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History of hockey: From a foreign game to India’s national sport [2020 Updated]

Ever wondered how hockey rose to become a sport of national importance? Let’s dip into the history of hockey in India…

The British Raj gave India several negatives, toplined by a weakened economy and a divided society. But in every seed of bad, there is always a piece of good! There were certain gifts that the Europeans inadvertently passed on to us, including sports. Amongst others, cricket and hockey were the colonizers’ favourite leisure pursuits. But little did the Britishers know that the two sports that they gave to India would flourish to an extent that their biggest colony would eclipse them in both cricket and hockey.

When Kapil Dev lifted the 1983 Cricket World Cup (or the Prudential Cup), India became only the second nation to win the cricket’s biggest prize. It would take England a whole 36 years to achieve the distinction in the sport that they invented.

However, it was in Hockey that India really left Great Britain far, far behind. The former has won a record 8 Olympic gold medals as compared to the latter’s three. And the highlight of India’s dominance in Hockey has to be the 1948 Olympic gold win at the expense of British on their home soil just a year after getting freedom. Talk about the circle of life!

But how did India grow to be one of the best hockey sides the world has ever seen? Let’s find out the history of hockey in India. But before that, some brushing up about the evolution of hockey…

History of Hockey

Egypt Hockey KreedOn
Credits: A World of Hockey

Historically speaking, the origin of hockey can be traced back to 4000 years ago in Egypt. Historians point out that a crude form of the game involving sticks and a ball. Similar shreds of evidence have been found in Ethiopia around 1,000 BC and in Iran in around 2,000BC.

However, Britain is credited with developing the modern form of field hockey. It was here that the first field hockey club was established in Blackheath, Ireland in 1861. The first association was formed in Britain in 1876. A decade later, 9 international member clubs formed the first permanent association.

Hockey and the Olympics

England Hockey KreedOn
Credits: Sports Legacy

The introduction of Hockey in the 1908 London Olympics with France, Germany and the four United Kingdom nations participating. Since then, it had an on-and-off journey until 1924, when it was held in 1920 Antwerp Olympics squeezed between omissions in Stockholm (1912) and Paris (1924). Since then, it has been a regular feature in the Olympics. Women’s hockey was first featured in Moscow in 1980.

History of Hockey in India

It was through British Regiments that hockey reached India. After cricket, hockey was the Britisher’s favourite pastimes.

The first professional Hockey Club was established in the city of Calcutta between 1885-86. The formation of clubs in Bombay and Punjab soon followed. The latter would go on to give the world innumerable hockey legends.

The first Hockey Association in India was called the ‘Bengal Hockey’. As the game became popular in the country, many more Associations started coming up. Most prominent among them were in Bombay, Orissa, Bihar, and Delhi.

The Golden Era of Indian Hockey

1928 Amsterdam Olympics- A Legend is Born

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History of Hockey in India: The 1928 Olympic Squad | Credits: The Hindu

The Indian hockey team made its Olympic debut at the 1928 Amsterdam Games, Netherlands. In its Division A matches, the men’s team beat far more experienced European opponents by big margins. This included some memorable thrashing of Austria (6-0), Belgium (9-0), Denmark (6-0), and Switzerland (5-0).

The gold-medal game against hosts Holland was relatively tough though, especially the first half. However, the Indians made a superb comeback in the second half. They put 3 past their opponents to finish at the top of the podium.

In its first-ever Olympics, the team had returned home with a gold medal. This was also the country’s first gold at the Olympics across all team sports.

A proof of their dominance was that the Indians didn’t concede a single goal on their way to the glory.

The team’s standout performer was a 23-year-old player by the name Dhyan Chand. The Allahabad-born forward had lit the competition with scored 14 goals. This included 3 hat-tricks, one of which came in the finals.

‘The Wizard’, a sobriquet that Chand earned for his skilful goal-scoring skills, would go on to guide India to more success in the future Olympic Games.

1932 Los Angeles Olympics- The Biggest Win. Ever.

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History of Hockey in India: The 1932 Olympics Squad | Credits: Paper Jewels

The Indian Hockey side had a comfortable task defending their Olympic gold four years later at Los Angeles with only three teams featuring – USA and Japan besides themselves.

In fact, ‘comfortable’ would be an overstatement! The Indians beat the Americans by a mammoth 24-1 in the finals, the biggest victory in hockey at the time.

In the match against the USA, Dhyan Chand’s brother Roop Singh was the star of the night, having put 10 goals past the poor hosts.

The record stood for almost 60 years before New Zealand beat Samoa by 36-0 in 1994. Moreover, India retained its record by thrashing Hong Kong China by 36-0 in 2018.

1936 Berlin Olympics – A Close Shave with Hitler

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History of Hockey in India: The 1936 Olympics Squad | Credits: The Hindu

The 1936 Berlin Olympics campaign started nervously for team India after hosts Germany humbled them 4-1 in a practice match. However, backed by an in-form Dhyan Chand, the team defeated familiar foes Japan (9-0), Hungary (4-0), and the United States of America (7-0) to reach the semi-finals.

In the semis, they got the better of France 10-0 to set a mouth-watering final against home-side Germany.

Having already tasted a defeat at their hands, the Indian team were rightfully nervous going into the finals. The epic finale was played before a full-house of 40,000 enthusiastic fans. Amongst those present also included the dreaded dictator Fuhrer Adolf Hitler.

The Germans successfully containing Indian and Dhyan Chand to a sole goal in the first half.

However, India triggered an all-out attack in the 2nd half and put seven goals past the hosts, obviously leaving the Fuhrer furious. Legend has it that Hitler stormed out of the stadium witnessing his nation lose 8-1. However, he returned back for the medal ceremony.

While the Indian Hockey team managed to defend the title for the 3rd time in a row, things became tensed when Hitler called upon Dhyan Chand for a meeting in his ‘special’ private room.

Dhyan Chand’s meeting with Adolf Hitler

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History of Hockey in India: Dhyan Chand in the hockey gold medal match against Germany at the 1932 Olympics | Credits: Indian Express

Dhyan Chand was understandably nervous of the meeting having heard stories of Hitler shooting people on the spot in his private chamber. However, to his relief, Hitler congratulated Chand for his extraordinary performances in the final.

Moreover, after getting to know that he was a part of the Indian army, the Fuhrer reportedly offered Dhyan Chand a high post in the Nazi army.

In reply, the 31-year-old is said to have politely refused the offer citing relocation of the family as a constraint. Quite thankfully, Hitler was understanding and bid Chand a warm adieu.

That was the last meeting between the two. Three years later, Germany would start the Second World War, culminating with Adolf Hitler’s suicide in 1945.

However, the six years of war also meant that there wouldn’t be any Olympics for eight years. This also meant a sad end of careers for some of hockey’s most legendary players like Dhyan Chand, Roop Singh, and Carlyle Tapsell.

1948 London Olympics – Memorable of the lot

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History of Hockey in India: Independent India’s first hockey team | Credits: Tribeca Care

Olympics returned in 1948 after an 8 year-long hiatus, exactly a year after India became independent. Without their legendary captain Dhyan Chand, India was not considered as a force to reckon with at that time.

However, those reservations were soon cleared as the team cruised through to the semifinals with comfortable victories over Argentina (9-1), Austria (8-0), and Spain (2-0). Balbir Singh, a 23-year-old forward, was the star of the show. He struck a double hat-trick on his debut in the 9-1 demolition of Argentina.

The gold-medal match was an emotional affair, considering India had to battle it out against their former colonizers Great Britain. As destiny would have it, the highly anticipated finale was scheduled on 12th August, just three days before India’s first independence day anniversary.

In the politically as well as emotionally charged match at Wembley, the Britons fielded a defensive formation. Nonetheless, India took an early lead in the match thanks to an in-form Balbir. The second one came just before half-time.

Pat Jensen and Trilochan Singh then scored one each in the second half to make sure that an Independent India retained their Olympic hockey crown with an emphatic 4-0 victory over Great Britain.

The victory had been a major relief for a country ravaged by the deadly partition and its effects on the economy. In fact, when we consider that Indian Hockey Federation’s paucity of funds, India’s victory in the 1948 Olympics seems nothing less than a miracle.

Acknowledging the same, BBC fittingly described India’s gold at the 1948 Games as one of the most ‘politically significant’ episodes in the Games’ history.

1952 Helsinki Olympics

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History of Hockey in India: The 1952 Olympics Squad | Credits: Bharatiya Hockey

The 1952 Helsinki Olympic Games was another smooth ride for India. The team defeated Austria in the second round by a comfortable margin of 4-0 to set a semi-final date with a familiar opponent in Great Britain. It was once again a straightforward task with the India hockey team winning the match 3-1.

Ultimately, the gold-medal match against the Netherlands as they were condemned to a 6-1 defeat at the hands of the Asians. That marked India’s fifth Olympic gold on the trot.

A fun fact: Indian hockey team’s Chinadorai Deshmutu was the youngest athlete at the 1952 Games at 19 years and 263 days of age.

1956 Melbourne Olympics – The Sweet Six

1956 Indian Hockey team KreedOn
History of Hockey in India: The 1956 Olympics Squad | Credits: Bharatiya Hockey

In the final phase of their Olympic dominance as well, the Indian team was showing no compassion towards their opponents at the 1956 Melbourne Games.

The side put a record 36 goals past their rivals in the group stage. This included the thrashings against Afghanistan (14-0), United States (16-0), as well as Singapore (6-0).

Hockey legends like Balbir Singh, Leslie Claudius, Randhir Singh Gentle, Shankar Lakshman, and Amir Kumar were among the architects of India’s golden march at the Olympic.

In an epic climax, India was to face arch-rivals Pakistan in the gold medal match at the historic Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG).

In the build-up to the crunch finale, India suffered a major setback when Balbir Singh Sr., the team’s captain, suffered a fracture in his dominant right hand.

Nonetheless, a resilient Singh decided to feature in the final despite the painful sports injury. Legend has it that Singh took three pain-killing injections before the epic final.

The local media lambasted him for putting his team’s chances of winning the gold medal in jeopardy. What they forgot, however, was that Singh was not just an in-form but also a captain under whom India had not lost even once. His leadership was indeed required if India were to come out victorious in this emotionally-charged fixture.

As expected, the first half was a well-fought affair, with both the teams holding their forts well. Balbir Singh’s injury had limited his team’s prowess in the attack. The scores stood at 0-0 going into the break.

Help arrived from unexpected quarters when left-back Randhir Gentle converted a penalty corner in the second minute of the second half. India eventually won the contest 1-0 to clinch their sixth straight Olympics gold medal.

1960 Rome Olympics – Revenge is Sweet

The Indian hockey team was the firm favourite for gold entering the 1960 Rome Olympics. The men beat Denmark (10-0), Netherlands (4-1), and New Zealand (3-0) comfortably to make headway into the quarters. The team then defeated Australia and Great Britain to make for another encounter against arch-rivals Pakistan.

However, unlike at the 1956 Olympics, the finals would be anything but easy. After all, India was facing a formidable Pak side that had conceded only one goal besides scoring 24.

The highly-anticipated gold-medal match took a bright start as Pakistan took an early lead through Naseer Bunda. Sadly, India couldn’t reply back. The match ended in a 1-0 defeat of India. And sadly with that, the team failed to extend their record of winning six consecutive gold medals.

Nonetheless, that wasn’t the end of the story, as the duo would go on to meet again in the following Olympics.

1964 Tokyo Olympics – Revenge of Revenge is Sweeter!

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History of Hockey in India: Captain Balbir Singh on the podium in 1964 Olympics | Credits: Bharatiya Hockey

Returning from the heartbreaking final loss at the hands of rivals Pakistan, the Indian Hockey team started their 1964 Olympic campaign nervously. They drew 1-1 first against Spain followed by another draw against Germany.

However, as the competition wore old, the team regained its lost momentum. It went on to win all of the remaining five matches to top the group B. Playing in the semi-finals, India defeated Australia 3-1 to comfortably book a finals berth.

However, as destiny would have it, the Indian team was also handed a golden opportunity of avenging its 1964 defeat with dreaded rivals Pakistan being the fellow finalists.

And the Indians did just that. They condemned the Pakistanis to a 1-0 defeat and clinched the seventh Olympic gold in the process.

The phase from 1928 until 1964 is widely considered as the golden era of Indian hockey. The team scored a humongous 178 goals during this time (in the Olympics) while conceding just 7 goals. This kind of domination has never been witnessed by the hockey world again.

During this era, India produced some of the finest players the world has ever witnessed. These included Balbir Singh, Gurbux Singh, Zafar Iqbal, Mohd. Shaheed, Merwin Fernandes, Ajitpal Singh, B. P. Govinda, Charles Cornelius, Harbinder Singh, Harmik Singh, Gurbux Singh, and Virinder Singh among others.

Later Years

The gold medal win at the 1980 Moscow Olympics was the Indian Hockey team’s last major achievement in the competition.

After India’s 1983 Cricket World Cup triumph, cricket overtook hockey as India’s unofficial national sport in terms of popularity.

The hockey team’s performance declined over the next 3 decades. It failed to win a medal at the Olympics or the World Championships.

Hockey in Modern India

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The Indian Women’s team have qualified for the Tokyo Olympics | Credits Twitter

However, the new generation of youngsters is taking India’s game back to its original greatness with some breathtaking performances.

After a long drought, the Indian men’s team won its first-ever medal at a major competition- a silver medal – at the Champions Trophy in 2016.

Furthermore, they also reached the knockout stage of the Olympics for the very 1st time in over 36 years. The team also entered the quarter-finals of the 2018 World Cup, only to lose in a closely-fought game against the Netherlands that ended 2-1.

As of 2020, the team is ranked 4th in the FIH World Ranking. Both the Men’s as well as Women’s teams have qualified for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics which unfortunately got postponed due to the Coronavirus pandemic.

From 2018, the Government of Odisha has started sponsoring the Indian national field hockey team, both women and men’s team. The state government has also built a world-class hockey facility in the face of Kalinga Stadium for further promotion of the sport.

Monish Gadiya
Monish Gadiya is the Head of Content at KreedOn. He is a thorough tech-enthusiast and believes that innovation is the answer to all the problems prevalent in the society. Monish graduated from University of Pune with a degree in Civil Engineering before pursuing a post-graduate diploma course in intellectual property rights. A die-hard football fan, he has represented his college at various football competitions.

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