“I proudly carry my hockey stick on my shoulder just like a soldier carries his gun.”…These words are enough to describe the sportsperson who represented Indian hockey in four Olympics (1992, 1996, 2000 and 2004). Bold, clear-hearted and die-hard patriot – Dhanraj Pillay is all this and more. Team India won the Asian Games (1998) and Asia Cup (2003) under his captaincy. In an exclusive interview with Preeti Hoon, Dhanraj Pillay lauds Abhinav Bindra’s historical feat and expresses his emotions over Indian hockey team’s missing presence at Beijing Olympics.
Abhinav Bindra did India proud by winning the first individual gold at Olympics. How do you feel as an Indian? What do you have to say on Bindra’s historical feat?
Let me congratulate Abhinav Bindra first, his parents and all his friends who supported him to take up this sport, who encouraged Abhinav to become Olympic gold medallist. I would like to add one thing that he has created history for the country. He is the only Indian who won an individual gold medal in 112 years. Only Hockey team won it eight times.
Do you think Bindra’s achievement will help Indian sportspersons to push themselves further?
Definitely Bindra’s gold medal will help people to take up other sports also. Because in this country there’s only one sport which is being followed religiously by parents, young generation and that is cricket. Every young boy wants to become good cricketer like Sachin Tendulkar. It has got everything â€“ name, fame, money, advertisements, endorsements and they make crores of rupees out of it. Whether they are playing for the country or not they have endorsements behind them. Everybody loves cricket but I think Abhinav Bindra has opened a new chapter in Indian sports and now, parents would support their children to opt for other sports like shooting, hockey, football, badminton, tennis, swimming and athletics.
Are you missing Indian hockey team at the Beijing Olympics 2008? How hard it was to accept that India is not travelling to China?
Definitely (with a deep breathe). When I was watching the match, I felt so sad that we lost to Argentina and we could not qualify for the Beijing Olympics. But let me tell you the truth that I was not 100 per cent sure that my team would qualify because some of the good players like Sandeep Singh, Arjun Halappa, Vikram Pillay, Virendra Singh, Deepak Thakur, Hari Prasad were left out. There were likes and dislikes in the team. I was shocked to hear the names selected for the team which went for the qualifiers because in world hockey, every country sends its best team to qualify for Olympics. Ultimately it is every sportsperson’s dream to represent his country in Olympics. It’s not that they didn’t play wholeheartedly but our team was weaker than that of Argentina, that’s why we lost.
You are a member of ad-hoc committee now, what changes would you want to bring in Indian hockey?
Around 15 days back we had a very healthy meeting with Indian Olympic Association president and ad-hoc committee chairman, Mr. Suresh Kalmadi, and also with Raja Ranbir Singh. Lot of Olympians were present too and we chalked out a calendar for hockey and discussed what we can do best for the sport. We also talked about strategies to bring back hockey at international arena. Both the gentlemen were quite positive about it and said they are ready to do whatever senior players, Olympians and coaches suggest about keeping the rapport with sponsors and maintaining relations between players and coach. My suggestion was that hockey players should be given match fees for which they agreed. After the Olympics, everything will be chalked out again and we will have a final meeting to conduct a national championship which was missing all these years.
Do you think Indian Hockey Federation should have been dissolved earlier? Are we so called ‘independent’ from politics and corruption in the sport?
(Smiles) This was going on from long time, I was shouting and telling the Indian government and everyone that something should be done for hockey players. They should be treated well and should be given match allowances and fees. But nobody paid heed to my concerns. Now, slowly and gradually everyone has started listening to my words. And what we saw was that a very sad part of Indian hockey. Now we should forget everything and think about what we can do best for future. I am happy now because earlier there was just a 2-man show going on with KPS Gill and Jyothikumaran. Now, Mr. Kalmadi and Mr. Singh are ready to listen to former Olympians. I won’t say I’m satisfied but the way meeting went with Mr. Kalmadi, he sounded positive and wants to do something great for Indian hockey.
What measures can be taken to attract sponsorships and make hockey as popular as cricket or may be tennis for that matter?
No I don’t think you can compare cricket with any other sport. Cricket has become a religion in India. Every sport has its own functioning body but yes, if any sponsor comes forward to help, we have to keep them very happy. They are the ones who pour money and if they are not happy sponsorship might be pulled out. We have to keep them informed and tell them day-to-day happenings in Indian hockey, this will attract other sponsors as well. In cricket there are thousands of sponsors but in other sports you have to beg for sponsorships. I remember how I begged for sponsorship from Mr. Subroto Roy of Sahara to please come and sponsor our hockey team. Whenever I used to see him, I always used to beg and ask him to do something for us. And I think God listened to me and for last seven years he’s sponsoring Indian hockey. When I was playing, Sahara Parivar used to give Rs 25,000 per month to all the players who represented India then and now to those who are currently playing.
Hockey is our national sport but how much do you think that status is given its due regards in a cricket crazy nation like ours?
The way media supports cricket the others sports have never been given that privilege. I blame it to electronic and print media. Every person plays for the country with the same passion the way cricketers play. I will not blame cricketers also because if you put one rupee in cricket you get thousand rupees as a return and that’s the reason why main sponsors like Kingfisher, Reliance, Sahara are putting in their money in cricket. Now Bollywood stars have also joined cricket. I just can’t tell you what it has become I think you cannot compare it with any sport. And nobody should dream to touch cricketers. People should now pour money towards sportspersons like Abhinav Bindra. If cricketers can get money on milestones for wickets and runs, then why not Abhinav?
Has arrival of Indian Premier League snatched away the left over popularity of hockey in India?
The popularity of a sport depends on the way it is marketed. And the way BCCI has done it, it has been splendid. They invited and welcomed Bollywood stars, politicians, industrialists like Mukesh Ambani and Vijay Mallya. You just can’t compare it with hockey.
Personally, how are you promoting hockey?
Dhanraj Pillay hockey academy and my team organized one of the best tournaments in Mumbai. Commander K Singh is now the secretary of the Mumbai Hockey Association and he’s wholeheartedly supporting my academy and he has given the ground to stay. We are moving in the right direction. There’s a tournament organized by Mumbai Hockey Association lined up from August 20-29 in which 25 teams are participating in it, including my team. I give my boys the best equipments same as what Indian hockey players are provided with.
You are often been described as a volatile hockey player. How do you take that?
(Takes a long pause) I don’t know how to describe this but as a hockey player whatever comes in my life I take it very happily. If anything goes wrong I take it very personally and ponder over it. If I do something great I feel proud that people appreciate and bravo us.
You have struggled in your initial years of playing hockey. Did you take up hockey as your profession because of your brother?
In my family everybody played hockey. My parents, uncle and brothers, all were hockey players. So you can say that hockey is in my blood. No doubt, I take hockey seriously because of my elder brothers. One of my brothers played for India and who gave me the opportunity to come to Mumbai and show my talent to Mumbai Hockey Association. That’s how I was selected to play for Rashtriya chemicals and fertilizers (a company in Mumbai) and from there I went on to represent Mahindra & Mahindra. Eventually, I played for India and my brother used to coach me. I used to dream one day I want to play with great players. Passion to play for the country went high along with my dreams.