The year 2008 will be the one that goes down in Indian hockey history. It will be a year of infamy. In March, the men’s team lost to Great Britain by a couple of goals in the qualifiers and consequently missed a berth for the Beijing Olympics. For the first time in 80 years, Indian men will not battle for an Olympic medal.
The month after, on 24 April, the women’s team too failed to secure the berth. Four days later, the Indian Olympic Association dissolved the IHF and an ad hoc committee was put in charge of the sport that lies in tatters.
At his home in Mumbai, 94-year-old Leo Hillary Knowles Pinto watched the events unfold with a broken heart. “They have destroyed the game. Nobody cares for it anymore,” Pinto says.
Pinto was the valiant goalkeeper of the 1948 Olympic team. That time, our young nation was a bona fide superpower, winning three gold in a row from 1928 to 1936. But the 1948 Olympics was different. India played under her own flag and her sportsmen stood in attention to her national anthem.
As he narrates his experiences, Pinto’s joy is palpable, and he laughs when told that we managed to hunt down his remaining team members and are going to pester them with requests to reminisce.
Tracking down members of the 1948 gold-winning team is an exercise worthy of a medal in itself. It takes several calls to numerous state associations and days of follow-ups before we have a list of the members who are still living, and their contact details. Five remain.
The moment Pinto begins to recall his experiences, the effort redeems itself manifold. Numerous injuries and advanced age have not dimmed Pinto’s memories. Nor have they diminished the drama in Balbir Singh Sr’s story. Singh, 84, started his career in handcuffs. In 1945, Sir John Bennett, the British inspector general in Punjab, saw Singh play in a college match and decided he had to play for the Punjab Police team. But with his father having been jailed and tortured by the British Raj, Singh wanted nothing to do with the government. He ran away to Delhi.
But Bennett promptly sent officers to arrest Singh and brought him back to join the police service. Resigned to fate, Singh became one of the top players in the team. Three years later, on landing in London, the first person to greet the team was Bennett, then a member of the Olympic Reception Committee. Singh remembers, “we were scared of him. But he told everyone that he was the person that recruited me. He hugged me and said, ‘I am proud of you’. This would have never happened if he was still in India — it was not possible.”
For both Singh and Pinto, 1948 was their first Olympics. “I should have gone for the 1936 Berlin Games also,” says Pinto. “I was country’s best goalkeeper and was a natural selection.” But, as luck would have it, Pinto blocked a shot with his body during a tournament prior to the team’s departure. His collarbone broke, and blood began pouring out of his ears. In 1948, however, both players were in top form. Pinto and Singh took the field for the first time in India’s 9-1 thrashing of Argentina. The prelims were a cakewalk, and the Indians faced their big test against the Dutch in the semis, a game that India won narrowly.
By that point in the tournament, Pinto recalls, there was a sense of success in the team, along with apprehension. Their opponents in the finals, Great Britain, had overcome Pakistan. Pinto continues, “we knew we had the opportunity to win. But we were also very scared. We never thought anyone else could beat Pakistan. But Great Britain did. And then, the night before the match, it rained heavily at Wembley.” Wembley had a covering of grass, and several Indian players decided it was too wet to use studded shoes. They played barefoot. In front of a British crowd of 25,000, India won 4-0. “I can’t tell you how it felt. It was amazing. We went up to take the medal, saw the flag, sang the Jana Gana Mana and tears began to flow from my eyes,” says Pinto.
For a fledgling country that had seen the pith of its hockey talent rent apart during partition, it was nothing short of a historic victory. And with a team with an average age of just 20, it marked the beginning of independent India’s domination of world hockey.
Instant fame followed. After a goodwill tour of Europe and an eventful trip back home, the team played an exhibition match in Delhi. Singh says the stadium was so full that the then PM Jawaharlal Nehru, who had come to watch the match, complained to the papers the next day that “he could not see the match because of crowd; everyone was here.” The trip back home on board the Circassia would change the life of Cdr Grahanandan “Nandy” Singh, 84, in more ways than one. Nandy was so impressed with the seafarer’s life that he signed up for the navy once he was back in India and sailed all his life.
Born in Rawalpindi, Nandy’s life changed when after his father’s death, at the age of six, his family moved to Lyallpur (now known as Faisalabad). At 23, Mohun Bagan approached Nandy. Later, he joined the Calcutta Port Trust and was picked for the ‘48 side.
But while hockey went from strength to strength, the integrity of the sport’s administration was beginning to show cracks. Pinto was not picked for the 1952 Olympics, and his voice still rises in indignation when he recalls how some administrators from Tamil Nadu picked a player named Desamuthu from their state instead.
Nandy, however, played in the 1952 Olympics and won the gold again. Singh went one better, he won three straight gold medals. Far away in Kolkata, memories, both happy and sad, come tumbling out as Keshav Datt, who represented India in London as well as in Helsinki in 1952, recounts his life.
“My family was in bad shape after partition,” says Datt, who chose the security of a job over the offer of captaining the team for the Melbourne Olympics. He also opted out of the 1960 Rome Games. Of the two gold Datt won, he donated one to the National Defence Fund during the 1962 India-China war; and the second is with his son in the UK.
Eighty-one-year old Leslie Claudius, who created a record playing in four consecutive Olympics — London, Helsinki, Melbourne (1956) and Rome (1960) — is still a regular at the Maidan in Kolkata.
The diminutive Anglo-Indian, called “bamboo-legged” because of his frail physique, had started out as a footballer for Bengal-Nagpur Railways in Bilaspur, where he was based.
It was during the 1946 Beighton Cup that he was co-opted into one of the two BNR teams to stand in for an injured player. And thus started his hockey career. Soon, he was named in the 1948 team. “As soon as we entered the stadium, everyone stood up and applauded the world champions.” But Claudius is clear that Indian hockey now is in terminal decline. Back in Mumbai, Pinto nods in agreement. “Now we are nothing. Back then, we were kings.”
Seema Chowdhry in New Delhi, Melissa A Bell in Chandigarh and Rajdeep Datta Roy in Kolkata contributed to this story.
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