`Dreaded' pair: Dhanraj Pillay (2nd from left) and Mukesh Kumar (4th from left). — Photo: Satish H.  

BY ANY stretch of imagination, they are the most dreaded combination in contemporary hockey with a combined experience of 650-plus internationals. And, when the mercurial Dhanraj Pillay and Hyderabad's own illustrious, right-winger Mukesh Kumar come face-to-face in an encounter, one thing which is bound to happen is the endless, mutual admiration. It is not for nothing that they re-wrote the concept of attacking display upfront on the hockey field by demonstrating that even in hockey, they can hunt in pairs like in cricket where the pacemen normally operate in tandem.

The 32nd National Games provided the rare opportunity for the die-hard Hyderabad hockey fan to have the privilege to see Dhanraj and Mukesh leading their respective teams (Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh) and more importantly producing their wonted touch of class for which they are so famous for. When the Andhra Hockey Association president Mr.Jesudanam,and Mr. Niranjan Reddy, secretary, hosted a dinner for the leading lights of Indian hockey in a City hotel during the Games, it provided not just another photo opportunity but a chance to know what exactly this `deadly duo' feel about each other and on their best and worst moments.

The normally reserved Dhanraj Pillay, clearly enjoying the august company of his team-mate, Mukesh, didn't hesitate to give his opinion on different subjects. "The 1998 Asian Games gold is the most memorable moment for us. The kind of understanding everyone had, I had not seen after that again in the Indian team,'' Pillay pointed out. '"I got everything through hockey and I have absolutely no complaints,'' he said when asked whether he still puts the blame on the media for not being named FIH `Player of the Year'. The 32-year-old, dazzling centre-forward recalls the goal in the SAF Games final against Pakistan in 1995 as his best and most memorable moment. "A goal against them is in itself something to cheer about. But that was more than that. I still remember when Mukesh gave me a lightning pass from the right flank that I had to do skating, virtually, to reach the ball in a diving effort and place it into the goal,'' recalls Pillay with his face lit in delight. And the worst moment? "What else can be than the failure to beat Poland in the 2000 Sydney Olympics qualifying round. It was a horrible experience,'' he says without any hesitation.

On his famous combination with Mukesh, the star forward minces no words stating: "There can never be another Mukesh. It is impossible to see another player of his class. I badly miss him and wish he will join me in the Athens Olympics for one last time.'' Pillay is indeed happy that chief national coach Rajinder Singh went on record saying that age is no bar for Mukesh to comeback into the team as every player would be judged by his fitness and skills. What made Mukesh-Dhanraj combine so menacing? "Honestly, we two never discussed in detail what the strategy should be for a match. We just enter the field and exchange a few words on how the passes should be and instantly develop wonderful understanding. Mind you, he has such a wonderful eye-contact. I had never seen a player of his class in my 18 years of experience,'' says Dhanraj in all humility.

For his part, 34-year-old Mukesh Kumar says it has always been a privilege to play along with Dhanraj. "It still amazes how he combines such speed and skill. A truly great player and I will remember every moment I shared with him on the field,'' remarked the Hyderabadi, who is now nursing comeback hopes. Mukesh, who played in 327 internationals since 1988, also reminds that he and Pillay both got the Arjuna Award in 1995 when there was not so much lobbying for them as is the case now.'' "Definitely, the 1998 Bangkok Asiad gold was the best moment along with the SAF Games gold beating Pakistan in the final. For, I remember before the Games Pillay saying that he would retire after the event and appealing to all the members to give more than 100 per cent. And what team work the Indians showed,'' Mukesh recalls.

Atlanta Olympics goalkeeper Edwards Alloysius, international Bimal Lakra and 1994 Sydney World Cupper Rajnish Mishra put it more succinctly saying: "When they are in the team, they give a new dimension to team spirit. Essentially, they ensure that everyone contributes to the success by involving even the youngsters in the team's brain-storming sessions on pre-match strategy.''

Only time can answer whether Dhanraj's dream of playing along with Mukesh in one last Olympics after playing together in three previous editions and three World Cups will be realised or not!

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He is a lone ranger in the 'Mother of all Battles - athletics - in the 32nd National Games. For, P. Shankar, the winner of the 400 m hurdles gold in the Games is the only genuine athlete from the State to win the gold while all the other gold medallists for Andhra were from outside the State in men's section. Not an ordinary feat indeed. And, beware next time when he competes he will be doubling up another role - that of a cop.

Sprinter Shankar (left) with coach Ramesh . — Photo: P.V. Sivakumar

Sprinter Shankar (left) with coach Ramesh . — Photo: P.V. Sivakumar  

Thanks to the initiative of Mr.T. Devender Goud, Home Minister, this most gifted athlete from Andhra Pradesh is all set to become a Sub-Inspector in the Police Department. For someone who is on the look out for a decent job with Hyderabad as base, this has come truly as a God-sent opportunity. "I am really thankful to the Home Minister. He has taken a lot of personal interest,'' Shankar told The Hindu. The appointment orders are expected very soon.

Mind you, till now only his boarding and lodging expenditure besides the exposure part in different meets were being taken care off by the SAI and not a rupee is paid as any special incentive by any sports governing body.

By the quirk of fate, this boy from the tribal tanda of Mahabubnagar will also become the first, full-fledged employee in his big family. A product of the first batch of the Andhra Pradesh Sports School, he developed truly into a leading performer on the domestic scene thanks primarily to the combined efforts of M. Ranga Rao and N. Ramesh, both Sports Authority of India coaches.

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Even as the intense debate continues about the `import policy' of Andhra Pradesh to top the medals tally with in the Games, there is a peculiar request from six top athletes including Sunil Goswani (javelin), Arun D'Souza (3000 m steeplechase gold medallist), Geesh Kumar (polevault), K.A.Shivanand (long and middle distance runner), decathlon gold medallist Mandeep Kumar to let them settle down in Andhra Pradesh. "Obviously money made me change my loyalty,'' says Mandeep without any hesitation. The 24-year-old athlete, now working in Northern Railway, says he will be doubly happy even if a transfer to the City is managed.

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What saved the day for the hosts on the organisational front when the wrestling camp almost painted a black spot by threatening to boycott the competitions after the Wrestling Federation of India refused permission to let the `imports' represent Andhra Pradesh? Well, the omnipresent chairman of Games Technical & Conduct Committee, Dr.C.M. Muthiah, swung into action at the behest of the top brass of the State and the IOA to resolve the issue. He quickly spotted a `hole' the rulebook WFI extensively quoted to issue the dictat. "I just pointed that since there was no written communication to the GTCC about WFI's decision not to allow any wrestler to represent any State other than his home State for which he played in the last Senior Nationals and six months before the National Games.''

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This Wilson is always `Shining'. Well, one of India's finest athletes, Shiny Wilson, who was here as the selection panel member of the AAFI, strongly supports the policy of the State Government. "What is wrong if an athlete is getting money when it is offered for performances on the field and not merely gifted away to someone? Please remember that I was just given an incentive of Rs.500 for winning gold in the first National Games and Rs.1500 for each gold in the next two editions,'' says Shiny Wilson, who won nine gold in three editions of the Games at her peak. "In a way, the other State Governments should take the cue and after all the interests of the sportspersons should be top on priority list,'' she remarked.

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The other day, in an unusually assertive tone, Mr.H.J. Dora, president of AP Olympic Association and former DGP, appealed to the media not to use words such as `imports' on the issue of the hosts hiring outstation athletes.

"The whole objective of the Government is to see that the deserving and performing athletes are duly rewarded. The endeavour is to set the trend for others to follow by these huge cash incentives and nothing else,'' he explained.

Mr. Dora also felt it would be better the media also understands the sentiments behind this policy.