Leslie Claudius hailed from an era when sport was sport. Most heroes from those times, when India ruled the world of hockey and the cricket team was making its fledgling presence, have remained unsung. Actually, some preferred to stay in the background. They played for passion and the rest, monetary gains and the glamour that came with it, was secondary.
Claudius, from various accounts available, was an upright man, who firmly believed one could achieve one’s ambitions on the sports field with hard work. There was no substitute to training and competing with the same fervour. They said he was born to play hockey.
He went to four Olympics and never returned empty-handed; gold medal finish in 1948, 1952 and 1960 and a silver medal in 1960. Ironically, as he confessed in one of the interviews, the silver hurt because he was the captain.
A robust midfielder, he held ambitions to pursue football but accidentally discovered his precocious talent in hockey. He was short in stature but not the spirit. His endurance was awesome and the ability to innovate and anticipate very sharp.
Balbir Singh (Sr), who was in the team when Claudius won his gold medals, would often rave about his “tireless” midfielder. Balbir wrote after the 1956 Olympic triumph, “It was a moment of glory for me, (Ranganathan) Francis, (Randhir Singh) Gentle and Claudius. It was our third Olympic gold medal. We all had our Olympic baptism for free India at the 1948 London Games. We were youngsters then; at Melbourne, we were the veterans, the experienced ones, the men on whom rested the nation's fortunes. I have no hesitation in stating that our 1956 team comprised the finest set of players in the post-Independence period.”
During a felicitation function in the capital in June last, Claudius had underlined the importance of his first Olympic gold. “It was an important Olympics. It was being held after 12 years (following the World War II), the spotlight was on this. The only time we were tested was against the Netherlands in the semifinal, which we won 2-1. The final against England was easy and we won 4-1.”
Balbir once admitted he was stunned by Claudius’ awesome stamina and ability to be at the right position and right time to blunt an attack. He could also trigger off a breathtaking counter with his foxy reading of the game. He could slow down the game or set up the pace with his brilliant vision of the contest.
Claudius was one of the finest, no doubt. R.S. Bhola, his contemporary and teammate in two Olympic campaigns in 1956 and 1960, remembered, “We were together for a long time. He was a strong right half, rock like. We were convinced he was a born genius like Dhyan Chand and K.D. Singh Babu. It was said that Dhyan Chand practised in moonlight. So did Claudius. He used to train by himself and achieved perfection. He was extremely devoted. I had my contests with him and some very memorable. I was tall and he would look to block me with his anticipation. My only option was to beat him on speed. Otherwise it was tough to get past him.”
For Harbinder, the “life history” of Claudius was the greatest “inspiration” any youngster would benefit from. In 1961, Harbinder recalled, he had a “first-hand experience” of seeing Claudius play. “It was a dream. For me he was a legend when Punjab played Bengal (in quarterfinal) at the Hyderabad Nationals. He had this smile on his face and I wondered how he was so tenacious on the field. I discovered soon. He stood like an impregnable wall. We won and I scored the goal. The match remains a vivid and sweet dream for me because I had played against my hero.”
Ashok Kumar was one of his trusted “pupils” and the master always guided and supported the centre forward. “He loved my style and ensured no one tampered with it. I would sit at his feet and listen to his hockey wisdom. He was a selfless worker, who always thought of hockey. I, Aslam (Sher Khan) and (Charles) Cornelius met him at the hospital recently (in Kolkata). He spoke very excitedly and inquired about friends and family. His memory was good even at this ripe age. We were happy that he was discharged in our presence. We escorted him to the ambulance and touched his feet with a promise to meet soon. Alas, that became my last glimpse of Claudius Sir.”
Claudius was a very “lovable” character. “I have not come across a more polite and humble player on the field. He would motivate you with stirring stories from his playing days. He was a great asset to Indian hockey,” praised Harbinder, a 1964 Olympics gold medallist. He was precious indeed having served hockey as a player, selector, coach and manager. Claudius was a complete hockey personality. He passed away in Kolkata on Thursday at 85. May his soul rest in peace!