“I’ve seen him disappear into a crowd of defenders and then surface again, still with the ball.”
— Joy Bhattacharjya on Dhanraj Pillay
Dhanraj Pillay, one of the greatest hockey players India ever had, was born on July 16, 1968. He was a magician with a hockey stick, a striker who’d disappear into a crowd of defenders and yet surface with the ball. He is a former captain of the Indian national hockey team.
After Major Dhyanchand, Dhanraj Pillay is probably the one who made everyone fall in love with hockey. Under his leadership, India won the Asian Games for the first time since 1966. Although there are no official records, it is believed he scored over 170 goals throughout his career. The young boy who joined the Indian hockey team at the age of 21, brought India immense pride and glory.
Dhanraj belonged to a humble Tamil family from Pune but his sheer hard work made him a prominent figure in the sporting history of India. During his school days, Pillay was good at both, football and hockey. But with time, his passion for hockey grew stronger.
Pillay made his career debut in 1989. He played right-out and centre-forward. He has played all the hockey tournaments namely, the summer Olympics, World Cup, Asian Games, and the Champions Trophy. In his total 339 international matches, Pillay scored a total of 170 goals. His career lasted for 15 years, before he hung up his boot in 2004 as the only player to appear in four Olympics (1992, 1996, 2000, and 2004), four Asian Games (1990, 1994, 1998, and 2002), four Champions Trophies (1995, 1996, 2002, and 2003), and four World Cups (1990, 1994, 1998, and 2002).
According to K Arumugam’s book on Pillay, on June 1, 2003, Dhanraj played his 264th international match, the only player to have maximum appearances in world hockey. It was at the Perth Hockey Stadium in Australia. A humble Pillay had bowed to the cheering fans.
In his debut year, he played the Asia Cup in Delhi where India won the silver medal. In 2003, India won the gold at Asia Cup under his captaincy. Pillay was also the highest goal scorer at the Bangkok Asian Games, and the only Indian player to figure in the World XI side during the 1994 World Cup at Sydney.
He began his Olympics journey in the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, then played the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, 2000 Sydney Olympics, and 2004 Athens Olympics. Unfortunately, Pillay had a bit of bad luck at the Olympics. The closest they came to winning the tournament was at Sydney Olympics in 2000, however, the team missed a chance to book themselves a berth in the semi-finals.
“He was able to pick passes with so much ease and those aspects really attracted me. He was the best player I have watched play.”
– SV Sunil on Dhanraj Pillay
Dhanraj Pillay was known for his amazing passing qualities, quick pace, and trickery on the ground. He controlled the ball with much ease and had a smooth finish. He was a visualizer. Pillay had once shared in an interview that he had the habit of always visualizing his game, how he would pass and receive the ball.
Throughout his career, Pillay had been extremely serious about his fitness. It had a major role to play in his long career on the fast hockey ground. It was also Dhanraj Pillay’s playing style and magic he brought to the ground, that he was slowly becoming a role model to a number of young players who were soon to follow his path. One among them was SV Sunil, India’s hockey team winger. Sunil was awestruck by Pillay’s skills on the ground.
High hopes for Tokyo Olympics
Dhanraj Pillay has always stood by team India and showered them with guidance and support. He has expressed his high hopes for the present team and believes it has all that it takes to win the Tokyo Olympics. Pillay also wrote letters to team India hockey captains, Manpreet Singh and Rani Rampal, wishing them luck and appreciation. He has also suggested the players to make their fitness a focus.
Awards & Recognition
Dhanraj Pillay was the first hockey player to receive the Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna award, the highest sporting honour in the country, in 2000. He was also honoured with the Padma Shri award in 2001 by the Government of India.
Pillay captained team India hockey at the Asian Games in 1998 and 2003 (the year India won). ‘Nation’s Pride Dhanraj Pillay’ by K Arumugam, ‘Forgive Me Amma’ by Sundeep Misra, are a few books written on the life of the contemporary hockey player. He is a player India will always be proud of.