Unchallenged master

Dhyan Chand dominated world hockey in the 1930s and 40s at the same time as Don Bradman was casting a massive shadow over world cricket.

Gulu Ezekiel

AS the nation marks the 100th birth anniversary of the immortal Dhyan Chand on August 29, there is a strong case for the hockey wizard being considered the greatest of all Indian sportspersons.

Dhyan Chand dominated world hockey in the 1930s and 40s at the same time as Don Bradman was casting a massive shadow over world cricket.

Hockey was not the global game during the Dhyan Chand era that it is today with the European nations then still relatively new to the game and Pakistan yet to be formed.

Still, even today Dhyan Chand is to hockey what Bradman is to cricket, Mohammed Ali to boxing and Pele to football — the unchallenged masters of their sport and the only Indian sportsperson who can lay claim to such an honour.

Dhyan Chand's legacy was carried on in the 70s by his supremely gifted son Ashok Kumar. Dhyan's younger brother Roop Singh was also an illustrious player, who won the Olympic gold in 1932 and '36. Today that grand legacy is in the hands of his granddaughters.

One of those rare Olympic triple gold medallists, Dhyan Chand was in the forefront of India's victories at Amsterdam (1928), Los Angeles (1932) and Berlin (1936) and could have added another if not for the outbreak of World War II in 1939. It was, however, not till 1934 that he was finally chosen as captain.

His goal-scoring feats are astonishing even if the opposition in his day was rather feeble. After watching him play in Adelaide in 1935, Bradman told him: "You score goals like runs in cricket."

It was in the Army where Dhyan Chand's talents were recognised and cultivated. He was first selected for the tour of New Zealand in 1926 and never looked back after that.

His career stretched till 1947 when the local organisers in East Africa pleaded with the Indian Hockey Federation to include the `Wizard' in the touring side even though he was 42 years old. He responded with 61 goals in 22 matches! India's hockey debut at Amsterdam was a roaring success and Dhyan Chand played a major role in securing the gold medal with ease. Great Britain, the reigning champions from 1920 (hockey was not included in the 1924 Games) dropped out, not wanting to be embarrassed by the `natives' over whom they were ruling. Indeed they stayed away till London 1948 by which time of course India had gained Independence.

It was perhaps just as well for the Brits. India won their five matches with ease at Amsterdam, scoring 29 goals (15 by Dhyan Chand alone) and not conceding a single one. The Netherlands were beaten 3-0 in the final with Dhyan scoring twice. The pattern would be repeated with remarkable, almost monotonous, consistency in 1932 and 1936 with the `Wizard' finishing his Olympics career with a remarkable 38 goals from 12 matches.

At Los Angeles the quality of the opposition was very poor. In fact there were just three teams in the fray. The United States were crushed 24-1 (Roop Singh 10 goals; Dhyan 8), while Japan lost 11-1. Indeed the Indians were left with an empty feeling despite the gold.

Hockey was even in danger of being excluded from the Olympics. But fortunately Berlin provided a stiffer test all round with 11 countries in the fray. Indian hockey suffered a jolt on the eve of the Olympics. The Germans achieved the near-impossible — they beat India 4-1 in a warm-up match. This caused panic to break out in the champions' camp. They need not have worried. In their first match India beat Hungary 4-0, then USA 7-0, Japan 9-0 and France 10-0.

Now came the much-anticipated re-match with the hosts in the final. A crowd of 40,000 turned out hoping to witness an encore from their heroes. The Germans succeeded in keeping the champions bottled up till the 32nd minute when Roop Singh broke the deadlock. The score remained 1-0 at half-time.

After that the floodgates opened and inevitably Dhyan Chand was in the thick of things. With the ground slippery after a heavy downpour the day before, he discarded his footwear and played the second half barefoot. It seemed to do the trick.

He scored three of the seven goals that followed but had a hand in almost all of them. Germany managed to pull one back and even decided to play rough, their goal-keeper going for India's star and breaking a tooth of his in the process. But he was soon back on the field and the Germans had to admit they were no match for the Oriental magicians. In fact, though Jesse Owens stole the headlines with his four athletics gold medals, Dhyan Chand and his team had mesmerised all those who were a witness to their skills at Berlin.

Born in Allahabad, he was from a Rajput family, which had a tradition of serving in the Army. His father Sameshwar Dutt Singh was a Subedar. He joined the army at the age of 16 and soon took to hockey, despite a childhood fascination for wrestling. His talent was first spotted by Subedar Major Bhole Tiwari, a keen player who was Dhyan's first guru. It was his British military masters who dubbed him `Chand' as he used to practise at night under the moonlight and the name stuck!

From 1922 to 1926 he played for his regiment in army tournaments and made a name for himself as an outstanding forward. Then came the call-up for the national team. There was no looking back after that.

At various stages of his career he was compared to an eel, a hawk and a leopard! Such was the awe in which he was held by team-mates and opponents alike. It was his speed, ball control, uncanny knack of spotting a gap in the defence and mastery in ball distribution that all combined to elevate him to the status of a living legend.

After his retirement, he coached the national side, turning down many lucrative offers from abroad.

Honours were bestowed on him by a grateful nation, including the Padma Bhushan in 1956, till date the only hockey player to receive the exalted award.

Dhyan Chand passed away on December 3, 1979 and a year later became the only hockey player in history to have a stamp released in his honour.

August 29 is celebrated as National Sports Day when the national sporting awards are handed out by the President of India at Rashtrapathi Bhavan. Dhyan Chand's imposing statue at the entrance of the National Stadium (main venue of the inaugural Asian Games in 1951) is a reminder of the all-time legend of hockey who brought so much glory to both the game and the nation.