There is no doubt that Indian hockey doesn’t dominate the sport as it did in the years gone by. The team that won a stunning eight Olympic gold medals failed to qualify for the quadrennial Games in 2008 for the first time since their debut.
India made its first Olympic appearance in the 1928 Amsterdam Games and went on to win six consecutive titles. The first three of these came under the British-India flag with the legendary Dhyan Chand leading the charge.
Here’s a look at the five greatest moments for the men’s national hockey team.
1936 Berlin Olympics gold
This was an era when India was considered invincible with Dhyan Chand as captain for the Berlin Games. But the Indian team did not have an auspicious start, losing to hosts Germany in a practice game before the Olympics.
But that just proved to be a blip in their overall campaign as they settled into a goal-scoring rhythm once the Games started. The team had 20 goals in the three group stage matches while conceding none. They then swatted aside France 10-0 in the semi-finals with Dhyan Chand scoring four and his brother Roop Singh contributing three to the tally.
The final against Germany was expected to be a close contest given the practice game result and the support the host team had but the Indian team clearly had other plans. They dominated the proceedings throughout to clinch the title with a 8-1 victory with Dhyan Chand scoring a hat-trick.
India could have added another gold to its tally in the subsequent editions but the Olympics wasn’t held in 1940 and 1944 due to the World War.
You can watch some of the highlights of that triumph here:
1948 London Olympics gold
There is a special place in everyone’s heart for any first and the 1948 London Olympics gold medal, won by the newly-independent India against the very country that ruled the nation for over 150 years has to be special.
It was a struggle to put together a strong team after the partition as some of the top Indian players at that time had moved to Pakistan, forcing the defending champions to pick a few youngsters in the squad. One of them was Balbir Singh Sr, who went on to become a legend of Indian hockey.
A total of 13 teams were to participate in the hockey event in the first Games after the World War, and though India was considered to be favourites thanks to their pedigree and three previous triumphs, hosts Britain and Pakistan were formidable opponents.
The Indian team topped the group and defeated Netherlands 2-1 in the semi-finals to set up the summit clash against the hosts.
Balbir Singh Sr, who died earlier this month, had spoken about the way the final progressed. “When we took the field in the final, the jam-packed stadium was rooting for their team, but as the match went on, impressed with our game, the crowd started cheering for us. That was the golden era of Indian hockey and I hope the day will come when we will again rule the world.”
He scored the first two goals and as they team hammered the hosts 4-0 to witness the tricolour of independent India being hoisted for the first time at the Olympic Games. The centre forward played a key role in helping India complete a hat-trick of titles by clinching the 1952 and 1956 Olympic gold medals as well.
Also read: Balbir Singh Senior’s proudest moment
You can also hear Balbir Singh Sr. speak about those campaigns and what it meant to the nation then.
1964 Tokyo Olympics gold
This was the first time India wasn’t going into the competition as the defending champions. Four years earlier, India had lost to arch-rivals Pakistan in the final at Rome and were actually considered underdogs in the quadrennial event as the neighbours had also beaten them in Asian Games finals two years earlier.
India and Pakistan stormed through the group stage and set up a third straight Olympics final with comfortable victories over Australia and Spain respectively.
The summit clash was a fast paced but ill-tempered encounter and the game had to be stopped midway for a while due to a physical assault by a Pakistani player on his Indian counterpart. The opening half was a goal-less affair but the Indians showed more resolve at the start of the second half. This helped them earn a penalty corner. Prithpal Singh’s hit was deflected on the leg of a Pakistani defender and Mohinder Lal converted the ensuing penalty stroke to give India the lead.
Custodian Shankar Lakshman was then the star of the Indian team as he saved two penalty corners in the dying minutes of the match and came up with a few more saves to ensure that India clinched its seventh hockey gold at the Olympics. The team got a grand reception after their return to India and were also part of the Republic Day parade in January 1965.
You can watch captain Charanjit Singh speak about that final here.
And the highlights of the 1964 Olympics hockey campaign here.
1975 World Championships gold
India may have won eight gold medals at the Olympics but the team doesn’t have much to show at the World Cups. India had failed to win any major title since the 1966 Asian Games and had even slipped to third spot at the 1968 and 1972 Olympics.
The World Cup started only in 1971 and by then the Indian team was not the force it used to be in the 1950s and early 60s. They had won a bronze in the inaugural edition and a silver in 1973 but not many would have given Ajit Pal Singh and his team a chance of bagging the gold in Kuala Lumpur.
They had scraped through to the top of the group stage and only a late fightback in the semi-final against hosts Malaysia helped them seal the final berth against Pakistan in extra time.
In the final again, it was Pakistan who drew first blood when Zahid Sheikh found the net in the first half. Surjit Singh then converted a penalty corner nine minutes into the second half to draw level before Ashok Kumar, Dhyan Chand’s son, scored seven minutes later to hand Indians the lead. It was a slightly controversial goal as the Pakistani players felt that the ball had not rolled in after hitting the goalpost but the referee felt otherwise.
“Definitely, pressure was there [for us to win]. 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,” Ashok Kumar had said about that historic victory.
That triumph, however, also signalled the end of India’s golden period. India did go on to win their eighth Olympic gold in Moscow five years later but those Games were boycotted by most hockey playing nations and the only formidable opponent Vasudevan Bhaskaran’s team had to beat to clinch the gold medal was Spain.
You can watch the highlights of final match here
1998 Asian Games gold
In the history of Asian Games, India has won just three gold medals with the latest coming in 2014 in Incheon. But it was the second that was special because Indian hockey was going through a difficult phase with administrative problems and in-fighting while there were quite a few teams in the continent who were playing quality hockey.
South Korea came into the 1998 Asian Games as defending champions and their fast-paced style of hockey had been consistently hurting the Indians. Unlike the present, Pakistan was still a force to reckon with and India needed something special to end a 32-year wait for an Asian Games gold.
No one in the Dhanraj Pillay-led squad was born when India last won the gold medal in the continental competition but there was a sense of belief in the team which aimed to repeat the feat of their predecessors in Bangkok after three decades.
The Indian team sailed through the group stage and then defeated Japan in the semi-finals to make their third successive final. Four years earlier, India had a similar run to the summit clash before losing to South Korea, who always managed to raise the bar in the knock-out games.
It looked like the final in Bangkok would also go the same way when the Indians conceded an early goal. But Pillay, who scored a total of 11 goals in the tournament, equalised in the 23rd minute. With both teams failing to break that deadlock, the match headed into a shoot-out.
India normally used to put AB Subbiah in goal for the shoot-out, but on that day coach MK Kaushik and Pillay decided to continue with Ashish Balal, who had made some important saves in regular play, and the custodian came up with two acts of brilliance to held India win 4-2.
It was a special win and the belief was that this core of players had the potential to bring back glory days for Indian hockey. However, within two months of that triumph coach Kaushik and six players were suspended by the Indian Hockey Federation for asking a graded payment system to be implemented and the momentum was lost.
India’s other two Asian Games triumphs are also worth mentioning here. In the 1966 Games, India played with 10 men for major part of the match against Pakistan after right winger Balbir Singh injured his knee in the 10th minute of the match. He, however, came back in the second half of extra time and managed to score the winner that gave India their first Asian Games title.
Six years earlier in South Korea, it was PR Sreejesh who did the star turn in a penalty shoot-out to help the team beat their arch-rivals 4-2 after the match had ended 1-1 in regulation time. The team had lost the group stage match against Pakistan and needed a special effort in the summit clash and all credit to the team for putting up a fantastic show when it mattered. But just like it happened in 1998, the outspoken Australian coach Terry Walsh had to depart within a few months of the triumph and the team had to restart from scratch once again.
The two other high points for the Indian men’s team since then have been their back-to-back final appearances in the Champions Trophy in 2016 and 2018 where they lost to eventual champions on penalties.