For the Indian men’s field hockey team, one of the biggest obstacles in their way at any major international tournament in the 21st century is a strong Australian side. The Aussies just seem to have India’s number: no matter which players are on the green pitch, the result rarely defies the predictable. But in the first half of the last century, it was India that was the hockey giant, flicking away Australians at will. An excellent display of its dominance was in 1935, when a visiting team captained by the extraordinarily talented Dhyan Chand went Down Under.

The two-time defending Olympic champions sent a young side to Australia and New Zealand, where they were scheduled to mostly play against local clubs. A large number of the players were inexperienced. Most were between the ages of 19 and 27, according to contemporary reports in the Australian media.

In his memoir, Dhyan Chand recalled being a “bit nervous” about the prospects of the raw team, which was picked by the Indian hockey authorities with an eye on the 1936 Berlin Olympics. “The 1935 team for New Zealand was composed mostly of youngsters, whose names were little known in hockey circles,” he wrote in the memoir that makes up a part of his autobiography Goal.

The players sailed off on the steamship SS Largs Bay to New Zealand, calling on ports on the way. In Australia, they made several stops to play matches. In Adelaide, for instance, they went up against the local side at the Adelaide Oval and, in what was a preview of things to come on the long tour, won 10-1.

Treated like foreign dignitaries, the visitors from India were invited to meet South Australia Governor Winston Dugan. At a programme at the Adelaide mayor’s office, locals turned up to meet them. “As the visitors were filing into the Town Hall to meet the Lord Mayor, Don Bradman joined the line,” The Advertiser reported on May 9, 1935. “He was soon recognised by the Indians, who shook hands with him… Amid cheers, Bradman told the gathering that he was glad to welcome an Indian hockey team, because the members were better exponents of that game than Australians.”

At the gathering Bradman said, “I hope that this visit will be the forerunner of a visit of the cricket team from your country.”

Throughout the time the Indian team was in New Zealand and Australia, the media made references to Dhyan Chand as the Bradman of hockey. While this was appreciated by the Indian players, many of whom were cricket fans, assistant manager Pankaj Gupta seemed to dislike it, at least on one occasion. When the team was in Melbourne, he told The Sun that the Indian hockey legend had a higher standing in the sporting world than the Australian cricketer. “Some people call Dhyan Chand the Don Bradman of hockey, but I prefer to call Don Bradman the Dhyan Chand of cricket,” Gupta said. “Don Bradman has been compared with other cricket players, but Dhyan Chand cannot be compared with any other hockey player.”

Utter domination

Most matches on the tour were held in New Zealand, a country Dhyan Chand had developed a liking for during a trip in 1928. “I felt happy as I was very keen to see New Zealand once again,” he wrote in his memoir. “The prospect of another trip to the Southern hemisphere thrilled me.”

In all, the Indian team played 28 matches in New Zealand, winning every one of them. Almost every game was horribly lopsided. “Little opposition has been met by the All-India hockey team on its tour of New Zealand, with the result that it has had no difficulty of scoring 129 goals at a cost of 3,” The Malaya Tribune said on May 31, 1935. Several matches against local teams were won by a margin of 18 goals, with Dhyan Chand’s younger brother Roop Singh being the top scorer in many games.

Despite what the scoreboard says, Dhyan Chand did not find playing in that part of the world easy. “Mind you, on the rain-sodden uneven grounds in New Zealand and Australia, it was no joke to score goals,” he wrote. “The grounds in New Zealand were a severe handicap to our style of play. A through pass or dash or sprint down the line were not easy to do. Most of the time we had to resort to scoops because of the muddy surface of the grounds.”

After overwhelming the local teams, India had a semi-scare while playing the New Zealand national team in Christchurch in the first of three matches. At half time, the hosts were leading 2-0, but India came back with four goals in the second half to prevail. “We, in India, always think that any team from our country is able to beat any other nation,” wrote an Indian player in a letter to The Statesman quoted by The Malaya Tribune. “On our return to India, many of us will be able to testify that other nations have been preparing themselves so hard that they are out to wrest the championship from us. Although the European nations may not possess our speed and skill in stickwork, it must be said that in physical fitness nearly every other country is superior.”

Dhyan Chand said the “kindness and hospitality of the hosts” made his team forget its climatic and other disadvantages. The team was invited to several official receptions and given many gifts. In Wellington, the New Zealand Hockey Association gifted each Indian team member a silver fern, the country’s national emblem.

Hockey officials from New Zealand repeatedly praised the sportsmanship of Indian players, who for their part, did not openly complain about the difficult conditions. Still, assistant manager Gupta often reminded his hosts that good grounds were important to develop the game in New Zealand.

By the time the Indians finished their tour of New Zealand, they had played 28 games, in which Roop Singh scored 107 goals and Dhyan Chand 105. From there, they went back to Australia, where they continued to dominate opponents.

Reams of praise

From the time the Indian players arrived in Australia, the local media gushed about their incredible hockey skills, calling them “hockey rajahs” and “wizards of the twisty sticks”.

Reporters were mesmerised by Dhyan Chand’s talent and just about every match report heaped admiration on the Indian captain. “Chand is slightly built but is tremendously active and has the born leader’s ability to figure out a situation long before it eventuates,” The Referee wrote. “He has the eye of a hawk and the speed of a greyhound. He showed us how to go clean through a mass of opponents in their circle, not by hitting like one possessed, but by weaving the ball through and guarding it by turning his stick from side to side.”

In the lead-up to what would be the first ever international hockey match in Australia, India easily defeated local teams again. The big match, India versus Australia, was held in Melbourne, where both Dhyan Chand and Roop Singh put on an incredible display of talent.

“Playing with remarkable skill and almost uncanny system, in which the stickwork of the juggling variety was exploited, the team of India hockey wizards outclassed the Australian eleven at the Richmond cricket ground on Saturday in the first international hockey match ever held in Australia and won by 12 goals to 1,” The Age reported on August 19. This remains Australia’s biggest margin of defeat in field hockey till date.

“From the bully off, the ball would be flicked down by the champion, Dhyan Chand, to his brother, Rup Singh,” the newspaper added. “The two exchanged like tennis players in low or high hits, and banged into the net past a puzzled custodian. The Australians tried hard, but, particularly in the early stages, seemed dazed by the importance of the occasion, and after the first few minutes suffered from the inferiority complex.”

Dhyan Chand scored nine goals, while his brother scored three.

As was the case in New Zealand, the Indians were gracious in victory, and at a reception held in Melbourne before their departure, team manager Behram Doctor said he hoped both Australia and New Zealand would qualify for the 1940 Olympics. As it happened, even if the teams had managed to improve enough to qualify for the Olympic in five years, they would not have been able to play: the sporting event was cancelled that year on account of the Second World War.

In his parting comments, Doctor praised Australia’s cricketing prowess. “You know, in India, as far as cricket goes, we consider Australia is first, and it is certain that the Australian cricket team that is about to depart for India will be more than welcome,” he said.

While Australia dominated India for decades in cricket, it could not compete with the country in hockey until the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City, when it defeated the Indians 2-1 in extra-time and advanced to the finals. New Zealand won the gold at the 1976 Olympics in Montreal, defeating their Trans-Tasman rivals by a score of 1-0.

Ajay Kamalakaran is a writer, primarily based in Mumbai. His Twitter handle is @ajaykamalakaran.