Pained by the present, seeking solace in the past

Pained by the present, seeking solace in the past

As another World Cup nears, Hockey India chose to honour the men behind the country’s only title triumph, stirring old memories.

It was the summer of 1975. The country was still hurting from the loss in the 1973 World Cup hockey final to Holland. The proud history of Indian hockey spurred on the lot that went for the third edition at Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. They made an uninspiring start before gaining momentum to reach the semifinals against the hosts.

A packed Merdeka Stadium with barely any support for the Indians was pregnant with the thought of victory. Malaysia led 2-1 and the visitors desperately searched for the equaliser. Aslam Sher Khan was ushered in by the chief coach, the legendary Balbir Singh, in the dying minutes. “Moment Aslam came, we got a penalty corner. It was a tense moment. B P Govinda pushed the ball, Ajitpal Singh stopped it and Aslam took the hit. The sound of board to the right made us feel we had the won the world!” recalls Ashok Kumar, son of the great Dhyan Chand.

Aslam had pulled off a miracle. The match went to extra-time, where Harcharan Singh struck the winner and India marched into the final to take on Pakistan.

In the final, India were quick to go down courtesy a 17th minute goal by Zahid. It momentarily shook captain Ajit Pal Singh. “He said it looks like we can never win against Pakistan. It was an anti-climax for us. But I remember telling him sternly that we still have 60 minutes left and we will win. He understood and raised his game beautifully. Govinda and I, too, combined brilliantly that day,” Ashok said.

India drew level in the second half through late Surjit Singh and then it was the turn of Ashok to show his heroics. With 15 minutes left, he got the ball and swiftly tapped in. It took umpire K Vijiyanathan couple of seconds to decide what happened before blowing the whistle to acknowledge the goal. Pakistan was left crushed. “It remains a proud moment for me, to score the winning goal.” March 15 became the historic day in the Indian hockey calendar. It was the only World Cup eight-time Olympic champions India have won, till this day. 

As the current Indian team prepares for the World Cup, to be held at The Hague, the Netherlands, from May 31-June 15, these legends were felicitated by Hockey India last week after 39 years. As they wished the current players luck, they could not help push the clock back to 1975. Countless stories spilled.

The team prepared for the World Cup in the Chandigarh University hostel under the patronage of the state government. Even that time, the hockey federation was divided in two factions, which were constantly at loggerheads. But sweet memories of their preparatory camp still survive. “We had Dara Singh and Milkha Singh visiting us once a week and having dinner with us. Seeing Dara Singh eat one small piece of chicken used to amuse us a lot as we had heard he ate one full chicken by himself. We told him that and he had a good laugh at it,” recalled Leslie Fernandez, who was the goalkeeper alongwith Ashok Diwan.

Ashok spoke of another interesting incident. “Right across the road where we stayed was a girls’ hostel. Our manager Balbir Singh was also staying in the mess with us. Moment he got to know, he began to park himself on the chair at the main entry gate from morning 10-11 am till 8-9 pm at night to ensure there were no distractions!”The team, though, never dithered from their goal of excelling in the World Cup.

“It was a time when coming second was not an option for us. Unlike today when the target is finishing in top eight or six, we only thought of winning gold.  In fact, when we reached our hotel in Malaysia, we saw a poster which had the World Cup trophy and beneath it was written ‘Who will win this trophy?’  We scratched ‘India’ on the wall,” Fernandez said.

Ashok concurred. “I remember when we came second in the 1973 World Cup, I entered my house from the back door as bauji (father, Dhyan Chand) was at home. This was the expectation level from us. We never had so much support staff, rather we individually assessed and worked on our game and helped others to do the same. Our grasping power was excellent and teams like Australia, Germany, Holland could never overwhelm us. Such was our domination on grass. Only Pakistan was our true competitor.”

No wonder then the victory over Pakistan in the final added to the euphoria of World Cup triumph. Pan India celebrations followed and processions were held with team holding the trophy. “We got a grand reception. The matches were held between us and rest of India. Several states felicitated us,” Fernandez said.

Ajit Pal adds: “We got lot the love and we were appreciated. Our lives changed. It was a great feeling holding that trophy.”

The euphoria, though, was to die soon. None of these heroes expected to witness such a decline of hockey during their lifetimes. “It is very demoralising. We never thought that we will see such a day and no other Indian team will be able to win the World Cup. It is very painful. We never imagined hockey will face such a low. But it’s a reality, we are down and out, and we have to accept it,” said Ajit Pal, a brilliant centre forward of his time.

The subsequent degeneration of India’s performance further fogged their achievement. The heroes of 1975 slowly faded from the Indian memory. The step-motherly treatment to hockey and its legends infuriated few, dispirited many others. Aslam Sher Khan continued for few more years after 1975 before calling quits. He went on to write an autobiography titled ‘To Hell With Hockey.’

“Hockey has brought so many medals and laurels for India. There was a time India was known because of hockey. Till 70s hockey was respected more than cricket. But today look where cricket is and where is hockey,” Ajit Pal asked.  

“One of the reasons for hockey’s decline is that its top bosses never tried to develop the game and infrastructure even when hockey was at the top. That’s what cricket has done differently in India. Their former cricketers are well looked after. But can we say the same about hockey players?”

During these 39 years, the 1975 squad of 16 has been reduced to 13 following the demise of Surjit Singh, Shivaji Pawar and Mohinder Singh. “But we still remember them. They were the indispensible part of a memorable triumph. All of us team members still keep in touch with each other. In fact one of the strengths of our side was our unity. We backed each other and took pride in our historic tradition.

 That’s what I told these boys who are going for the World Cup,” Ajit Pal said. “Yes, 39 years is a very long time to be recognised. But we have no regrets. We are so happy that we did our best for the country.”