When the topic of Indian hockey comes up, talk veers inevitably towards the golden age. The period between 1928 and 1956, when Indian hockey conquered all that came in front of it, when it won six consecutive gold medals in the Olympics and basked in the adulation of the world. But the story behind how Indian hockey as an entity first came into existence is no less fascinating and not without its share of red herrings.

It is widely believed that India’s journey in hockey can be traced back to 1885 when the Calcutta Hockey Club came into existence. But Nikhilesh Bhattacharya, a PhD fellow who has researched the origins of Indian hockey at the Olympic Studies Centre in Switzerland and The Hockey Museum in the United Kingdom, is not so sure. According to him, there is no conclusive evidence to establish the year.

Polo as hockey

The National Army Museum in the UK holds a silver tankard that was presented to Captain Joseph Ford Sherer of the 49th Bengal Native Infantry by the Calcutta Hockey Club in February 1864. The date is significant, because that would mean the existence of the sport in India before the foundation of the Teddington Hockey Club in England in 1871, which formulated the rules of modern field hockey.

But before one gets too excited, it is important to hear Bhattacharya’s clarification: what was mentioned as hockey at that time was not field hockey as we know it, but polo.

“It is important to remember that in India in the 19th century, hockey often referred to a game played on horseback. Hence, it would be naive to assume that all the so-called ‘hockey’ clubs at that time played the game as we know it now. We do have proof of a field hockey tournament called the Beighton Cup coming into existence in Calcutta in 1895, followed by the Aga Khan Cup in Bombay in 1896. The launch of tournaments would suggest the game was being played widely in the two cities, at least, but for how many years, it is difficult to say.”

The Beighton Cup is the oldest running hockey tournament in the world. Organised each year faithfully even now by the Bengal Hockey Association, it is a tournament which shaped the growth of hockey in the country, giving it context and adding to the popularity of it. Hockey legend Dhyan Chand said it was his life’s ambition to win the Beighton Cup, which he did with his team, the Jhansi Heroes, in 1933.

Humble beginnings

The year 1908 saw the foundation of the Bengal Hockey Association, an indicator that hockey was spreading widely in the province, with enough clubs to warrant the formation of a governing body. But the true indicator of hockey’s popularity in the subcontinent was the publication of a book titled Hockey in India and How to Play It with Rules of the Game and Explanatory Notes, written by an Englishman named Walter Troup. In the book, Troup mentions the names of various clubs playing hockey around northern and western India, including the Bombay Gymkhana Club, United Provinces Police Team, the Naini Tal Volunteers and the Jhansi Railway Institute Hockey Team. In fact, a look at the winners of the first few Beighton Cups also disproves the predominant notion that hockey was strictly a sport restricted to the army – teams from civilian clubs, educational institutions, the police, railways and other departments were also actively involved.

The other interesting fact about Troup’s book is that there is a small footnote on the title page which says it is also available in Hindi and Urdu. That is quite significant, according to Bhattacharya. “I have not seen extant copies of the book in those languages, but the very fact that Troup was looking at readership in the regional languages indicates that hockey in India held an interest to people beyond the English-speaking classes.”

There was also a typically English rant about the quality of refereeing in India, which in Troup’s view was abysmal.

Before entering into details of the game of Hockey, I should like to touch on one regrettable feature of the game as played in India. I refer to those reprehensible methods of play, against which Umpires as a body do not set their faces as they should. As a result of foul play and incompetent umpiring i have myself been on the injured list for months at a time. To give an instance. I was playing for the Bombay Gymkhana in 1909 in the Aga Khan Hockey Tournament, when on no less than four occasions I was badly fouled by the same player. It is true that he was warned and finally turned off the ground, but that was poor compensation for me, or to my side. I fell on the wrong side of my wrist, and the X-Rays showed that every muscle had been badly torn. I was unable to play for 8 months. I would add that the offender, though known as the foulest of foul players, is still allowed on the ground. No improvement can be hoped for, till a recognised “Indian Hockey Association” is formed, and definite Rules are framed dealing with such offenders who disgrace the game.

(Hockey in India, ii)

The story then moves to 1919 when the Indian Olympic Association was founded and, with the help of the philanthropic Dorabji Tata, the first Indian contingent was sent to the 1920 in Antwerp. Since then, India’s first foray into the Olympics has been seen as a nationalistic endeavour but Bhattacharya begs to disagree.

“There were various people involved in sending an Indian contingent to the Olympics, including various British officials like the Governor of Bombay George Lloyd, the Secretary of State for India, Edwin Montagu, and even the Secretary of the British Olympic Association, the Reverend Robert Stuart de Courcy Laffan," noted Bhattacharya. "In fact, the British government provided full support to the endeavour as they looked at it as way to channelise nationalistic sentiments.”

Glory on the world stage

It was in 1928 that an Indian hockey team first entered the Olympics, but India had conquered the world even before that. In 1926, an Indian Army team, containing Dhyan Chand, toured New Zealand and won almost every game they played on that tour. The eyes of the hockey world were fixed on them – for all talk and purpose, India had left its imprint on the hockey world.

There is one last interesting footnote to this story. India were the undisputed champions of men’s hockey, conquering all that came before them in their first three outings at the Olympics, in 1928, 1932 and 1936. The 1936 triumph has gone down in folkore where one of the finest Indian teams, led by Dhyan Chand in his prime, humbled mighty Germany 8-1 in the final.


No team from Great Britain or its constituent parts (i.e. England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales) took part in the Olympics between 1928 and 1936. It remained one of Chand’s biggest regrets in life that he did not get the opportunity to beat the rulers at their own game.

But there was a sense of poetic justice to it as well. When India reached the final of the 1948 Olympics hockey tournament, their opponents were Great Britain, making a comeback to the world event. And revenge was sweet, one year after they achieved independence from their former colonial rulers, India thrashed Britain 4-0.