Feature

Fast and furious, why Dhanraj Pillay was SV Sunil's ultimate sporting hero

One of India's all-time best hockey stars, Dhanraj Pillay's pace, trickery and passing qualities blew away a young and upcoming SV Sunil.

By Rahul Venkat ·

For Indian hockey fans of the generation gone by, Dhanraj Pillay was the epitome of stardom.

With a hockey stick in hand, Pillay was a mesmerising figure and a wizard on the field. He stood out for the incredible pace with which he made his way from one end of the pitch to the other, the ease with which he controlled the ball, his ability to find the perfect pass, and of course, his finishing.

Dhanraj Pillay was also the first hockey player to receive the Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna award, the country’s highest sporting honour, in 2000.

It is easy to see why Dhanraj Pillay was India’s favourite and Indian hockey team winger SV Sunil counts among his biggest fans.

“I first watched him play on TV during the 1998 Asian Games in Bangkok and was left awestruck by his skills,” SV Sunil told the Olympic Channel.

“I also watched him play at the Sydney 2000 Olympics. So, Dhanraj anna (elder brother) was without a doubt my role model growing up.

An authoritative aura

Sunil picked the perfect moment to watch Dhanraj Pillay play for the first time at the 1998 Asian Games.

Pillay, who was captain of the Indian hockey team in Bangkok, enjoyed one of his best campaigns, ending the event as the top-scorer and leading India to a first Asian Games gold since 1966, which also came at Bangkok, Thailand.

Dhanraj Pillay was arguably at the peak of his prowess and for a then nine-year-old SV Sunil, the thrill he experienced watching Pillay play was unparalleled.

“Just the way he carried the ball was such a joy to watch. And his explosive running style was another thing I enjoyed,” reminisced Sunil.

“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.”

The renowned attacking abilities of Dhanraj Pillay inspired SV Sunil when the youngster embarked on his own hockey career and the choice to hone his skills as a winger was a foregone conclusion.

Aggressive on-field, funny off it

After a 16-year international career, Dhanraj Pillay hung up his boots at the age of 36 in 2004, retiring as the only player to appear in four Olympics, four Asian Games, four Champions Trophy and four World Cups.

Unfortunately for SV Sunil, he was unable to share the field with his hero as he made his debut for the Indian hockey team in 2007, three years after Pillay retired.

However, a first interaction was not far away, and Sunil remembers how warmly Pillay greeted him.

“I still remember when I first met him, I could not believe my eyes. I could hardly speak but Dhanraj anna came up to me and spoke very nicely. I cannot express how happy I felt then,” said Sunil.

The two have had multiple interactions since then and while Pillay is remembered as a no-nonsense player during his prime, SV Sunil has quite a different image of him now.

“When I saw him play, he was quite aggressive but off the field, he is a funny and jovial person. He will crack a few jokes, is very friendly with everyone and just a joy to be around,” revealed Sunil.

Now a senior member of the Indian hockey team, SV Sunil is eyeing a third Olympics in Tokyo. A medal in Japan will not only be perfect way to sign off but pay tribute to his hero, who never won an Olympic medal in a glittering career.