A decade ago,descriptions of Dhanraj Pillays game invariably contained adjectives like lithe,sinewy and slippery. A sense of darting,cobra-esque danger enveloped him when he dribbled.
Pillay is 43 now. On Monday,his white Karnataka Lions jersey had the merest of bulges in the midriff as he reached out to intercept a high,square pass played parallel to his teams 25-yard line. Twenty seconds remained in the second quarter of their World Series Hockey match against Pune Strykers,which they eventually lost 3-1. This was a homecoming for Pillay,who grew up in Khadki,a mere 6 km down the old Bombay-Pune highway from the Major Dhyanchand stadium.
Are you here for Dhanraj Pillay? the emcee had droned,five minutes before the start of the match. A small section had responded with a half-cheer. Now,a frisson of laughter greeted the sight of Pillays stick clawing at thin air as the ball whooshed past. He had played 14 minutes of the first quarter,and come on with eight minutes remaining in the second. He had played most of the game at walking pace,sniffing for a pass to come his way. Almost deferentially,they kept coming.
In the sixth minute of the first quarter,he picked up the ball near the right touchline and slapped a diagonal pass to Jarnail Singh,sprinting hard down the left flank. For three seconds,Jarnail dodged the Pune defenders around him,looking for someone to run into the D. Pillay,his nearest team mate,stood still after making the pass.
Two minutes later,Arjun Halappa set Jarnail free down the right. Beating the first defender for pace,he sent in a low,hard centre. Pillay,cheeks puffed out as he sprinted,saw the ball screech across the astroturf two feet in front of him.
In between,Pune had taken the lead,Roshan Minz smashing home after Damandeep Singh and Karnataka goalkeeper Devesh Chauhan collided.
With three minutes to go in the first quarter,Jarnail sent Dhanraj clear once more,coming inside from the left and slipping the ball past a converging mass of Pune defenders. The ball wasnt going to elude Pillays stick this time. Instead,it squirted off its edge in the direction of the corner flag.
Pune had started the match looking edgy. Karnataka were passing slickly,with Halappa and Jarnail looking particularly busy,and played with an air of menace till they reached the edge of D. They needed a darting cobra to finish their moves. They had a 43-year-old Dhanraj Pillay.
Karnataka found their equaliser in the 23rd minute,Len Aiyappa slotting in a penalty stroke. Pune went ahead in the 46th minute through South African Lungile Tsolekile. The home team conceded in the very next minute,with both fullbacks drawn towards Ravi Pal,who bisected them to find Naveen Kumar in the D. But Pune had the last laugh when,in the 54th minute,Damandeep capitalised on the chaos inside the circle to scramble past a prone Chauhan.
Bhopal beat Chennai 3-1
Bhopal Badshahs registered their fourth win of the tournament,defeating Chennai Cheetahs 3-1 in the days other match. Skipper Sameer Dad (20th minute) gave Bhopal the lead before Vikram Pillay drew parity. Lalit Upadhyay then surged the scoreline in the 48th minute while Casey Henwood rounded off the tally in the 52nd minute.