The finest hour - Ajitpal Singh

TIME has passed by with great speed. It is 27 years since we put our hands around the World Cup. As the captain of the 1975 team, I have wonderful memories.

"Though the victory was big, there were no government schemes as they have now, to reward the team. We still got some cash incentives and presents," says Ajitpal.-VINO JOHN

It is Kuala Lumpur again, and we have a sentimental attachment to that place. Expecting the title is more a hope these days, because the team has struggled and failed to finish among the top three, after taking the third, second and first positions in that order in the first three World Cups.

For us, in those days, the target was the title. People back home expected the title, and nothing less. Especially so, after we had narrowly missed the gold in 1973, when we were almost there.

To be honest, we had an excellent team in 1975. Most of us had played together for a few years. The team was great on and off the field. For a good team, you require good players, who stick together for some time. In 1973, we had a slightly superior team in terms of fitness. Maybe this time (1975), we had God on our side!

We prepared hard with a long camp at the University campus in Chandigarh. We had a wonderful coach in the late G. S. Bodi and, of course, the great Balbir Singh was there, as the manager. Good preparation was the key, and we had total support including the medical backing from the PGI doctors.

We reached Kuala Lumpur about five days before the start and felt at home there because of the tremendous support from the NRIs settled in Malaysia. They gave us the love, affection, encouragement and confidence to play at our best.

I always admire the ability of Malaysia to hold so many international events, not just in hockey. Of course, it was hockey in the air then, and persistent rain, which came down every other day did not dampen the spirits of the Malaysians from reaching the venues in huge numbers.

The Malaysian team was equally good. Even as far back as in 1968, I remember Malaysia being a hockey force in the Mexico Olympics. There were always a lot of Indian Malaysians, and when they play against us, they take things seriously. They had a fairly good side, and really troubled us in the semifinal.

It was a tough match. Press reports later indicated that there was a government directive for the Malaysians to support their team, but we still enjoyed a lot of support. It was a tough match and we were trailing 1-2 when Aslam Sher Khan came in place of Michael Kindo with about seven minutes for the hooter. Surjeet was missing Penalty Corners that day, and it was a good move on my part, in hindsight, to ask Aslam to take the Penalty Corners, and he got us the equaliser.

We beat the Malaysians in extra time, as Harcharan Singh signalled victory by directing a cross from V. J. Philips into the goal. It was indeed a very, very thrilling match, played in front of about 50,000 people at the Merdeka Stadium, which thankfully had a roof for the spectators.

Generally, the ground was very heavy because of the rain. At times, they had to shift matches. Even our match against Germany had to be abandoned and replayed all over again, after we had led 2-0, in the league. The match had started late, it was cloudy, and the goalkeeper had perhaps said that he could not see anything. Of course, we beat the Germans rather convincingly to wind up our league fixtures, when we met them again.

In fact, we did not face many difficulties in the pool matches, except for the loss against Argentina. Losing that match pushed us to a tight corner. We had to beat Germany in the last league match to make the semifinals, and we eventually accomplished the task in style.

That defeat against Argentina was because of the same malady we have these days - missed chances. We missed sitters that day with such alarming frequency, and could not catch up. Maybe, it was a blessing in disguise as the reverse stung the team to play with renewed resolve.

We began with a win over England, and drew 1-1 with Australia in the next match. This was a decent result considering the ability of the Aussies. Ghana was no side, and we thrashed them 7-0. The league was well handled by the team.

After the drama of the semifinals, it was disappointing to trail 0-1 against Pakistan in the final. It was anybody's match, as it is for us always, against Pakistan. It was a disappointing sort of feeling at that time, to be down by a goal. We got together, talked hard to build our psyche.

The team came out brilliantly in the second half. I proudly say that my team was absolutely marvellous. Leading 1-0 is always dangerous, because the other team tends to become more aggressive. We attacked with a lot of determination. Surjeet got us the equaliser with his patented penalty corner strike, after Zahid had scored for Pakistan.

Then, it was Ashok Kumar who put the icing on the cake with the match-winner, which people called 'controversial'. To me there was no doubt about the goal, as the respected and competent umpire G. Vijayanathan was right there next to the goal-post. He was the best judge, and he was very prompt with his decision.

It was like a dream come true. For each one of us. To be honest, it came at the fag end of my career. As a captain, I felt that the Almighty had blessed me with something very special. These things are very rare in life. Such success is never easy to achieve. Every one of us cherishes that great feeling, to this day.

The triumph changed our lives. People back home had listened to the commentary through the radio. People in Punjab saw some 'live' hockey, vague though, through PTV. Otherwise, it was only radio. Commentator Jasdev Singh used to tell me later, that it was he who first informed the good tidings to the nation. Every Indian liked it so much, that the whole country was jubilant. We had wonderful receptions all over the place, from down South to Uttar Pradesh, Punjab, Delhi, you name it, we were there.

You may wonder what was in that team, that is perhaps missing thereafter. Basically, as a team we were thinking, playing and enjoying ourselves together. That is how you start pulling together as one strong unit. If there is infighting, then you start pulling in opposite directions.

On and off the field, all our heads, minds and actions were together, which is perhaps the key to success for any team.

Though the victory was big, there were no government schemes as they have now, to reward the team. We still got some cash incentives and presents. Hockey was an amateur game, and to think of money was taboo. Whatever little money we got, they would give it to one of the family members to ensure that we retained our amateur status.

Well, sometimes success can also be damaging. As I said, as long as we pull together, it is a strong team. Victory is bound to give us some misconceptions. As a captain, I can start thinking it (victory) was because of me. Maybe, the other persons will also start thinking the same way. Of course, in the World Cup we all pulled together, and pulled hard.

I am grateful to God, for he has given me everything. So many play, and just fade away. Whatever I achieved - recognition, identity, confidence, everything - I did through the game. What more can one expect from the game!

Most of the boys started retiring, and soon the synthetic surface came into existence, being introduced in 1976. Indian hockey started sliding. Compared to grass, it was totally a different game. Till 1982, when we hosted the Asian Games, we didn't have a synthetic surface, and we lost precious time. We should have thought about the change, but we didn't take it seriously. You can imagine the damage it caused to the game in the country.

We know the difference now. Artificial turf is too demanding. You need a lot more speed, accuracy, and you can have numerous scoring chances. In our time, the victory was never more than by four or five goals. Now, any team can lose by five goals, on a given day.

Look at Indian hockey today. We may not be among the elite, but it is not really impossible to reach the top. It is possible, if we keep working at it. A very sincere approach is required from all sides, the players, the officials, the sponsors, the media, the coaches and the government.

Yet, at the end of the day, everything is within you. It is you, you and you. No coach can teach you, and nobody can motivate, unless the desire to excel burns from inside.

We did face difficulties. It used to be hot, and mosquitoes used to torture us when we were in the camps. But we were there in time for the training sessions, and worked really hard.

After all, money is not everything. Will and attitude decide the course of destiny, and the players must develop a positive frame of mind.

You cross so many hurdles to make the national team. Winning and losing are two sides of the same coin. But when you lose, it should hurt, and make you return to the next match as a better player.

The basic aim should be to rise and meet the expectations of the team-mates. Every player has to try to do his best, may be even better than his potential.

I am sure hockey deserves attention, as India and hockey go together. The links are deep-rooted, and it is in the hands of the present and future crop of players to keep the flame alive.

I eagerly look forward to seeing Indian hockey getting back to the top, perhaps starting with the current World Cup. The juniors did us proud, and it is time for the big boys to strike hard and rise to the occasion. - As told to Kamesh Srinivasan