In 1927, a team comprising army men set sail for New Zealand. Back then, team sports weren’t really considered to be the India’s forte and funding an entire team wasn’t really affordable. With no federation in place to govern the sport, the army took the onus upon themselves.
Thus, it marked the beginning of the first overseas tour for the Indian hockey team. They travelled to New Zealand to play a three-match series. It was a landmark tour for the Indians as they had never ventured outside the subcontinent before. The team, led by T Collen, put up a memorable show. The series ended in a draw (India won one, lost one and drew one) but it served as an impetus for the future.
That performance came as a pleasant surprise for many involved in running the sport and they formed the Indian Hockey Federation (IHF) later that year. The IHF also became the first body from Asia and Africa to be recognised by the International Hockey Federation (FIH). With an active federation in place and the faith in players’ abilities established, India a fielded hockey team for the first time in the Olympic Games at the 1928 Olympics in Amsterdam. The rest, as they say, is history. Brilliantly led by Jaipal Singh and some stellar performances by the legendary Dhyan Chand and goalkeeper Richard Allen ensured India won the gold medal in its first outing at the Olympics.
The win marked the beginning of an era of dominance that remains unparalleled in the sport till date. In the following two Olympics, it was a given that India would win the gold and they duly obliged.
Their next big challenge came in 1948. The world was still reeling under the aftermath of the Second World War. India got its independence from the British, but suffered a devastating partition where many Anglo-Indians left the country and a number of Muslims migrated to Pakistan. That came as a big blow to the hockey team and a brand new bunch of players went for the London Games. None of the players on that team had represented India in the Olympics earlier while many, who had represented India in the previous Games, played for Pakistan. For instance, AIS Dara — the captain of the Pakistan hockey team in the 1948 Olympics had represented India in the 1936 Games.
As the team prepared for the Olympics, which were being held after 12 years, an obvious question was posed: is the depleted Indian side still the best in the world? But the team dispelled any such fears and, in a symbolic manner, defeated Britain in front of the royal family to clinch independent India’s first gold. “It was a dawn of a new era in Indian hockey. The earlier teams had players from the entire subcontinent. Here, it was just us — young and fairly inexperienced players. Yet, we managed to win the gold,” recalls Keshav Dutt, a member of that legendary team.
For the next 12 years, India somehow managed to hang on to their gold medal — winning an unprecedented six consecutive times by the time 1956 Games ended. At the same time, their new neighbours Pakistan were making rapid progress. The winning streak was finally halted at the 1960 Rome Olympics when Pakistan beat India by a solitary goal in the final to mark a beginning of their era of domination.
With Pakistan turning into a new force and the rest of the world too catching up, India were no longer the same force. Yes, they returned with vengeance at the Tokyo Olympics to claim the gold but that was just the last great flickering before the flame extinguished. The final nail in the coffin came at the 1976 Montreal Games. It further asserted that the power of the sub-continental giants was on the wane. India achieved its lowest-ever ranking at the Olympics at Montreal, where New Zealand emerged as the gold medal winners.
The Montreal Olympics, in fact, changed world hockey forever. It was the first time that an artificial turf was used, something which never comforted the Indians. The circumstance in which the synthetic surface was introduced was controversial in itself. The organisers of the Montreal Games insisted hockey should be played on artificial turf as they expected rain to create havoc during the Olympics. “Hence, they were of the opinion by playing on natural grass the hockey tournament would not finish on schedule. If artificial turf wasn’t adopted, then they would drop hockey altogether. The FIH was left with no other choice,” says hockey historian K Arumugam. The FIH bowed to the organising committee’s diktat and allowed the use of synthetic surface.
India protested in vain. In fact, they even boycotted a pre-Olympic tournament but they didn’t receive support. Pakistan, a heavyweight during that time, too didn’t second India at the time.
Of course, there were commercial reasons too behind the introduction of the turf. “The company, Astro-turf, which was keen to introduce artificial turf in hockey, was American. They found it easy to convince the Canadian organising committee, who applied pressure on the FIH,” Arumugam observes.
Playing on artificial turf demanded more speed, strength and stamina. India never managed to match the fitness levels of the Europeans, who with their slick style of play dominated the game.
For decades, India have blamed the introduction of synthetic playing surface as the reason for their downfall. But it’s only one side of the story. India’s slump had begun much before the 1976 Games. Even after those Olympics, the two World Cups were played on grass. One of those held in Mumbai (1982 World Cup) at the Wankhede Stadium. Yet, India did not even qualify for the semifinals. Also, the number of tournaments that a team played had increased since the 1970s. The first half of that decade saw the first World Cup while the latter half saw Champions Trophy make its debut. Till then, it was only the Olympics and Asian Games that were of major interest to the nations. More tournaments meant the number of matches that were played during the year increased, which in turn demanded tremendous fitness.
There was also reluctance of accept change. India got its first artificial turf in 1982 for the Asian Games, six years after it was introduced. Pakistan, on the other hand, had installed one by 1978 and also hosted the Champions Trophy on it. “It just happened to be that the downfall of Indian hockey coincided with the introduction of artificial turf. There was a serious decline which no one observed,” says Arumugam.
When the cricket team, led by Kapil Dev, won the World Cup in 1983, the shift away from India’s national game was complete.
The inept federation complicated things further; there was no attempt made to arrest the downfall. While the world had adopted 21st century training methods, India continued to adopt its medieval ways. The humiliation was complete when the eight-time champions failed to qualify for the Beijing Olympics.
Today, just like the 1948 Games, London provides the team a chance to begin afresh. It’s up to the team to make the most of it.