For an Indian hockey team that dominated the early years of the game — a run that included six consecutive gold medals at the Olympics — the loss to neighbours and arch-rivals Pakistan in the final of the 1960 Olympics was a setback.
Determined to regain its lost crown, the Indian hockey team did everything to ensure that the Olympic title returned home four years later.
“There was a lot of pressure after the defeat in 1960. There was so much passion for the sport in the country that nothing less than gold was acceptable. More so, because Pakistan had also beaten India in the 1962 Asian Games final.” Harbinder Singh, one of the key members of the Tokyo 1964 Olympics team told Indian Express.
The selection of the team for the 1964 Games began with the national championships in New Delhi. As many as 77 players were shortlisted for a month-long camp in Jalandhar under coach Habul Mukherjee. But making it the final list was a herculean task for many
“We used to play positional hockey those days and it was very tough for the selectors to prune the numbers,” Harbinder Singh, the former Indian forward, said.
“The initial group of 77 was first reduced to 55 and then 36. The final squad of 18 was to be decided after a three-day selection trial but such was the competition that it had to go into the fourth day before the team was finalised.”
Moreover, with no major disagreements within the team and regionalism yet to creep into the set-up, the Indian hockey team for Tokyo 1964 was a strongly-knit unit.
India’s preparatory tours to New Zealand and Malaysia ahead of the Games only strengthened this claim as convincing wins gave the side enough confidence heading into the Olympics.
However, India’s campaign in New Zealand began with a 1-2 loss and the local media was quick to write off their chances in the Games.
“We played this match a day after we arrived in New Zealand and we were hardly rested,” Harbinder Singh told Hockey India. “What made it worse was the rains. Back in those days, we played in leather boots as stud shoes were not available in India.
"Grip and control when it rained was not the only issue but our boots would soak up and the next day, it would get tight so we would use heaters in the room to dry our shoes all night,” Harbinder pointed out.
The next two matches, however, were played in the dry and India bounced back with a 5-2 and an 8-2 win that put them in good stead ahead of their Malaysia tour.
Tokyo Olympics: The Asian debut
At the 1964 Olympics, however, the Indian hockey team had its task cut out. With hockey establishing itself in Europe and Southeast Asia catching up, the campaign -- held in Asia for the first time -- was going to be anything but easy.
Meanwhile, former Indian hockey greats like William Goodsir-Cullen, Kishen Lal and Richard Carr took up coaching roles with other teams. And with the Indian diaspora growing, many talented players who couldn’t make the Indian team chose to join the teams of their ‘second’ nation, making the competition fierce.
This period also saw hockey in India evolve. They ditched their skilful artistry with the stick and banked on a more physical game while relying on short corners for the bulk of their goals.
This change helped India keep the Europeans in check but it also allowed their opponents enough opportunities to challenge them. And this was evident in the way the Indian hockey team went about its business at Tokyo 1964.
Led by captain Charanjit Singh, India won 2-0 against Belgium in the opening group match and it was followed by their first-ever draw at the Olympic Games.
Against Germany, the Indian hockey team trailed from the 20th minute and even stared at a rare possibility of a group-stage defeat. But Prithipal Singh, who impressed many at his debut Games four years ago in Rome, ensured that his team pulled one back from a penalty corner.
That draw was followed by another 1-1 result against Spain before India got into their groove and recorded four consecutive wins to make it to the semi-finals as the table toppers.
Defender Prithipal Singh was in top form netting 11 goals while the forward line of Harbinder Singh and Joginder Singh proved to be a terror for the opposition defence.
Incessant rain in the semi-finals didn’t slow them down either as India beat Australia 3-1 in slushy underfoot conditions.
It meant that the Indian hockey team now had a chance to win back their Olympic title. And once again standing in their way was Pakistan.
India vs Pakistan for Olympic gold
India vs Pakistan is a match that hockey fans across the world crave for. And things were no different at Tokyo 1964.
While India had grown from strength to strength as the competition progressed, Pakistan looked menacing from the first match.
Comfortable wins over Australia, Great Britain and hosts Japan had seen them lay down the marker. But their biggest challenge was yet to come.
Hockey matches between India and Pakistan - each boasting of quality players - are largely free-flowing and a delight to watch.
But the final at Komazawa Hockey Field was very different.
“Relations between the two teams were not very cordial. We were not on talking terms. Against India, Pakistan employed a very rough game,” explained Harbinder Singh.
“Those days, there were no television cameras and video referrals, and it was very difficult for the umpires to spot all the fouls and infringements.”
At a point, the match got so rough that the umpire had to intervene and lined up both the teams asking to ‘behave’ themselves.
Goalless at half time, India pushed for the opener in the second half and were soon rewarded with a penalty corner five minutes after half-time.
Though Prithipal Singh drove in with a fierce hit from the top of the striking circle, his shot struck Pakistani captain Manzoor Hussain’s foot on the goal line, handing India a penalty stroke.
This time, Mohinder Lal made no mistake from the spot to hand Indian the lead.
Defending champions Pakistan, however, came back roaring and created opportunities to score but only just. Standing like a rock was Indian goalkeeper Shankar Lakshman, who ended with the man of the match award.
The shot-stopper from Mhow - a cantonment in Indore in the state of Madhya Pradesh - pulled out two brilliant saves from Munir Dar’s short corners as India held on to the slender lead to regain the Olympic title.
India played nine matches - winning seven and drawing two - in just 12 days and celebrated with a traditional bhangra dance once they had sealed the gold medal.
As India prepares to return to Tokyo for another Olympic adventure next year, the memories of the 1964 Games will be a guiding force for the team.