In terms of intensity and fan engagement, India-Pakistan matches in the history of field hockey have almost always lived up to the billing. The rivalry has produced quite a few thrillers over the years.
From an Indian fan’s point of view, the way Dhanraj Pillay’s team turned the tables on their arch-rivals in the Champions Trophy encounter at Amstelveen in 2003 still remains a cherished memory for many.
Pillay was nearing the twilight of his hockey career but even at 35 had the hunger to push his team and himself when their backs were to the wall. And, in his own words , there was a score to settle.
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“In the 2002 Champions Trophy finals in Cologne, we beat Pakistan in the pool game but lost 3-4 in the play-offs match,” Pillay told Times of India.
“After we lost, a lot of the Pakistan players came right in front of me and started waving their flag. It pinched me a lot.”
A year later in the group stage match, India were once against staring at defeat as they trailed 2-4 against Pakistan at the Wagener Stadium. The men in blue needed a heroic comeback just to get anything out of the contest.
Rehan Butt, Nadeem Ahmed, Mudassar Ali and the legendary Sohail Abbas had found the back of the net as the Indian midfield struggled to control the marauding Pakistan forwards.
Even after the half-time break, Pillay and Co were unable to build any kind of momentum but India got the gateway they were looking for in the 50th minute. Jugraj Singh, the man credited often with spurring on the comeback, and Baljit Singh Dhillon showed great composure to set up Deepak Thakur’s goal. The equaliser came just four minutes later with Thakur turning provider this time with an unmarked Prabhjot Singh gleefully finding the back of the net.
The Indians now had a spring in their step and were easily finding holes in the Pakistan backline, who struggled to contain the wave of attacks. Gagan Ajit Singh then showed his class with two top-class goals. First, he put his side in the lead with a ferocious reverse hit. Barely a minute later, Pillay sliced open the defence with a delightful through ball. The adventurous Gagan went on a magical solo run and scored India’s sixth.
Pillay played a part in India’s seventh goal as well with Thakur scoring his second. Five goals in just 15 minutes, and it came against an in-form side which was unbeaten in the first four games of the tournament. From trailing 2-4 to winning 7-4. It was the stuff of legends.
On a personal note, Pillay had successfully managed to exorcise the ghosts from 2002
“I didn’t score a goal, but thoroughly enjoyed playing in that match. Even today, when I see my passes on YouTube, it’s such a joy,” Pillay told Times of India, remembering the 11-goal thriller.
“It was raining goals and we were clueless having conceded four. The credit of that win goes to Jugraj Singh, Gagan Ajit Singh, Deepak Thakur and Prabhjot Singh. Baljit Dhillon, Baljeet Saini, Viren Rasquinha and I were just feeding balls to them.”
Despite not scoring a goal, Pillay managed to rally his troops when few would have given India a chance. Perhaps, it was fitting tribute to Pillay’s glorious summer of 2003 that he was also named the best player of the Champions Trophy despite India losing the third place play-off to Pakistan.
“In my 13 years with the Indian team, I cannot recall a match in which we have scored seven goals and won,” Pillay had said back then. “Yes, I would rate this as one of my best victories.”
“In fact, I began my international career here at the Wagener Stadium in 1990, and in my first match, we beat Pakistan 4-0. Now, 13 years later, it is certainly a great feeling.”
Indeed, in a career glittered with great memories, this was right among the top for the legendary Indian hockey player.
Watch the full video of the 11-goal thriller between India and Pakistan below:
India 7 (Jugraj Singh - 2 goals, Deepak Thakur - 2 goals, Gagan Ajit Singh - 2 goals, Prabhjot Singh) beat Pakistan 4 (Rehan Butt, Nadeem Ahmad, Mudassar Ali, Sohail Abbas).