Wednesday 27 August 2014


I write this as a memoir to Major Dhyan Chand who remains the best hockey player the sport has ever produced. He was instrumental in India's first three gold medals at field hockey and to capture the hearts of many a fans globally. Be it in New Zealand, or continental Europe, in Americas or in Asia - he played the sport with such talent, it was not surprising India naming hockey as its national sport post independence.

To begin with, hockey was not a straight forward choice he had to make growing up. In fact, if one thing was certain, it was joining Army and that he did. His father was with the army and so too his elder brother. Growing up, hockey to him was merely a sport which he played outdoors with his friends occasionally as he put it in his autobiography - 'for the fun of it'.

By the time he was seventeen years of age, he had enrolled himself as a Sepoy with the First Brahmin regiment in Delhi. That was in 1922 and six years separated him and India's first Olympic gold medal. It was a long shot as Summer Olympics had resumed just two years prior (1920 Antwerp Games) after the World War I and Winter Olympics had not even started. Without any formal education he started his career with the Army as a Sepoy and 34 years later he would retire from the services as a 'Major'. And if not for field hockey, he would have been just another 'jawan' whose story would not have seen the light.

It was by accident Dhyan Chand encountered Bale Tiwari  - who then was a Subdedar-Major in the army and a keen hockey enthusiast. Luck has it, hockey remained the only outdoor sport which was played by the first Brahmin regiment. Bale Tiwari initiated Dhyan Chand into playing this sport and thereby became his first mentor so to speak. There were no restrictions on the play times; they played whenever they found time. An aloof individual who seldom socialised outside the hockey field, Dhyan Chand expressed himself the best with his hockey stick and his play - a trait which remained with him throughout his life. His seniors took good notice of his play and his big break came when he was selected to play for his regiment at the annual military tournament in Delhi.

Dhyan Chand's regiment won and since then his position as a centre-forward never came under threat. Bale Tiwari taught him two important lessons - 'Never to dribble for a long time and keep passing the ball as one has no right to keep the ball to himself' and 'Marksmanship at the goal'. These two advices served him in good stead as he performed remarkably well in the years leading up to 1926 when his first international call came about.

Dhyan Chand had restricted himself in playing hockey in army tournaments and his first trip abroad was to New Zealand representing the Indian Army. The tournament was more seen as an extension of military expedition than a friendly tour. He was an 'Other Rank' by then and had many of his mates from the same cadre who accompanied him on the tour.

They played near to flawless games in the three months they spent in New Zealand travelling to many places and leaving a everlasting impression of the way Indian hockey was played. Dhyan Chand emerged out as a champion and was feted in many a places and parties during the tour. In total, the team played 21 matches winning 18 of them, losing just one with the other two games ending in a draw. A total of 192 goals were scored and a mere 24 goals were conceded!

At the end of the tour, Dhyan Chand was promoted to the rank of Lance-Naik. Around this time in 1926, an association of hockey was formed in India. The IHF (Indian Hockey Federation) took no time to persuade IOC to reinstate the sport of hockey at the Olympics. Hockey was scrapped for the 1924 Olympics edition and there was uncertainty hovering many enthusiasts if hockey would ever be included at the Olympics. But there were other questions which had to be answered. If India were to send a team to the Olympics, will the civilian team include men from the army? Dhyanchand until then had never played for any civilian team and this he feared - should not play against him when the Olympic team was to be considered. Those initial fears were brushed aside as the president of the IHF happened to be Major Burn-Murdoch.

India's request to participate at the Olympics was accepted by the IOC and thus began a grand process of selecting the team bound for Amsterdam. The IHF had these worries - whom to select from the very few provincial teams that were available? and what would be the manner of selection. In the end, IHF decided to hold selection trials in Kolkata - as the crowd always turned in good numbers be it for any sport. And other reason being, the Bengal Hockey Association remains the oldest hockey association in India established in 1908 and many of the provincial hockey associations only came into existence after 1926.

Five teams namely - Punjab, United Provinces (UP), Bengal, Rajputana and Central Provinces took part in this tournament which also served as a selection trial for the selectors. Kolkata hosted the tournament. Dhyan Chand on the basis of his birth was asked to play for UP and he was as nervous as any player could be for many reasons, with one being; he was playing for a civilian club with many unknown faces.

Going into the first match he was visibly nervous as many selectors eyes were on him and wondered whether an army man would fit into a civilian team? Dhyan Chand played the game the way he knew - displaying the skills of irresistible variety which included dribbling, moving past the opponents with ease, giving prudent passes to his teammates and scoring goals whenever opportunities came along. Then came the finals which the UP team won with ease. The Statesman of Kolkata wrote - "The United Provinces were the most impressive side of the five teams which have taken part in the tournament, and they fully deserved their success. UP won the final virtually in the first seven minutes when they scored two goals."
Thus on 16th February 1928, history was created by the United Provinces team as they became the winners of the first national hockey tournament. Few players from the winning team would also be part of the historic team which won the Olympic gold: Dhyan Chand (forward), George Marthins (forward), Frederic Seaman (forward), William Goodsir-Cullen (half-back) and Leslie Hammond (back).

The difference between players who took part in the inter-provincial tournament were small and often negligible. Yet, there were decisions that had to be made to select a team of players who would represent India at the Olympics. A further two matches were held. IHF XI vs. Central Provinces (as they had been knocked out in the first match) on the same day as the finals. The second game was played on the next day between Probables and Possibles.

Very next day, a provisional Olympic team was supposed to be announced, only to be delayed by another match between Probables and Rest of India. The two selectors Major Burn-Murdoch and Colonel G.P.W. Hill had a tough few days and it was decided that only thirteen players would be chosen from the list of players available.

A few hockey players were already in England studying and representing the university in hockey. Jaipal Singh, a full-back player for Oxford University was a natural choice to captain the side and were to join the squad in England. A. B. Rosser, a founding member of IHF and the secretary of Bengal Hockey was a natural choice for the post of the manager. 
                                           The Indian hockey team selected for the 1928 Olympics                      Image Courtesy: The Hindu
Owing to funds shortage, only eleven players were guaranteed to take the boat. Bombay, Madras and Burma all turned a deaf ear when an appeal was made to raise the funds. The entourage needed 15,000 INR and two players namely Shaukat Ali of Bengal and R.A Norris of CP were sidelined as a result of it. Bengal Hockey Association stepped in again and ensured funds were raised and the team of thirteen players were set to make their journey.

Also before embarking on this historic journey, the top governors from IHF had a meeting with the players taking their points of view on continuing the national championship event. Players were encouraged to give their views and this resulted in having a national championship tournament every two years at a different venue. The second edition was decided to be held in Lahore. When compared to today's situation, administrators seldom interact with current hockey players which explains the pathetic state the sport is in at the moment when compared with the golden years of Indian hockey.

The team selected for the Olympics assembled in Mumbai on March 8th 1928. They played a match against Bombay XI - which they lost. Not a good omen for their long journey ahead, however no issues were created. On board the P&O Kaiser-i-Hind, the players were given a quiet send-off. 

Just three persons bid them god-speed at the Ballard Pier which included the IHF President and Vice-President and a journalist S. Bhattacharjee. 

Major Burn-Murdoch, a pioneer who will be remembered for his work to promote hockey in India was responsible for Indian hockey's first overseas tour in 1926, formation of IHF and for sending the team to Amsterdam for the Olympics. Charles. E. Newham, the Vice-President was a journalist by profession and was the President of Punjab Hockey Association. He was also the editor of Military Gazette, Lahore and later edited 'The Pioneer' in Allahabad.

The journey which started from Mumbai had to pass many places en route to London. The voyage passing through Aden, Port Said through the Red Sea and through the Suez Canal. The weather changes from the tropical zone to the temperate zone was foreign to most players. Then came the Bay of Biscay, rounding the Cape of Gibraltar - known for this rough seas affected these players with sea sickness. Dhyan Chand kept a serious watch on his colleagues throughout the journey. On March 30th, 1928 the ship dropped anchor at Tilbury Docks, London.

It was beginning of the spring season in London, so it was still wet and cold - a different kind of weather something which Indian players were unaccustomed to. Barring few representatives from Britain's hockey fraternity there were hardly many members from the press. After all, this was the hockey team from India, how relevant were they?

Indian team played 11 matches in England. The first match was played on a soggy ground as a result of heavy rains and Indian players had no footwear to cope with the English conditions. They lost their first game against Combined Services team 1-2. The next ten matches featured teams which at the best were second best. The British hockey authorities repeatedly refused to field in their international team and by the way Indians started scoring and winning - the refusal to field an international team became firmer. 

At the Folkestone Festival, Indian team played Hockey Association XI (included 9 international players) which they won 4-0 comfortably. In fact, after the Folkestone defeat, many rumours persisted that England was scared of losing to India and hence withdrew from the Olympic event.

And the legend goes, as long as India remained a colony of Britain, they never participated in the Olympic hockey event or played any international hockey match.

Dhyan Chand never had an opportunity to play against the colonial masters, who were responsible to create the culture of hockey in India!

So after losing the first match, the rest of the ten matches yielded in nine victories and one draw. The Indian team and in particular Dhyan Chand was at the receiving end of some praise and kind words from the English press and some even went on to call him the 'Hockey Wizard' and 'human eel'.

Jaipal Singh, S M Yusuf and Nawab of Pataudi. Sr played few games with the Indian team with the former two joining the squad for the Olympics.
Bye bye London and hello Amsterdam. The hockey team landed the shores of Holland on 24th April 1928. The first match was scheduled for 17th May and in between they managed to play four practice games in Netherlands, two in Germany and one in Belgium. The party travelled from Amsterdam to Arnheim and then to Hague winning each of the matches by a margin in excess of seven goals.

Then they travelled to Hannover in Germany and won the game 10-0 and defeated Berlin XI in Berlin 5-1. And while on their way back to Amsterdam, they stopped at Brussels, played a game against a Brussels team and won by a score of 10-2. These games not only provided the team much required match practice - but also provided enough time for all the players to get used to the continental conditions.

The grass on the turf was also not properly trimmed which provided with few set of challenges as the ball slowed to the flick and push play of the Indians as compared to the hit and run technique of their opponents.

Finally, the day had arrived when the entire Indian team could go and realise their dreams of winning the Olympic gold. The first step was to win the round games and then the semi-finals and in the end, the finals.

Who would have give these Indians as favourites except for the teams who watched them play? The first game was against Austria. India winning 6-0 with Dhyan Chand scoring 4 goals. Next up was Belgium, the very next day and quite comfortably Indian won that game 9-0. In the next match against Denmark, the goals continued to flourish from the sticks of the Indian forwards as they won 5-0 and a place in the semi-finals. Switzerland was swept away 6-0 by India and thereby stormed their way into the finals.

The crowd gathered in huge numbers as the hosts were the other finalist. Indians had few players missing, the likes of Feroze Khan, Shaukat Ali and Kher Singh who were sick and Jaipal Singh was removed as the captain for the finals owing to political and with hints of racism. Eric Pinniger, the vice-captain filled the mantle to lead the side.  Yes, the team manager was bullied by ex- Indian Army men in England from the beginning of the tour and they might have had a big role in this sudden ouster of Jaipal Singh.

Dhyan Chand was running with high temperature which persisted throughout the game. But he was an army man, brought up in tougher conditions. He was a soldier and he was playing for his country and the manager had just one simple message - Do or Die.

Indian team victorious by three goals to nil against the hosts thereby winning their first Olympic gold medal. Richard Allen, the goal keeper did not concede a single goal in the entire five matches which saw the Indian team rake up 29 goals out of which Dhyan Chand contributed 14 goals including the hatrick in the finals.

Two days later on 28th May, the team was felicitated with the Olympic gold medals. It was a pity the hockey games were held in May - a good two months prior to the Olympic opening ceremony and other events. Notably, the Olympic atmosphere was missing and India's win provided just the right start for the 1928 edition.

If there were three who waved goodbyes in March, there were sea of heads welcoming their heroes on their return. A triumphant homecoming for the deserving champions given by the Mumbai hockey fraternity which dispelled all the apprehensions team had.

Mayor of Mumbai Dr. G.V Deshmukh and along with representatives of Indian political circles were among the cream guests which received the team. This grand reception was ended by a hockey match against Western Hockey Association XI (which had won just before the departure). This time the scenario was different, the Olympic team was oozing with confidence. They were not just the Indian Olympic team, they were the current Olympic champions. The Indian team won 6-1 and aptly avenged their defeat of March 4th match which was held before they left for Amsterdam.


The win was possible with the help of many people at many junctures in the past few years leading to and during the tournament. One name was highlighted repeatedly for being the glue for binding the rest of the team in winning those games quite comfortably. 

Dhyan Chand would continue his remarkable journey with Indian hockey as he was instrumental once again for India's gold at the next edition in Los Angeles - which is covered in my next article.  

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