Khel Ratna Dhanraj Pillay was just an adolescent when India last won an Olympic gold in hockey. A dark and wiry lad, who impressed everyone with his skills and speed, he dreamt of emulating his idol, Mohammed Shahid someday.
Playing on the soft, dusty surface of the Ordnance Factory ground at Khadki, Pune which was tended by his father Nagalingam, for Pillay an Olympic gold medal was an obsession. His brothers and he would pick broken hockey sticks and mend them and play with old, scruffy hockey balls. They would practice till the sun went down and their doting mother had to call them home for supper.
Mohammed Shahid’s masterly display at Moscow in 1980, and his combination with Zafar Iqbal, had helped India win Olympic gold after a lapse of 16 long years. Thirty six years after that triumph, Indian hockey is still looking for that elusive magic wand which had won them seven gold medals in eight editions of the Games from 1928 to 1964.
It was indeed a ‘magic wand’, that of the wizard, Dhyan Chand which had won the hearts of millions of sports lovers the world over in the pre-World War II years. Son of an army man, he had joined the armed services when he was 16 and had been infatuated by the game. He would practice his skills, alone, late into the night — in moonlight. His teammates therefore had christened him ‘Chand’.
From 1928, at Amsterdam, where India made their Olympic hockey debut to the 1936 Games in Berlin, it was Dhyan Chand versus the world. He scored 14 goals as India trampled slipshod over Austria, Denmark and Switzerland and then took Netherlands to the laundry to win their first Olympic title.
The Indian team had been seen off at the Bombay Docks by three persons. When the team returned from Amsterdam, there were thousands of people at the Docks to receive them and to get a glimpse of their Olympic heroes.
The great depression of the 1930s, which was gnawing into the mental and physical reserves of most nations, affected participation at the Los Angeles Games. India, displaying mesmeric skills thumped Japan 11-1 and then blitzed the Americans with two dozen goals. The lone American goal came when India’s goalkeeper, Allen was signing autographs!
The Berlin Games were allegedly played under the shadow of the swastika. India again ran through the league stage like a hot knife through butter. They trounced France 10-0 in the semifinals and qualified to meet Germany in the finals on August 15, 1936.
The Germans had worked hard together for two years. Big-built, they played physical hockey and kept the score down to 0-1 at the crossover. The Indians then unleashed their magical skills and scored seven more goals. The home team reduced the margin through a rebound. And after losing a tooth, Dhyan Chand asked his players to play ‘pass-ball’ and teach the Germans a lesson in clean hockey.
Stories of Dhyan Chand’s wizardry abound — perhaps apocryphal — where Hitler is said to have offered him the post of a colonel in the German army which he refused, politely; where his stick was broken down to see if there were magnets in it, and where in an exhibition game, he was asked to play with an umbrella and he still managed to score a goal.
It was indeed praise worthy effort on part of the IHF to field a team at the London Games of 1948, in the aftermath of World War II and the partition. Dhyan Chand had retired, but there was a wealth of talent in the Indian team.
The preliminaries were a walk in the park. For some reason, Balbir Singh Sr., who had scored 6 goals in one match, was rested, and India struggled to beat Spain and Holland in the quarterfinal and semifinal respectively. Back in the playing eleven against Great Britain, in the finals, Balbir scored a brace in India’s 4-0 triumph.
The hockey crown was retained at Helsinki in 1952, under KD Singh ‘Babu’ almost effortlessly. The tournament was played in the knockout format for the first time. India, after a bye in the first round, trounced Austria, beat Great Britain and then trounced the Netherlands to pocket their fifth consecutive gold.
The Indian team of 1956 was said to be the best ever to have left India’s shores. Expectedly, they hammered Afghanistan, USA and Singapore. After Balbir Sr was forced to sit out with a finger injury, Udham Singh came in and scored 9 goals, including one against Germany in the semifinals. In the final, against a belligerent Pakistan, Gentle scored off a second half short corner to make it six golds in six Olympiads.
A Naseer Bunda goal for Pakistan, in the 11th minute of the finals at Rome, ended India’s unbeaten run in Olympic hockey. Sailing through the preliminaries, the Indians, under Claudius, had found it tough to beat Australia and Great Britain in the quarterfinal and semifinal respectively. Though the Indians played at a furious pace against Pakistan, the latter managed to keep them from scoring and thus had to settle for silver.
Pakistan were a force to reckon with in the 60s, and India did well to wrest the Olympic crown from them in 1964, at Tokyo. Qualifying through the league and beating Australia in the semifinals, India were put on the defensive early on. Managing to mount a few attacks in the second half, they earned a penalty stroke, which was converted by Mohinder Lal. India won 1-0, even as the Indians in the crowd did an impromptu bhangra.
The journey downhill
It was downhill from there on. Joint captains, Prithipal Singh and Gurbux Singh brought home a bronze in 1968, while Harmik Singh followed suit in 1972. One of the best centre-halves ever, Ajitpal Singh could only manage a 7th place in 1976 at Montreal, even though he had led India to a World Cup win in 1975.
The introduction of ‘astroturf’ in the mid-70s compounded India’s problems. Groomed on natural surfaces, the Indians were no match for their stronger and fitter opponents from Australia and the continent on artificial grass.
The 1980 triumph, though creditable, should be seen in the light of an event that saw many boycotts. Pakistan, Netherlands, Australia, New Zealand and Germany were a few of the top teams missing from that Olympic lineup.
India finished a dismal 5th in 1984 and had slid to 7th by the 2004 Games in Athens. What followed was disaster. They failed to qualify for the Beijing Games in 2008 and then made up the rear at London in 2012.
Dhanraj Pillay played in four Olympic Games from 1992 to 2004, when India finished in the 7th position on three occasions and in the 8th position in 1996. Adorning his mantelpiece is the Khel Ratna Award, the Arjuna Award, the Padma Shri and many other coveted cups and trophies. But the one that is missing, an Olympic gold medal, is one he will live to regret forever.
And to add to his troubles, his idol, Mohammed Shahid passed away recently.
Austin Coutinho is a caricaturist, cricket and mental toughness coach, and the co-author of 'Devil's Pack' along with Balvinder Sandhu