By the mid-seventies, there were murmurs that India’s stranglehold in field hockey — a dominance that had seen them clinch six Olympic golds in a row since 1928 but ended in 1960 — was on a decline. That narrative largely proved to be true as hockey moved away from natural playing surfaces to artificial but in 1975, there was one sensational chapter to be added in India’s glorious book of hockey successes.
The results in the lead up to the World Cup in 1975 didn’t really flatter the Indian side; they won gold in the 1964 Tokyo Games but it was followed by two bronze-medal finishes in 1968 and 1972. Neighbours and arch-rivals Pakistan rose to prominence alongside other European teams.
But India had a bankable core team to work with going into the tournament. They had, after all, finished third in the inaugural World Cup. The 1973 edition saw India suffer a heartbreaking loss in the final against hosts Netherlands in a game they should have won.
Also read - Remembering India’s only Hockey World Cup win
Placed in Group B of the 1975 World Cup edition alongside West Germany, Australia, England, Argentina and Ghana, Ajit Pal Singh and Co had to ride their luck somewhat but entered the knockout stages after topping their group.
In the semi-final against hosts Malaysia, India were trailing before Aslam Sher Khan scored a vital equaliser to take the match into extra time. Harcharan Singh then scored the winner as India booked their spot in the final by the skin of their teeth with a 3-2 win.
In a script that would not look out of place in a Bollywood movie, the final was against Pakistan. A national holiday was declared in the country on the day of the final. The pressure was on the Indians. Surely, they could alter their fate after the pain they suffered in 1971 and ‘73. But remember, Pakistan hockey was on the ascendency.
As was the case in the semi-final, India had to go behind before they regrouped. Zahid Sheikh’s opener had put Pakistan ahead but Surjit Singh converted a penalty corner to bring his side on level terms.
The winner was struck by Indian hockey icon Dhyan Chand’s son, Ashok Kumar. Kumar had lived through the agony of the early seventies and it was a fitting reward to his tireless efforts. His goal, however, was not devoid of controversy as it struck the post and ricocheted in, eight minutes from full-time. Despite protests from Pakistan, the umpire believed it had crossed the line.
Players on the field jumped in jubilation and those on the sidelines ran onto the pitch to greet their teammates.
“Definitely, pressure was there [for us to win],” Kumar was quoted as saying by PTI on India’s historic victory. “More because of my family background. When we reached Malaysia and I saw the World Cup trophy for the first time in hotel lobby, I made a promise to myself that I will make my father proud.”
For Kumar, the ghosts of the agonising loss on penalties against the Netherlands two years earlier were put to rest.
“There was a great euphoria across the country. We got love and affection from every corner of it, from Kerala to Punjab,” Kumar’s teammate Aslam Sher Khan told Scroll.in, of the celebrations and the reception that the team got after.
More than four decades have passed since that victory and India has not managed to reclaim the title of world champions in a sport that has been through a rollercoaster ride of fortunes.
March 15, 1975, will always go down as of the their proudest sporting achievements in history.
Watch India’s thrilling win against Pakistan here:
Here are some of the legends from that team talking during the 2018 World Cup which was held in India: