– By Dhanraj Pillay
The year was 1987. I was new to Bombay, as it was called back then, and one of the first places I visited was the hockey stadium next to Churchgate station. I can’t recall the teams that were playing, but I do remember one thing: until that moment, I had never seen anyone run so fast on a hockey ground. That was the first time I saw Maharaj Krishan Kaushik in flesh, he was playing for Tata I think, and he was everything my brother Ramesh described to me.
Over the decades, Kaushik sir meant different things to me. Growing up in Khadki, I wanted to be an Olympian like him. After moving to Bombay and watching him play, I tried to model my game around Kaushik sir’s, trying to run as fast and cross as precisely as him. When I became a player, he was one of the people who helped me realise my potential. After both of us got old, we became friends.
His demise on Saturday evening due to Covid-19-related complications has left me devastated. Hours earlier on Saturday, we lost another great player and Kaushik sir’s teammate from the gold medal-winning 1980 Olympics side, Ravinder Pal Singh, also because of Covid-19. Ravinder sir never spoke a lot but he took over the role of centre-half from Ajit Pal Singh and excelled in that position.
And while the hockey fraternity was still coming to terms with Ravinder sir’s death, the news of Kaushik sir’s passing away left us all shaken.
Where do I even begin to talk about Kaushik sir’s greatness as a player?
The Olympic title in 1980 is, of course, a reminder of the golden generation – India’s last – to which he belonged. How is this for an attacking quintet: Kaushik sir as the right out, Merwyn bhai (Fernandes) as the right in, Surinder Sodhi was the centre-forward, the great Mohammad Shahid, as the left in and Zafar bhai (Iqbal) as the left out.
In this star-studded line-up, Kaushik saab stood out with his skills. His pace on the wings, the way he carried the ball along the touchline and his pinpoint crosses were the stuff of legends. These days, the number of crosses in a hockey match is a fraction of what it used to be during that period. In that era, crosses were a very potent weapon to score goals.
We see it a lot in football today: a winger crosses a ball into the box, the centre-forward leaps and heads the ball past the goalkeeper. Similarly, back then in hockey, if a ball was crossed in from the left or right, the centre-forward had to convert it into a goal. Maarna he maarna hai (You have to score a goal).
Kaushik sir was the king of crosses. Even on uneven grass surfaces, he played crisp balls that would land right at the stick of the forward, ekdum ground ko chipak ke (right along the ground). It was remarkable, especially because they played with white leather balls, similar to the ones we see in T20 matches now.
Much later, when I moved to Bombay, Joaquim (Carvalho) sir, MM Somaya sir, Merwyn bhai, Marcellus Gomes, my brother Ramesh… all of them used to tell me to watch and learn how Kaushik carried the ball along the line, and played the cross. I was not a very skillful player back then, so I did exactly what I was told to do. As a right out, I tried to copy his ways although I don’t know how successful I was in doing that. Years later, I completed the full circle.
Before the 1998 Asian Games, Kaushik sir, who was our coach, used to tell me to show some of the players the way I ran with the ball and passed and crossed it. I was passing on the very skills that I had learnt watching him, while he was our coach.
One of the biggest moments of my career, the gold medal at the 1998 Asian Games, came under Kaushik sir. Heading into the tournament, I knew this would be my last Asiad and I was also confident of our chances.
We had a great team: Ashish Ballal, AB Subbaiah and Aloysius Edwards were the goalkeepers. Dilip Tirkey, Lazarus Barla, Anil Aldrin, Baljit Singh, Mukesh Kumar… sab khiladi log. I was the captain, Kaushik sir was the chief coach and Mir Ranjan Negi was the assistant.
Before the Games, Merwyn sir had come to Bangalore to coach us for a few days and MP Ganesh was the deputy director of Sports Authority of India’s Bangalore centre. Every night, we met at Ganesh’s house to draft a plan for the next day. Soft-spoken and a disciplinarian, Kaushik sir gave us players a lot of freedom to operate.
Every player was given a role in the team, which was his way of showing his faith in us. He pushed and motivated us in the right manner, which helped each one of us play to our true potential and win the gold medal eventually.
My bond with him, too, grew stronger over the years. Whenever I was in Delhi, I made it a point to meet him. We’ll all miss him a lot.
The writer is a former Indian hockey team captain. He appeared for India in four Olympic Games, World Cups and Champion Trophies each. He spoke to Mihir Vasavda