not many custodians of courage stood between the team and destruction.

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