My early Hockey days

*When India failed for the first time to make Olympic semi-finals in Montreal

*Why Prithipal Singh resigned as Chairman, Selection Committee

*India suffered its first ever defeat at hands of Malaysia in Lahore in 1976

*When India failed for the first time to make Olympic semi-finals in Montreal

*Why Prithipal Singh resigned as Chairman, Selection Committee

*India suffered its first ever defeat at hands of Malaysia in Lahore in 1976

By Prabhjot Singh

The year 1975 was an eventful and a watershed year for Indian hockey. It not only witnessed rise of its team as the World Cup champions but also saw the long-standing issues of infighting in the body controlling the sport – the Indian Hockey Federation (IHF) – being resolved. A new beginning was made with the control moving down to South for the first time.

The 1975 World Cup team before leaving the shores of the country had to serve an ultimatum that it would head for Kuala Lumpur only under the banner of the Indian Olympic Association (IOA). The threat worked. And when India beat Pakistan in a pulsating final, things changed. Dr MAM Ramaswamy took over the reins of Indian hockey thus ending the long rule of the North that enjoyed the support from the East and the West.

Dr Ramaswamy was in Kuala Lumpur to celebrate the victory with the boys, and he did not take long to announce holding of an international tournament in Madras to express his gratitude to the then International Hockey Federation (FIH) chief, Rene Frank.

Dr Ramaswamy named Prithipal Singh as the Chairman of the Selection Committee. This was done to recognize his continuous opposition to the police control of the IHF. Prithipal, fearless and bold, always called a spade a spade and wanted the parent body to run in accordance with its Constitution by providing even playfield for all – players, officials, coaches, and others.

Rene Frank Invitation Tournament saw a teenager from Ludhiana – Gurdeep Singh Pannu – being blooded into the team. Gurdeep, “Mangu” to his friends, was a student of Government college, Ludhiana, and was incidentally the first player from Ludhiana after Balbir Singh (Railways) and Jagdeep Singh Phoolka, did the honours for the country I the 1966 Asian Games.

Gurdeep was too raw to be cut into a probationer for future teams. Madras was his first and last tournament for India.

For me, it was a time to establish myself as a Sports Reporter in general and Hockey reporter. My Bachelor of Journalism had ended, and I returned to Government College, Ludhiana, for my Masters in English. I was back in the college hockey and cricket teams besides taking up the assignment as Sports Reporter of The Tribune.

Since Mr. Prithipal Singh, “Bhaji” as we used to call him, was close to me, I had direct access to “inside” developments in Indian hockey. Even otherwise, “Bhaji” was a great source for me for other sports stories, including Inter-University championships.

Before making a statement, he would call me and even allow me to have the first access.

Dr Ramaswamy trusted Prithipal Singh and would normally not do anything without consulting him. Madras event was conducted primarily to felicitate Mr. Rene Frank. It went well in accordance with the plans. Subsequent plans for selecting and training Indian team for the 1976 Montreal Olympic Games were prepared by the IHF in consultation with Mr. Prithipal Singh.

The immediate task for the IHF was preparing the Olympic team for Montreal 1976 where for the first-time synthetic surface was being used as a playfield. Indian team had neither any synthetic surface at home nor any event to have requisite experience of playing on AstroTurf (this was the name given to the surface at that time.)

On its way to Montreal, Indian team was scheduled to play a few practice games in Ontario. But lack of coordination or communication led to complication and legalities. The Indian team visibly divided into two camps, sent back home a letter to the Chairman of the Selection Committee, Mr. Prithipal Singh. It made the things obvious that the defending World Cup champions were no more a force to reckon with.

Mr. Prithipal Singh was very upset to receive that letter.

Writing was on the wall. For the first time in the history of Olympic hockey, India failed to make the semi-finals. There was a lot of hue and cry as the hockey team returned home with an Olympic medal.

Fullback Aslam Sher Khan, who had helped India with a penalty corner goal against Malaysia in the 1975 Kuala Lumpur World Cup, later claimed in his book “The Sudden Death”, that he was virtually made to play at all positions except for that of the goalkeeper, in Montreal. It was a sad chapter and had to end soon.

But the agony refused to go away. It persisted. After Montreal Olympics India got an invitation to play in the Qaid-e-Azam Invitation Hockey Tournament in Lahore. India accepted the invite and a team led by Aslam Sher Khan was announced by the IHF without even consulting the Chairman of the Selection Committee.

Furious on being divested of his power, Prithipal Singh quit the Selection Committee and issued a strong statement. It was in the Lahore Tournament that India suffered its first ever defeat at the hands of Malaysia in International Hockey. India lost its pool match to Malaysia 1-2.

Since then, India has been finding Malaysians a tough opponent. It is other story that it was Malaysia that helped India to qualify for the 1992 Olympic Games by its superb performance in a crucial game against France in the Olympic Qualifier in Auckland in 1991.More in subsequent posts…