During the 2012 London Olympics, tube stations have been temporarily renamed after the greatest heroes in Olympic history. There are three Indians in the special Olympic Legends map – two of them, Dhyan Chand and his brother Roop Singh are well known. But even Indians using the Bushey station of busy London tube may not able to recall the icon, after whom the station has been temporarily named. Today almost no one in India remembers Leslie Claudius, perhaps the country’s greatest Olympic hero. And with that neglect is also buried a chapter of Indian hockey’s golden age – that of Anglo-Indian contribution to Indian hockey.
Leslie Claudius is perhaps the greatest sporting icon of that tiny community of Anglo-Indians, who were responsible for growth of many a sports in colonial India. Anglo-Indians at various railway towns and other service enclaves took with gusto Victorian and Edwardian values of character-building through sports. There was also an additional incentive of jobs under sports quota. As a result, the great railway towns – Jabbalpur, Bilaspur, Jamalpur, Kharagpur became some of the most famous sporting centres. But hockey was much more than a game; it was part of Anglo-Indian identity. Most of the famous teams of the day were actually office teams – Bengal Nagpur Railways, Calcutta Port Commissioner’s or Calcutta Customs. In 1928, India participated for the first time in Olympic hockey and won the gold medal – 9 members of the team were Anglo-Indians though today we mostly remember Dhyan Chand and the captain of the team, Jaipal Singh Munda, an Oxford-educated tribal, who raised the demand of Jharkhand for the first time. There were respectively 8 and 6 Anglo-Indians in the gold medal winning teams of 1932 and 1936. One of them was goal keeper, Richard Allen, three times Olympic gold medallist, who conceded just three goals in three Olympics.
Claudius, a slightly built boy of 19, was watching a hockey match between BNR’s A and B teams in Kharagpur in 1946, when he was asked by Dickie Carr, a member of 1936 gold-medal winning team to substitute for an injured player. That was the first time Leslie Claudius played serious hockey and in 15 days time, he was in the playing eleven of BNR – one of the great teams in domestic hockey circuit and in two years time he was in London, representing India in Olympics! Leslie Claudius, the legendary right back of Indian hockey’s golden era, went on to play in three more Olympics (Helsinki 1952, Melbourne 1956 and Rome 1960) and winning in the process three gold medals and one silver (in 1960). He held Olympic record for winning maximum medals in team games – a record he shared with compatriot Udham Singh, another great from that famous nursery of hockey players in Punjab, Sansarpur village. Singh was a part of victorious Indian squads in 1952, 1956, 1960 and 1964, when India won the gold again.
After 1947, as Anglo-Indians started migrating in droves, they helped to shape hockey in Australia and Canada. Some of them represented Great Britain in Olympics. As the coach, Rex Norris, a member of the 1928 Indian team, was chiefly responsible for emergence of the Netherlands as one of powerhouses of modern hockey. For a generation, growing up on Chak de India story, it is perhaps worthwhile to remind that till 1960s, majority of Indian women players in any discipline used to be Anglo-Indians. Sports teacher in girls’ schools was a profession started and populated for decades by Anglo-Indian women. As usual, they were the pioneers in women’s hockey as well. In 1962, Ann Lumsden became the first woman hockey player to receive the Arjuna award. In 1982, Eliza Nelson captained the gold-medal winning Indian women’s hockey team and was later awarded Arjuna and Padmashree.
As Anglo-Indians were fading out of the Indian hockey scene, their brightest star appeared on the horizon. Leslie Walter Claudius was born in Bilaspur in 1927 and was already a member of the BNR football team, when he was introduced to hockey. He had to cut the stick by about three inches to suit his modest height of 5 ft 2 inches – yet there was none better than him. As the Chairman of selectors, Dhyan Chand famously said Claudius selects himself; we have to select others. Like Dhyan Chand and his son Ashok Kumar, both Leslie and his son Robert represented the country – Robert tragically died in a car crash soon after getting into the Indian team. History of Anglo-Indian contribution to India’s Olympic dreams cannot be written without mentioning another famous father-son duo from Calcutta. Vece Paes won a bronze in 1972 Olympic as part of the Indian hockey squad. His son Leander became only the second Indian to win an individual medal by winning a bronze in men’s singles tennis in 1996 Atlanta games. Leander’s mother Jennifer also represented India in basketball.
Till his demise in December 2012, Leslie Claudius lived in a rented two-room apartment in central Calcutta’s McLeod Street – most of his Anglo-Indian neighbours had left the country long back. Surviving on his custom officer’s pension, occasionally he hailed a taxi and went to Calcutta Maidan – hockey was almost a forgotten game there. Office teams were long gone, Beighton Cup – once the most prestigious tournament in the subcontinent was reduced to something like a neighbourhood tournament. On the streets of Calcutta, a city home to Claudius for more than 60 years, nobody recognized one of the greatest sporting heroes of the country.
(By Anindya Sengupta)