In the early days of the Olympic Games, the Indian hockey team’s dominance was the stuff of folklore.
Not only were they unbeatable tactically, the players’ skills meant that they outplayed opponents and scored loads of goals, often winning matches by margins of more than 10 goals.
It was, therefore, no surprise that they had won five consecutive Olympic gold medals, including a hat-trick in 1928, 1932, 1936.
The Indian hockey team won golds when the Olympics returned after World War II in 1948 and 1952 and were overwhelming title favourites for the 1956 Games, held in Melbourne.
On December 6, 1956, India did live up to that tag, beating Pakistan 1-0 to win a second hat-trick of Olympic golds, this time as an independent nation.
The perfect hockey team
After starring in the previous two Olympics for India, legend Balbir Singh Sr. had blossomed into one of the best players in the world and was unsurprisingly named captain for Melbourne 1956.
Udham Singh, Govind Perumal and Raghubir Lal were playing their second Olympics while the Indian hockey team also brought in exciting youngsters like Shankar Laxman, Gurdev Singh Kullar, and Haripal Kaushik.
For the Melbourne Games, India had a great blend of experience – serial winners who knew what it took to come out on top – and young blood – who would provide the nonchalance in a title run.
Prior to leaving for Melbourne, the Indian hockey team played four practice matches in Ambala and Bombay, winning all of them as expected.
Though there were some injury concerns, much of the squad passed fitness tests with the only exception being Gursevak Singh, whose troublesome knee meant that he could not make his Olympic debut in Melbourne. Instead, that opportunity went to Amit Singh Bakshi.
It may have been a minor injury blip in India’s Olympic sojourn, but they were about to be hit by a major one.
A bittersweet group stage experience
With only 12 teams taking part in the 1956 Olympics - the first edition to be held in the southern hemisphere - they were divided into three groups of four teams each. India were drawn in Group A, along with Singapore, Afghanistan and the United States, opponents who were thought to be no match for the five-time champions.
The group stage matches were played at the Olympic Park Stadium while the semi-finals and the final was played at the Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG), which was also the venue for the opening and closing ceremonies for the 1956 Olympic Games.
India opened their Olympic campaign against Afghanistan, and sounded out their intentions early, putting 14 goals past their Asian counterparts. The huge victory came at a cost though.
Captain Balbir Singh Sr., who had scored five goals in the game, had suffered a fractured finger and would be forced to sit out the upcoming games. It could have been a big blow for the Indian hockey team, who were robbed of their star and main creative attacking outlet.
However a champion side often comes out on the other side of adversity with their heads held high and India did just that. In the absence of Balbir Singh Sr., they unearthed a gem in forward Udham Singh.
Udham, who had scored four goals in the opening game, followed that effort up with seven goals in a 16-0 victory against the USA and then scored a brace in the Indian hockey team’s relatively sedate 6-0 win against Singapore in the final group game.
The island nation was alert to India’s attacking prowess and set up in a defensive shape, putting several bodies behind the ball. The Indian hockey team were unable to penetrate the Singapore defence until the 23rd minute, the longest India had taken to score their opening goal in Olympic history.
The Indian hockey team did gather momentum after that opening goal to run Singapore ragged and end the group stage with 36 goals in total, but strangely, the media and other experts were unconvinced about India being firm favourites.
The fears proved to be partly true in the semi-finals as India could only beat Germany 1-0, with Udham Singh extending his scoring record. Nevertheless, they had set up a pulsating title showdown with Pakistan, who had beaten Great Britain in the other semi-final.
An emotional India vs Pakistan final
The Melbourne 1956 Olympic hockey final was the beginning of the storied India-Pakistan hockey rivalry.
It was the first time that India would be playing hockey against Pakistan on the global stage since the partition in 1947 and was an emotional occasion for much of the Indian hockey team, with Balbir Singh Sr. even admitting in his memoirs that he was unable to sleep the night before.
But it was also time for the star to return. Captain Balbir Singh Sr. had not played in any of the Indian hockey team’s matches since his injury in the first game and had been unable to recover by the time the final rolled around.
However, head coach Harbail Singh insisted that the team’s talisman take the field, if only to send a message to Pakistan.
He told me that even if I wasn’t able to play my best hockey, my reputation was such that the opponent would use two players to mark me and it would free up space for my other forwards. - Balbir Singh Sr.
“My injury was kept a secret for the opposition and that I didn’t shake hands with anyone. Just waved. I took pain-killing injections at the start of the game and at half time and managed to play.”
The final proved anything but easy for the Indian hockey team. Pakistan matched them stride for stride and ensured a goalless first half. However, India would soon take the lead.
A few minutes into the second half, the Indian hockey team earned a penalty corner which was pushed through by Udham Singh. Raghubir Lal trapped the ball perfectly for Randhir Singh Gentle, who swept his shot into the Pakistan goal, past the last defender.
Olympic debutant goalkeeper Shankar Laxman then kept Pakistan at bay, thwarting many attempts at his goal.
India held on to win a historic sixth-consecutive Olympic gold, securing their second hat-trick and first as an independent nation.
Moreover, they had done so by scoring an Olympic record 38 goals in five matches, a tally unmatched to this date, and remarkably, had conceded none. Forward Udham Singh ended with 15 goals, the most number of goals in an Olympic campaign.
It was a special victory for Balbir Singh Sr., who had been India’s flag-bearer at the Melbourne Olympics.
“That day when I led my team out to the victory rostrum, I swelled with pride. The crowd cheered us and it was a thrilling experience to acknowledge their applause,” the late Balbir Singh Sr. told authors Boria Majumdar and Nalin Mehta in their book, Dreams of a Billion: India and the Olympics.
“The National Anthem sounded sweet, and the tricolour, fluttering proudly in the stiff breeze, looked a grand sight.”
Experts opined after the group stage that the Indian hockey team would not dominate the world as it had done thus far and it did prove to be true four years later, as India fell in the final hurdle for the first time to win silver at Rome 1960.
However, India revelled in the record-breaking glory for the moment, enjoying the feat of six consecutive Olympic golds, one of those rare feats which looks unlikely to ever be matched in the future.