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Once we were kings

Once we were kings
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First Published: Mon, Jul 28 2008. 04 20 AM IST

False start: Leo Pinto missed the 1936 Games because of injury and had to wait till 1948 for his Olympics debut. (Photo by: Abhijit Bhatlekar / Mint )
False start: Leo Pinto missed the 1936 Games because of injury and had to wait till 1948 for his Olympics debut. (Photo by: Abhijit Bhatlekar / Mint )
Updated: Tue, Jul 29 2008. 09 35 AM IST
The year 2008 will be 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 brace of goals in a qualifying tournament and consequently missed a berth at the Olympics in Beijing. For the first time in 80 years, Indian men will not battle it out for a medal.
The month after, on 24 April, the women’s team, too, failed to secure a Beijing berth. Four days later, the Indian Olympic Association dissolved the Indian Hockey Federation and an ad hoc committee was put in charge of the sport that lay in tatters.
False start: Leo Pinto missed the 1936 Games because of injury and had to wait till 1948 for his Olympics debut. (Photo by: Abhijit Bhatlekar / Mint )
At his home on the first floor of a building close to Lilavati Hospital in Bandra, Mumbai, 94-year-old Leo Hillary Knowles Pinto (read Leo Hillary Knowles Pinto’s story) watched the events unfold with a broken heart. “They have destroyed the game. Nobody cares for it anymore,” Pinto tells us when we visit him. He looks dapper in his green 1948 London Olympics blazer and spotless yellow Olympics tie with a little stylized sketch of the Big Ben on it. Both the blazer and tie have a somewhat faded look after 60 years of irregular use, but are still spotless and ironed.
Pinto was the valiant goalkeeper of the Indian hockey team of 1948. By that time, our young, one-year-old nation was a bona fide hockey superpower, with three golds in a row from 1928 to 1936. But the 1948 Olympics would be different. India would play under her own flag and her sportsmen would stand in attention to her very own national anthem.
As he narrates his experiences of London, Pinto’s enthusiasm is palpable, and he laughs when we tell him that we managed to hunt down the remaining members of the team and are going to pester all of them with requests to reminisce.
Tracking down members of the 1948 Olympic gold-winning Indian hockey team is an exercise worthy of a minor medal in itself. There are no easily available databases, online or off. It takes several calls to numerous state hockey associations and days of follow-up before we have a list of the members who are still living, and the contact details. Five remain: two in Kolkata, one each in Chandigarh and Delhi, and Pinto in Mumbai.
The moment Pinto begins to recall experiences that took place 60 years ago, intermittently stressing a point with a wiggling, wrinkled but firm forefinger, the effort redeems itself manifold. Numerous injuries and advanced age have not dimmed Pinto’s memories.
National hero: Balbir Singh Sr was the first sportsperson to be awarded a Padma Shree in 1957. (Photo by: Zackary Canepari / Mint )
Nor have they diminished the drama in Balbir Singh Sr’s (read Balbir Singh Sr’s hockey saga) story of his debut as a professional hockey player. Singh, 84, who currently divides time between family homes in Chandigarh and Canada, started his stellar 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 wouldn’t let a good player escape that easily. He promptly sent officers to arrest Singh and brought him back to join the police service. Once resigned to his fate, Singh became one of the top players in the team.
Three years later, on landing in London, the first person to greet the Indian hockey team was none other than Bennett himself, 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, and he gave me a couple of tips. I was also happy because 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 Games (in Berlin) also,” says Pinto with an emphatic nod of his head. “I was the best goalkeeper in the country and was a natural selection.” But, as luck would have it, Pinto blocked a shot with his body during the semi-final of a tournament prior to the team’s departure. His collarbone broke, and blood began pouring out of his ears. It was three weeks before Pinto was discharged from the Presidency General Hospital (later renamed SSKM Hospital) in Kolkata. By then, the team had flown to Berlin.
In 1948, however, both players were in top form. Pinto and Singh took the field for the first time for India’s second match, a 9-1 thrashing of Argentina. Pinto takes umbrage when we ask him how he let in all of two goals in the tournament. “All because of other people’s mistakes. Against Argentina, the fellow was clearly off-side. The referee got it wrong!” he says with a dismissive wave of his hand.
But for the pair that was clubbed past Pinto, the Indian attack more than made up, scoring 25 goals. The preliminary round was a cakewalk, and the Indian team faced its first big test against the Dutch in the semi-finals. The game was evenly fought and India won by the odd goal out of three. The official report of the organizing committee of the London Olympics says this about the match: “Holland showed much better form against India…and many spectators thought they deserved to draw instead of being beaten…”
By that point in the tournament, Pinto recalls, there was a palpable sense of success in the team. But also apprehension: Their opponents in the finals, Great Britain, had overcome Pakistan in the semis after a hard-fought game.
Pinto continues, gazing out of a window into the distance for a glimpse of the past: “We knew we finally had the opportunity to win. Just one more match. But we were also very scared. We never thought anyone else could beat Pakistan. But Great Britain had. And then, the night before the match, it rained heavily at Wembley Stadium.”
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, the Indian team unleashed magic.
The British were swept aside. The Indians led 2-0 at half-time and doubled the margin by the final whistle. It was a thumping win.
“I can’t tell you how it felt. It was amazing. Astonishing. 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 on the RMS Circassia, the team members were welcomed as heroes. When they returned, Singh recalls, people lined the roads and garlanded the players as they paraded past in convertibles. The team played an exhibition match in Delhi. Singh says the stadium was so full that then prime minister 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 so much crowd; everybody was there”.
‘Nandy’ Singh has no hockey sticks left at home but happily posed with, and autographed, one we had taken with us. (Photo by: Madhu Kapparath / Mint )
The trip back home on board the Circassia would change the life of ace goal maker Cdr Grahanandan “Nandy” Singh (read about striker Cdr Grahanandan “Nandy” Singh), 84, in more ways than one. Nandy, who played in the forward position, 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) in Pakistan. Nandy says with pride: “I think that move made me the player that I eventually became. If you ask me, Faisalabad’s mitti (soil) has the ability to produce hockey players.”
At 23, Nandy was approached by the Mohun Bagan team. Later, he joined the Calcutta Port Trust and was eventually picked for the 1948 Olympics. “It was very fair in those days. Different states sent in their teams to a tournament, and the selection was made in Mumbai,” Nandy recalls fondly.
It was a remarkably talented team, with not a single position of weakness on the field. Nandy remembers (Balbir) Singh as being the top goal scorer but also says, with some amount of pride, that it was the skill that he and his other teammates possessed in passing the ball to Singh that made the difference. “Even now, I think it is not fair that in a team sport like hockey one person is singled out as a top scorer. If he does not get the ball courtesy the passes that his teammates make, how will he score?”
Hockey aficionados consider the 1950s as the beginning of the golden age of Indian hockey, with the country producing a prodigious amount of talent that won tournaments at every level.
But, while hockey went from strength to strength, the integrity of the country’s hockey administration had already begun 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 one more Olympics in 1952 and won the gold again. Both his medals are stashed safely in a bank vault and willed to his 12-year-old grandson in the US. “My grandson plays soccer, which must be because of the Brazilian blood from his mom’s side,” he adds, as he dribbles a ball on the carpet in his living room at his Defence Colony, New Delhi, home.
Singh went one better—he won three straight gold medals and even has a special blazer made to commemorate the hat-trick.
Keshav Datt donated one of his two gold medals to the National Defence Fund in 1962. (Photo by: Indranil Bhoumik / Mint )
Far away in Kolkata, Keshav Datt (read more about Keshav Datt) still gets misty-eyed when he talks of Ray Galway, the chief air hostess aboard the flight which took the Indian hockey team to London. “It was very thoughtful of the airline to depute her on our flight as she was an accomplished hockey player herself and represented Bombay,” says Datt of the lady who used to fly down the flanks. “She was a very attractive lady but I wonder what happened to her,” sighs Datt, 83, with a twinkle in his eyes.
Memories, both happy and sad, come tumbling out as Datt, who represented India in London as well as in Helsinki in 1952, recounts his life sitting in his small ground-floor flat in a housing complex off the Eastern Metropolitan Bypass. He lives alone; his wife and children live abroad. “I am too independent and don’t want anyone to come in my way or come in anyone’s way,” says Datt as he potters about his flat, cluttered with old books, files and paper clippings.
“My family was in bad shape after partition and everything was in disarray, and I needed to support it,” says Datt, who chose the security of a job over the offer of captaining the team that went to the Melbourne Olympics in 1956. He also opted out of the 1960 Rome Games and his hockey career was as good as over, though he continued to lead the Mohun Bagan team in the local league. “Now, both Mohun Bagan and East Bengal have disbanded their hockey teams.”
Of the two gold medals Datt won, he donated one to the National Defence Fund during the 1962 India-China war in response to Nehru’s appeal to citizens; the second is with his son in the UK, where his Danish-British wife, Marianne, lives.
Leslie Claudius won medals in four consecutive Olympic Games. (Photo by: Indranil Bhoumik / Mint)
Eighty-one-year old Leslie Claudius (know more about Leslie Claudius), who created a record playing in four consecutive Olympics—London (1948), Helsinki (1952), Melbourne (1956) and Rome (1960)—is still a regular at the Maidan in Kolkata and, on most evenings, can be found at the Customs tent—he worked for Customs for 36 years.
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. “In those days, the Anglo-Indians formed the backbone of the Railways,” says Claudius. It was during the 1946 Beighton Cup that he was co-opted into one of the two BNR teams in the tournament 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,” says Claudius. However, the 1960 loss to Pakistan still rankles. “That was a match we should never have lost.”
Almost half a century on, despite his offer to coach the national team having been rejected because he didn’t have a National Institute of Sports diploma, Claudius has no regrets. But he’s clear that Indian hockey is in terminal decline. “I think the glory days of hockey are over,” he says.
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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First Published: Mon, Jul 28 2008. 04 20 AM IST