How India won its first Olympic hockey gold

May 26 will mark 92 years since India first won gold at the Olympic Games. In this excerpt from Dhyan Chand’s autobiography Goal, we recount the country’s glory days on the world’s largest sporting stage.

The 1928 Indian Olympic team with IHF officials.   -  The Hindu Photo Library

In our hockey programme in England, you must have noticed that we won all our five matches played at Merton Abbey and out of the five fixtures in the Folkestone Festival, we won four and drew the other. These pre-Olympic fixtures in England 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 ho-ckey. We had the added advantage that since our team consisted of the smallest number of men, it was often necessary for our teammates to play in strange positions in the various matches.

I am not very sure of the exact date we crossed the English Channel, but I remember that we arrived in Amsterdam on April 24. I have no diary and my friends who have been helping me with the particulars are unable to give more details. We played four matches in Holland, two in Germany and one in Belgium before we actually made our debut in the Olympic stadium, where we played our first match on May 17. We opened our continental itinerary on April 26 with a match against an Amsterdam XI, winning the match by fifteen goals to two. It was only a short run from Amsterdam to Arnheim where our next event was played and which we won by eight clear goals. The Dutch hockey authorities were anxiously watching our play and were frightfully keen to get the hang of our attacking technique. They fielded their second Olympic XI on May 2 in Amsterdam and this match also proved an easy victory for us. We won by eight clear goals again. Later, we journeyed to the Hague to meet the Dutch Olympic team in a practice match. This match also we won with consummate ease but not before our goal suffered a reverse once against the eight times we netted into theirs.

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Sightseeing

We spent some time sightseeing in Holland before leaving for Germany and Belgium from where fixture invitations had come. At the Hague, we visited the famous Permanent Court of International Justice. I cannot recollect whether the court was then in session or not. We then saw the picturesque palace of Queen Wilhelmina with its well laid-out lawns and gardens and crystal-clear sparkling pools of water. Holland, as the very name Low Countries implies, you know will never suffer from scarcity of water, a good part of the interland being below sea level. A trip round these regions reminds one of Bengal or the southern state of Travancore. The country is rich in pastureland and is famous for its dairy products and fish. Our manager Mr. Rosser and we ourselves were very anxious to visit the Kaiser’s Doorn home (Huis Doorn, or Doorn Manor, was the residence-in-exile of Kaiser Wilhelm II, the last German emperor, between 1919 and 1941), a few miles away from Amsterdam. The Kaiser was spending his last days in exile at Doorn and we wanted very much to have a glimpse of this old man who reputedly was responsible for World War I engaged in his favourite pastime of chopping wood. We were, however, advised to desist and it was a disappointment to us all. However, we were well nigh achieving our hope during our 1932 Olympic tour. Our manager, Mr. Pankaj Gupta, took us for a drive through a small narrow village where we saw Dutch women lining up the streets peddling fresh fish caught from the dykes. The Bengali that he is – Bengalis are the most famous fish-eaters in the whole of India, you all know – Pankaj Gupta remarked the sight reminded him very much of rural villages in Bengal. These Dutch women, in their colourful national costumes and wooden shoes, presented a typical Dutch rural scene. This village lay on our way to the Doorn residence of the Kaiser. When we neared the estate, we saw a burly sentry mounting guard at the gate. His stony glare and statue-like posture were not inviting enough for us to make further progress. We all had believed the Kaiser lived in obscurity and it would be easy for us to gatecrash into his presence. But with such precautions around him, we thought fit to retreat without completing our mission.

The Indian hockey team that played the 1928 Olympic final. Standing (left to right): Richard Allen, Maurice Gateley, Leslie Hammond, Dhyan Chand, Eric Pinniger, George Marthins and William Goodsir-Cullen. Squatting (left to right): Rex Norris, Michael Rocque, Shaukat Ali and Frederic Seaman.   -  The Hindu Photo Library

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An invitation came from the German Hockey Association (Deutscher Hockey Bund) to play two matches in Germany which we gladly accepted, even though our players were crocked and were not hundred per cent fit. We had a keen desire to visit the Kaiser’s Berlin — neither the Berliners nor Germans as a whole knew of any Adolf Hitler then. We played our first match in Germany in Hanover on May 7 beating a home team by ten clear goals. From Hanover, we travelled to Berlin where on May 8 we defeated a Berlin XI by five goals to one. It was an exciting game. Lots of burly tactics, physical force and “flogging” were features of German hockey as I saw it then.

From Berlin, we crossed over to Belgium for our fixtures there. The journey along the famous Rhine fascinated some members of our team who had a poetic frame of mind. Being a soldier, I was only interested in resting as much as possible, trying to keep fit for the next game and for the Olympics. When we reached Brussels, my teammates taunted me with being crude and unromantic. The capital of Belgium fascinated me. Brussels is a small but picturesque city. Some of its churches are old and famous. Belgium is also famous for its lacework and glassware. We met a Brussels team on May 13 beating them by ten goals to two. We had a mind to visit Antwerp, which is close to Brussels, but could not do so because the time at our disposal was too short. Antwerp is the place where the first post-War Olympics were staged in 1920. We returned to Amsterdam on May 14 and rested for three days before playing our first game in the Olympic arena on May 17.

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The 1928 Olympiad was the ninth of its kind and it was at the request of the Indian Hockey Federation that hockey was reintroduced in the Games in 1928. All these years, our country was looking forward to an opportunity to demonstrate to the world her prowess in the world’s finest amateur game. You, therefore, will understand how eagerly and with what thoughts we awaited the day to dawn on May 17. The pre-Olympic short trips in Holland, Germany and Belgium gave us very good opportunities to get ourselves acclimatised to the Continental conditions. The climate in the Low Countries is not so uncertain or wet as in England. The grounds were also better in a way, but I wondered why the turf both in England and in the Continent were not kept properly trimmed. The long grass proved a handicap to us as the progress of the ball was slowed and our game of flick and push against our opponents’ hit and run suffered considerably. However, we did not bother ourselves much on this score as we were always at least half dozen goals superior to any other team we had so far encountered. This confidence stood us well. The three days prior to the opening Olympic fixture we spent quietly in our hotel in Amsterdam. Language was the chief obstacle and in spite of our best efforts, we could hardly be good mixers in social circles. Fashionable Dutch lasses, hockey enthusiasts all, flocked around us and wanted to fête us. But, as I have already narrated earlier, I kept myself strictly aloof.

The Dream Day

The day of our dreams dawned. On May 17, we confidently marched into the stadium to make our Olympic debut. We had travelled thousands of miles for this. People at home – quite a number of them hypercritical – had their doubts as to the wisdom or otherwise of India’s participation in the Olympic Games. We too had our misgivings so far, but on this day we had no doubts whatsoever. We were highly strung and we were determined to show to the world that in this game our country was supreme. The weather was fine and we met an Austrian XI. The game was a tame one and we beat our opponents by six clear goals. The team was composed of:

Richard Allen; Michael Rocque and Leslie Hammond; Rex Norris, Eric Pinniger and William Goodsir-Cullen; Maurice Gateley, Shaukat Ali, Dhyan Chand, George Marthins and Frederic Seaman.

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The first few minutes of the play we were not quite settled, but never was there a moment when Austria was on top of us. However much I desire to describe the 1928 Olympics, I regret I will have to disappoint your readers. My friends who have helped me so far in writing these memoirs have not been able to supply me with any detailed account of the games. How I wish our manager Rosser was alive today? He could have very well supplemented the statistical side of these memoirs. I do not know the whereabouts of one other friend who could have helped me. He is our teammate Hammond who used to maintain some sort of scrapbook. I hope Hammond will come across my narrative and supplement it with particulars. I cannot even recollect how many goals I scored against the Austrians.

An aerial view of the Olympic Stadium in Amsterdam.   -  The Hindu Photo Library

 

The next fixture was on May 18 when we met Belgium in the second round. We had a number of changes in our team. Jaipal Singh played his first match in the Olympic Games on this day and he partnered Rocque. S. M. Yusuf replaced Norris at right-half and Norris was transferred to left-half in place of Cullen, who was given a rest. Gateley was dropped and Shaukat Ali took his place at outside-right with the Punjab player Feroze Khan playing inside-right. The outcome of the play on this day was again in no doubt. While in Brussels, Belgium managed to score two goals against us, we beat them by nine clear goals and thus qualified to meet Denmark in the next fixture.

After a day’s rest, we faced Denmark on May 20. The Danish defence gave a sterling display, particularly their goalie, the stout and hefty Dane who did give me a severe time, stopping many of my efforts when I thought I was the winner. In fact, we found that more importance was laid on an efficient goalkeeper than on the others during all our Continental tour. We beat Denmark by five goals to nil, thus achieving a hat-trick. In three successive fixtures in the Olympics, no goal was scored against us. We kept up this tradition in the other two matches to follow also. After Denmark, we had to meet Switzerland in the semifinals. Switzerland’s prowess in hockey you all know is a household word in the Continent. Against Denmark, we had fielded the same team that opposed Belgium.

The semifinal against Switzerland was played on May 22. We beat our opponents by six goals to nil. We had a new team doing duty on this day:

Richard Allen; Michael Rocque and Jaipal Singh; Rex Norris, Eric Pinniger and William Goodsir-Cullen; Maurice Gateley, George Marthins, Dhyan Chand, Frederic Seaman and S. M. Yusuf.

Allen was our only goalkeeper and therefore there was no question of replacing him or giving him rest. I wondered at times what should have happened to us if Allen happened to injure himself. Possibly Shaukat Ali who played almost in every position would have been asked to take his place. I am not sure whether Jaipal Singh or Leslie Hammond played at full-back. Norris, Pinniger and Cullen played in the intermediate line and Gateley, Marthins, myself, Seamen and Yusuf formed the attacking quintet. I was surprised to see Yusuf play outside-left, but we could not help it. Feroze Khan was not fit and so also Shaukat Ali and that accounted for this strange forward line. With our victory over Switzerland, we qualified for the final, which took place on May 26. We faced Holland on that day. You will remember that in a practice match we beat the Dutch Olympic XI at the Hague on May 5 by eight goals to one. That helped us a great deal in sizing up the strength of our opponents on the day of the final. On this day, we beat Holland by three clear goals.

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At this distant date, I still remember vividly the tragic circumstances in which India took the field on May 26 to win the highest laurels in world’s hockey. It was a sadly depleted team that opposed Holland. Feroze Khan, Shaukat Ali and Kher Singh were on the sick list and Jaipal Singh was not available. I myself was ill, running a high temperature which stayed all through the game. For me, there was no option. That day our manager coined a slogan for us: “Do or die.” I decided I would die playing. I was a soldier by profession and when the country’s honour was at stake, there was no alternative but to march boldly into the battle field. Look at the team:

Richard Allen; Michael Rocque and Leslie Hammond; Rex Norris, Eric Pinniger and S. M. Yusuf; Maurice Gateley, George Marthins, Dhyan Chand, Frederic Seaman and William-Goodsir Cullen.

You will notice that poor Kher Singh could not participate in a single game in the Olympic fixtures. He had injured his knee earlier. With such odds against us, we entered the field, led by our captain Pinniger, on whom Jaipal Singh’s mantle fell, amidst thunderous cheers from a large crowd. With their own national team playing, the Dutch turned out in large numbers and the stands were full. It was a great game and the fine traditions of Indian hockey were demonstrated to the world with a skeleton side. Holland put up a very good fight. I was amazed to see them play considerably better than they did during the previous practice match against us. They too had adopted, it appeared, “do or die” tactics. In a way we were their masters and although we scored only three goals, our superiority was much more in evidence in all departments. I could give no detailed account of the play on that red letter day. Allen, our goalkeeper, created a record, namely that not a single goal was scored against him in all the five Olympic events we participated. However, Allen could not maintain this record in the second and subsequent Olympics in which India participated. Thus, on May 26, 1928, India was acknowledged throughout the world as the hockey champions. On May 28, we lined up at the Olympic Stadium to receive our Olympic medals and believe me that day our happiness knew no bounds. Unlike the present series of Olympic Games, the 1928 hockey was played in May, although the actual Olympic ceremony and other events took place according to schedule towards the end of July. As a result, we had not the good fortune to enjoy the Olympic atmosphere, the solemn rituals of the opening ceremony, the subsequent thrills and excitement. So even here my readers will have to be content with what appeared in the press at that time.

Dhyan Chand in action during a match between the Indian Olympic team and an Anglo-Scottish XI in England in April 1928.   -  The Hindu Photo Library

 

According to our manager Rosser, who submitted a report at the end of the tour:

“The exhibition of hockey given by the Indian team impressed and fascinated the countries of Europe. Apart from their wonderful eye, nimbleness, unselfish play, quick movements and team work, their display of scientific hockey showed what was possible in the great amateur game in correct unison and sympathetic touch.

“The main features that impressed the English and the Continental players were:

Positional play;

The combination of the forwards with the half-backs and the latter with the full-backs;

The tackle back;

Quick movements and first-time passes;

Deft stickwork, both in attack and in defence;

Quickness, dash and anticipation;

Frequent use of the hand to stop the ball; and The ‘feint’ to baffle the defence.

“Hockey as played in India is the creme de la creme of what really first-class hockey should be.”

Naturally, after our triumph we all felt that we had done something for our country. Something which perhaps even the politicians could not have achieved or done was gained for our country. We were fêted, entertained and lionised in Holland before we returned to England on our way back home. I could never forget the welcome on our tour of Europe. We spent a quiet holiday in London before embarking homewards.

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On our way back to India, in Marseilles, we met the Australian contingent of athletes who were to participate in the Olympics in July. We fraternised and there was a ring of sincerity and comradeship on the part of the Australians which won our hearts. Needless to add that reciprocation was spontaneous.

As we neared the shores of our mother country, we were puzzled and bewildered. The three-man send-off accorded us on March 10 in Bombay did not engender much hope of a triumphant homecoming. But our apprehensions were soon belied. Bombay made amends for her lapse and she gave us a reception befitting us. At Mole station was a sea of heads cheering wildly. Dr G. V. Deshmukh, the famous surgeon and politician who was then mayor of Bombay, was present to accord us a civic reception. The governor of Bombay sent a representative with a congratulatory message. Among those present to receive us were Jamnadas Mehta, the colourful personality in Indian politics, and the late lamented Benjamin Guy Horniman. It was a brave and happy team that faced a battery of cameras on that day. We had a very pleasant time in Bombay before we dispersed. Prior to being demobilised, the Olympic champions played a friendly game with the Western India Hockey Association. We beat them by six goals to one.

Buy a copy of Dhyan Chand's autobiography Goal .