Shankar Lakshman: The Wall of Indian Hockey

Shankar Lakshman, India's pioneering goalkeeper-captain, redefined hockey with his daredevil goalkeeping, leading India to Olympic gold in 1956 and 1964. His legacy, a symbol of resilience and love for the sport, endures beyond the field.

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When Marc Andre Stegen said, “As a goalkeeper, if you make 10 world-class saves but then miss one shot, or you let in a pass, you’re there in the highlights afterwards”, every goalkeeper associated with their respective sports felt that. And captaining your side along with goalkeeping makes the task more complicated. But India with athletes of invigorator spirits never hesitated to take such tasks and as a result were able to bring glory to the nation. 

Indian hockey in its peak has witnessed some exceptional players to play for it. Among the many known forwards like Dhyan Chand, Dhanraj Pillay and defenders like Sandeep Singh there was an Indian goalkeeper who redefined goalkeeping as well as captaincy. He was none other than Shankar Lakshman. He was the first goalkeeper to become captain of an international hockey team.

Life from Army to Hockey

India’s vigorous goalkeeper was born 7 July 1933, in Mhow, Indore District of the Malwa region of Madhya Pradesh. He was from the Shekhawat community of Rajasthan. In his initial days of career, he took up football as a sport. But life had other plans for him. Just after completing his higher secondary school, he joined Indian Army. It was just after joining the army, Shankar made a switch to hockey, something which redefined his whole sporting career. 

Shankar started his hockey career in 1955 as a goalkeeper by playing for the services. With his brilliant athleticism and eye-catching reflexes, he earned the plaudits for his daredevil goalkeeping. How tough goalkeeping was at that time can be understood as at that goalkeepers had only pads as protective gears against the ruthless ball.

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With such goalkeeping skills, Shankar earned praises everywhere he played. In no time he was called for the national team. It was his impressive domestic run which earned him a seat in the team to represent the national at international yards. And with his inclusion, Lakshman’s road to glory in the Olympics began.

Shankar’s Triumph to Glory

In the 1956 Olympics held at Melbourne, Shankar kept the goal for Indian hockey team. As a result of strong defending India under Balbir Singh edged out Pakistan 1-0 to clinch the gold. Right after winning gold at Melbourne Olympics, Shankar Lakshman was a member of the squad when hockey was first introduced in the 1958 Asian Games in Tokyo. 

In 1960 Italy Olympics, Indian team was marching towards their 7th gold medal under Anglo-Indian wizard Leslie Walter Claudius. India was again strong in defence as legendary goalkeeper Shankar Lakshman was a formidable figure. But this time in the final set up again against their arch rivals Pakistan, India team lost 1-0 to them. They were thus dethroned as the Kings of Hockey, and saw backlash of the fans back home.

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It was the 1964 Tokyo Olympics where India settled their scores with arch rivals Pakistan. Kudos to Shankar and his brilliant goalkeeping which helped India to win the gold medal over Pakistan in the final by a score of 1-0. Shankar was adjudged man of the match in the final for his inspiring performance. His opponents named him “The Rock of Gibraltar” for it was extremely difficult to get the ball past him. Even The silver medal winning Pakistan team’s manager stated that Shankar Lakshman was the sole obstacle between Pakistan team and the gold medal.

Dusted away in history

Shankar’s life after the glory of 1964 Olympics was never the same. Though he captained the team to the gold at the 1966 Asian Games in Bangkok and was conferred with the Arjuna Award in 1965 and later the Padma Shri in 1967, he was left out from the squad in 1968 Olympics. Shocked from his omission, Shankar quit playing hockey altogether. The Indian Hockey Federation was forced to roll back its decision, following a series of protests. But the hurt was so deep that he declined the offer. 

He remained with the Army, retiring in 1979 as a captain of the Maratha Light Infantry. 13 years of illustrious career could only earn him the meagre sum of Rs. 25,000. Towards the end Laxman lived in neediness, he was diagnosed with gangrene. The hockey authorities did not pay any heed to his plea for help and were left on his own. Finally, on 29th April 2006 the veteran goalkeeper left the world and was cremated with full military honours.

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Standing as a wall in front of the goalpost, Shankar was regarded as the daredevil of goalkeeping. At many times it was him who stood as a rock between other teams and won. The legacy he has created is one that should be cherished by not only Indian players but sports persons across the globe. After all, he did not play for fame or recognition but a genuine love for the sport. He was certainly good at it and India reaped the benefits.

(The views are personal)

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Sajag has completed his high school and intermediate from CBSE board. Then have completed B.Sc from Christchurch College, Kanpur. Currently pursuing his PG in Mass Communication with specialization in journalism from India Today Media Institute, NOIDA.