Editor’s note: This article was originally published in 2018 during the 14th edition of the World Cup that was held in Odisha.
Most of us know 2011. We know the bowler, we know the batsman, we know the commentator, we know the six, we know the tears, we know the jubilation, we know that World Cup win.
The World Cup win before that, 28 years ago, we know that, too. The triumph of the underdog. Not many of us might have seen it live, but it’s been oft-repeated, its legacy conserved.
But what about another World Cup? Of another time? Of another sport?
Before Dhoni’s dashers and Kapil’s devils, there was Ajit Pal Singh’s men with hockey sticks, who won the first major World Cup for independent India, beating arch-rivals Pakistan in the final.
Of this triumph, there’s a video on YouTube. The footage belongs to a time when only seven Indian cities had television services. It’s four and a half decades old. It’s, hence, a little grainy and sepia-tinted. But, as with many things grainy and sepia-tinted, it’s something to be cherished.
That sweet day in March ‘75
There’s tension before the triumph. Pakistan, few minutes before the finish, trailing 1-2, get a free-hit. From the right flank, Iftikhar Ahmed drives the ball to Akhtar Rasool, inside India’s D. Gasp. But captain Ajit Pal Singh clears it away. A few seconds later, the whistle’s blown, the victory’s achieved.
A few more seconds later, a few players on the ground leap with their hands raised. Some run amok. Some from the sidelines join the frenzy sans shirts.
One of them, forty-five years later, reminisces – probably for the millionth time – that sweet day in March, 1975.
“It, definitely, was a special win,” says Ashok Kumar, 68, who scored the winner in the final. It’s, in a way, befitting that he helped India win its first-ever World Cup. For, his dad, in 1928, had scored a hat-trick to help India (under British rule) clinch their first Olympic gold medal. He goes by the name of Dhyan Chand.
That winner, albeit fervently celebrated, wasn’t seen by many. Most just heard it. Because radios greatly outnumbered television sets, then.
So, Kumar gives a first-person account of what happened:
“We got a long corner, and our left-out Harcharan Singh hit the ball to the top of circle. It was stopped by our captain Ajit Pal Singh, and he passed it to me in the right-in position in the D. I dodged one or two defenders in a small move, and I had seen VJ Philips on my right. I passed the ball to him. He went in a couple of metres and passed a parallel, grounded ball to me just 3-4 metres in front of the goalmouth. That was a wonderful, precise pass, and I flicked the ball in a swift motion straight into the goal.”
“There was a great euphoria across the country. We got love and affection from every corner of it, from Kerala to Punjab,” says Kumar’s teammate Aslam Sher Khan, 65, of the celebrations and the reception that the team got after.
Khan, who played in the defence, had no goals in the final. But without his 65th minute equaliser off a penalty corner (hockey games, then, lasted 70 minutes) against hosts Malaysia in the semi-final, India wouldn’t have progressed to the final. He scored two minutes after he was brought in to play (there weren’t rolling substitutions, then) to make the scoreline 2-2 and take the match in extra time.
He recalls the penalty corner that saved India:
“The Malaysian goalkeeper was like a rock. But I was confident. BP Govinda pushed the ball. Captain Ajit Pal Singh stopped the ball on the circle. My mother had given me a tawiz (locket) and there was a mini Quran inside. But she never told me what was inside. She said “Whenever you see any crisis, as a last resort, kiss the tawiz and, Inshallah, whatever you want to be do will be done.” So, I kissed the locket and was ready for my shot. The ball came to the right spot that I wanted it to come. I was a little confused as to which corner I should beat the goalkeeper. The left or the right? I thought right corner was very difficult. It had to be precise. In the left, I felt, there was a little more chance. In the middle, was the goalkeeper. Then something sparked my mind and told me to hit it in right. It occurred at the last moment. And, I hit right… and goal keeper went left. It was a clean shot. There wasn’t a lot of power. But it held it’s line… So, the goal happened. India was reincarnated again at 2-2.”
Harcharan Singh, then, scored the winner for India to put them in the final.
In the summit clash, India’s goalkeeper Ashok Diwan was caught on the wrong foot, and Zahid Sheikh scored in the 17th minute for Pakistan. India equalised in the 44th minute through Surjit Singh and Ashok Kumar scored the winner seven minutes later.
“That time, you could hear only the commentary from the radio,” says Khan. “But the impact it had on the country was great because, back then, the country was more nationalistic. And, India won the World Cup in their third attempt [the previous two editions, they won bronze and silver]. So, everyone from the country – State governments, film stars… we had a match with the film stars in Bombay.”
“The girls and boys of that era never forget that World Cup, what I did. That nostalgia is still alive.”