There are two major reasons why the Indian hockey team’s gold medal at the 1948 Summer Olympics in London is considered to be the most epochal one in its storied history.
Firstly, that it helped discover its identity as an independent nation and provided solace to a country ravaged by a bloody partition.
On August 12, 1948, the Indian team landed its fourth-consecutive Olympic gold medal. It was the first under the Indian tri-colour as opposed to the Union flag unfurled in the previous editions.
Beating Great Britain - the colonial rulers - in front of mainly English fans in the capital city was the icing on the cake for a rampaging Indian team that won by four goals to nothing in the final at the iconic Wembley.
A free India but a nation divided
The year before the 1948 Olympic Games was a bittersweet one for India. While the country had managed to gain independence from the British, Pakistan separated out to become an independent nation.
The split affected the composition of the hitherto undivided Indian hockey team as some of the most skilful players from Punjab – Niaz Khan, Shah Rukh Muhammad, Aziz Malik and Ali Shah Dara, who was a part of India’s Berlin 1936 Olympics squad, chose to play for Pakistan.
So, the Indian hockey team that was picked for the 1948 London Olympics was formidable no doubt but picked from different parts of the country.
To help the team gel together, then Indian Hockey Federation (IHF) chief Naval Tata arranged for the squad to play a number of practice matches and attend camps in Bombay.
This meant that the Indian team would reach London much later than the other nations and Tata agreed to fly them out to the UK, a faster route than sailing by ship, and bore the extra costs. All this to ensure that they were best prepared to win the Olympic gold.
The 15-man team, earlier dominated by players from Punjab, now had as many as eight members from Bombay, including skipper Kishan Lal.
Vice-captain KD Singh Babu was considered the lynchpin of the team. Prominent players like Leslie Claudius, Keshav Dutt, Randhir Singh Gentle and goalkeeper Ranganathan Francis formed the core of the 1948 Olympics Indian hockey team.
Balbir Singh Sr., who was prolific in the national championships, top-scoring for Punjab in their twin title wins in 1946 and 1947, had initially missed the Olympic hockey squad due to internal squabbles over regionalism.
However, the veteran Dickie Carr, who won gold with the Indian hockey team at the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics, rallied for Balbir Singh’s inclusion and the IHF finally had to give in.
It proved to be a masterstroke as the Indian hockey team soon found out.
The unbeaten gold-winning campaign
At the 1948 Olympics, the Indian hockey team was drawn in Pool A along with Austria, Spain and Argentina.
In its first match against Austria, India comfortably won 8-0. The scoreline was emphatic but the heavy grass surface seemed to be a challenge.
However, India were back to their silky best against Argentina in the next game. Greeted by a dry, hard turf this time, the Indian hockey team, propelled by six goals from debutant Balbir Singh, routed the South Americans 9-1.
Spain managed to hold off the Indians and lost 2-0. India’s third straight win pitted them against the Netherlands in the semi-finals. The Indian hockey team beat the Dutch 2-1 to progress to the final.
Two reasons impacted India’s rhythm in the matches against Spain and the Netherlands.
First, the London rain rendered the hockey pitch muddy and that impeded India’s play largely based on individual skill and pace.
And second, the Indian hockey team did not utilise Balbir Singh’s ability to the fullest.
Despite having scored six goals on his debut, Balbir Singh Sr was dropped against Spain and was held back at the last instant in the semi-final against the Dutch.
A few Indian students studying in London, protested to the Indian High Commissioner VK Krishna Menon, demanding Balbir’s inclusion and that made the team management change its mind on the young Punjab striker for the final.
“If not for those students, who knows if Nanaji would have reached the heights he eventually did,” Kabir Singh, the late Balbir Singh’s grandson, told the Olympic Channel.
As it turned out, it rained a day before the final and Balbir Singh did start at the 25,000-strong Wembley stadium. He scored two goals to help India beat Britain 4-0.
India had adapted well for the 1948 Olympics hockey final. They wore boots with studs that helped them grip the pitch better. A perfect gameplan that included oodles of skill, speed and accurate passing left the British dumbfounded.
For a team where all players were debutants, the gold was something to cherish. An unbeaten Indian hockey team conceded just two goals in five games. It proved that an independent India knew how to defend its territory.
“It was a matter of pride that we had beaten England,” Balbir Singh Sr. summed up years late. “It was thrilling. And now the world saluted our flag.”
The story of this historic victory was narrated in the movie ‘Gold’, starring Bollywood superstar Akshay Kumar.
The 1948 London Olympics victory started a new period of dominance for the Indian hockey team. They went on to win gold medals in the next two Olympics and firmly etch their name in the game’s history books.