When field hockey was introduced in the Olympics in 1908, there were only six teams in the contest. These were France and Germany and the four countries that then made up the United Kingdom: England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland. Both France and Germany got eliminated in the first round. The final result was: gold for England, silver for Ireland, with Scotland and Wales sharing the bronze.

The British ended up dominating hockey, whose modern-day version was invented in 19th-century Britain, well into the 1920s. But by the end of that decade, the sport had another indomitable powerhouse: India.

Hockey was introduced in the British Indian Army in the 1850s. “The availability of large plots of land as playing fields and the uncomplicated nature of equipment meant that hockey gradually became the popular sport of choice among children and young adults in India,” says the official website of the Olympic Games. The first hockey club formed in Calcutta in 1855 and before long similar clubs popped up across the nation.

It would take a few more decades for India to get a national team. “There were talks of forming a hockey association in India in 1907 and 1908,” the Olympics website says, “but it didn’t materialise. The Indian Hockey Federation was only formed in 1925, one year after the formation of the International Hockey Federation.”

When the national team did come together, it was with a bang. On a tour of New Zealand in 1926, India dominated local sides and the Kiwi national team, winning 18 games, drawing two and losing just one. With a tally like that, word began to spread across the British Empire that there was a new force to reckon with.

A year later, the Indian Hockey Federation became a member of the international federation and earned the right to play in the 1928 Amsterdam Olympics, where hockey became a permanent Olympic sport.

Tour of Britain

The team chosen for the 1928 Olympics included several worthies. It was captained by Jaipal Singh, a star full-back on the Oxford University team, and in its ranks were Iftikhar Ali Khan, the Nawab of Pataudi who was also a cricketer, and the preternaturally talented Dhyan Chand.

“On the morning of Sunday, February 19, 1928, the final names of the All-India team were announced,” Dhyan Chand wrote in his memoir that makes up a part of his autobiography Goal. “That morning is still green in my memory, even though I was sure my name would be in the list, since it had appeared in the provisional list. Yet one could not be too certain. How we prayed for the dawn to come quickly! Many of us had no sleep. Naturally in every camp talks and speculation were going on.”

Dhyan Chand in action against France at the 1936 Olympic semi-final. Credit: Wikimedia Commons [Public Domain].

To prepare for their Olympic debut, the Indian team was sent to Britain so that it could get adjusted to European climatic conditions. Sailing on the SS Kaisar-I-Hind, the team left from Bombay and after passing through Aden, Port Said, the Suez Canal, the Mediterranean, Gibraltar, “dropped anchor at Tilbury Docks” in Britain on March 30, 1928.

“Like Bombay, in London too we were not destined for any rousing reception,” Dhyan Chand wrote. “It was a cold and misty morning, and we disembarked wrapped up in whatever warm clothing we had – mufflers, sweaters, overcoats and even blankets. The London Press, believe me, hardly took any notice of us.” That would change soon.

Although tired after a long passage from India to Britain, the players got no respite. No sooner had they arrived in the country than they were thrown into a contest with a reasonably-rested Combined Services team in Aldershot. “It was the visitors’ first match in this country, and conditions were so bad that they could not show their pace,” the Sunday Mirror reported on April 1, 1928. The Indian team lost 2-1.

“The beginning was thus inauspicious, but you must remember that as in Bombay, we had no practice,” Dhyan Chand wrote. “During the three weeks on board the ship, we could only run about the decks and take part in deck games. Moreover, I feel that the result of this match should not have been on the record at all because the famous English summer weather came to the rescue of the home team, and the match had to be abandoned fifteen minutes early. It rained heavily, the ground was soggy, and we had no footwear to cope with the English conditions.”

The Indian team played 11 matches in Britain and performed well, but did not get an opportunity to play an international side. Up against the Anglo-Irish XI, Anglo-Scottish XI and English Hockey Association XI, the Indians won all matches comfortably.

Of all their games, Dhyan Chand and his teammates particularly enjoyed the ones they played at the Folkestone Festival, where they impressed the hockey pundits of Britain.

In an article for the Western Morning News, a journalist writing under the pseudonym Wanderer sang praises of the Indian team. “The 1927-28 hockey season will always be known for the first visit of an All India hockey combination,” he wrote, “and those who still think that England is supreme at the game must surely look further afield now.”

The Indian team that won the gold medal at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Credit: Bharat Hockey/Wikimedia Commons [Public Domain].

“There is no doubt that these Indian players have studied the finer points of the game,” Wanderer wrote, “for their accurate passing from the wings, the manner in which they control the ball in the centre of the field, and the way in which they exploit the through pass is all brought to perfection.”

About the Indian participation at the Folkestone Festival, Wanderer said, “They took part in several games during the holiday period and the opposition each time was strong. Nevertheless, the Indian combination won, and their list of victories culminated with a magnificent victory by four goals to nil over the Hockey Association XI on Tuesday.”

Although Dhyan Chand was disappointed at the sparse crowds at India’s matches, with the exception of the Folkestone Festival, he felt the preparatory tour was good for his team. “These pre-Olympic fixtures served us very well, and by the time we left for Holland in quest of Olympic honours, we could claim that we were fairly conversant with English hockey,” he wrote.

A major irritant for the Indian star was the weather. “The ground condition in most matches was very unfavourable to us because England’s April showers played havoc with the field,” Dhyan Chand added. “The poet’s desire ‘Oh! to be in England, now that April is here’ was inexplicable as far as the Indian hockey players were concerned.”

Gold in Amsterdam

A confident Indian team arrived in Amsterdam for its first Olympics in May. A total of nine teams were in the contest. Britain, which was no longer the dominant force in the sport, stayed away, stating that it could not send a representative hockey team for the period of the Olympic Games.

Acclimatised to European conditions, India began its campaign with a 6-0 victory over Austria. In the audience at the match was an Associated Press reporter whose report ran in several newspapers around the world under the headline “India’s Hockey Team Ranks As Favorite”.

“The team’s speed and offensive generalship was unequalled by any of the other contestants in the opening of the Olympic hockey series today,” the reporter wrote. Concluding that India would be the gold winner, he added, “In the opinion of coaches of various nationalities, Germany has the best chance to rank second at the close, with a possibility of Holland placing third and Denmark and Belgium contesting for the next position.”

The Indian team did not concede a single goal throughout the tournament and won the gold medal by defeating the Netherlands 3-0 in the final. Germany won the bronze medal after defeating Belgium.

Newswires widely covered the Indian victory, putting Indian hockey on the world map. In some reports, the win was touted as an achievement of the British Empire too. The Viceroy of India, Lord Irwin, congratulated the team: “All India has followed their triumphal progress throughout the tour, and we rejoice at this, their crowning achievement.”

The Amsterdam gold propelled Indian hockey to greater heights. “It was the beginning of a legacy – decorated with eight gold medals – a record till today,” the Olympics website says.

The Indian team won gold in 1932, 1936, 1948, 1952 and 1956, and did not lose a single match in the Olympics until the final in 1960 in Rome, when they were defeated by Pakistan 1-0.

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