Ever since its debut at the 1928 Olympics in Amsterdam, the Indian hockey team had proven to be a dominant force at the global stage.
While the victories in 1948 and the 1952 Games came with consummate ease, India’s sixth Olympic hockey gold that came in Melbourne 1956 wasn’t a cakewalk. The 1-0 win against Pakistan in the final was hard earned and India’s neighbours showed tell tale signs that they had arrived on the world stage.
Four years later at the Rome 1960 Olympics, India were ‘conquered’. Pakistan relegated India to the silver medal to announce that they were a power to be reckoned with.
Prithipal, Bhola to the rescue
With Balbir Singh Sr retired, the Indian hockey team was still looking for an able replacement for the goal machine as they headed for the 1960 Olympics.
Captained by the veteran half-back Leslie Claudius in his fourth Olympics, the most by an Indian then -- boasted of a quality mix of youth and experience.
India beat Denmark, the Netherlands and New Zealand by convincing margins to move into the quarter-finals.
The team, however, looked scratchy. This despite a dominant 10-0 win over Denmark and conceding just a solitary goal in the group stages.
According to a report by The Hindu, the Indian forwards didn’t display any “thrust or combination” and were considered lucky to have won.
The Indian hockey team even trailed for the first time in an Olympic match against the Netherlands. Defending deep in their own half, the Dutch frustrated the Indians for long periods before turning things around as the experienced Raghbir Singh Bhola handed India the lead with seven minutes left on the clock.
It was Bhola’s incisive scoring and Prithipal Singh’s short corner conversions that masked the shortcomings as India slammed 17 goals and won all their matches in the group stages.
A different game
Rather than skilfully maneuvering their sticks in Rome, the Indians had resorted to playing the west’s hit-and-run style of hockey, which they were largely unfamiliar with.
“It was a delight in the past to watch our forwards indulge in quick short passing and skilful dribbling,” said SM Sait, the then vice president of Indian Hockey Federation.
“Now what we saw in Rome was a different picture altogether. Our players were trying to outdo our opponents in hard-hitting and individual thrusts,” he pointed out.
The new style wasn’t working for the Indians. And it troubled them when they ran into a determined Australia in the quarter-finals.
With the Kookaburras too deploying deep defensive tactics, the Indian hockey team once again found it hard to break the opponent’s backline and have any clear look at the Aussie goal.
With nothing to separate the teams, the match went into extra-time and once again it was the experience of Raghbir Singh Bhola that did the trick. The officer in the Indian Air Force scored from a penalty corner and carried India into the semi-final against Great Britain.
In the semis, the Indians were pushed back as the British chose to pile pressure on the champions with their incessant waves of attack. But this time, it was goalkeeper Shankar Laxman who made the difference.
The shot-stopper from Mhow in British India - now a cantonment in Indore in the state of Madhya Pradesh - was kept busy throughout the game as Stuart Mayes and John Hindle probed the Indian defence in search for a goal.
Helping Shankar Laxman hold fort -- he saved four attempts that day -- was defender Prithipal Singh who was rock solid. Udham Singh’s goal was the matchwinner and India were in another final.
Victory on the walls of Pakistan
Up against a formidable Pakistan in the final, the Indian hockey team’s task was cut out to retain the Olympic title.
Eight of the 11 players in the Pakistan side, also unbeaten in their group, had played in the final against India at the 1956 Olympics.
“We had undergone rigorous three to four months training in the camp at Lahore where the morale of players was very high and the slogan ‘Victory at Rome’ was written all over the walls of our bedrooms and elsewhere which infused a fighting spirit among the players,” recalled Abdul Waheed Khan, a member of the Pakistan hockey team.
High on adrenaline, Pakistan enjoyed a fine outing in the final, with inside-left Naseer Bunda giving them the lead in the 11th minute.
With India in disarray and unable to stitch any decent attack, Pakistan clung on that slender lead and clinched the gold for the first time in Olympic history.
“As soon as the match ended, the Pakistanis went berserk,” Boria Majumdar wrote in his book Dreams of a Billion. “It was the first time in Olympic history that the Indian hockey team has been pushed to number two on the podium.”
India had surrendered the Olympic hockey crown to their neighbours. At Rome, Indian hockey team’s brilliant run of six successive gold medals had ended.
“I never thought I would win a silver medal under my captaincy," the then captain Leslie Claudius summed up when speaking to the Times of India decades later. “I was so unlucky. I just can’t explain it."