The Indian hockey gharana has revolved around heroes and invariably they have been great goal scorers like the legendary Dhyan Chand, Balbir Singh (Senior), Leslie Claudius, Randhir Singh Gentle, Ranganathan Francis and the great K.D. Singh Babu. Their wizardry with the stick left oppositions flummoxed; the British appreciated the Indians’ ability with grace.
India won six straight gold medals from 1928 to 1956—indisputably our golden period. The last gold came at the 1980 Moscow Olympics. India’s seventh gold came at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, the first time the Summer Games were held in Asia. There is something special about Tokyo and the Olympics. Japan’s resilience is well documented in its history. Tokyo 2020 is extraordinary because of the pandemic and, touch wood, it is going fine.
The 1964 Games also tested the resilience of the Indian hockey team and we bounced back to win gold after eight years. The final win came against Pakistan and hence was doubly sweet. Mohinder Lal’s penalty corner was the only goal scored in a match that was physical and the umpires had to keep emotions in check. In Tokyo 2020, the Indian men’s team has looked the strongest in recent times. Without much match practice, the team has looked a bit rusty but the Olympics are a long tournament and if they remain mentally strong, they have the skill and the physical ability to go all the way.
I cherish being part of the Moscow 1980 team. We had a very attacking forward line and India played with five forwards. We depended on our forwards to put pressure on the opposition and that was our main strength. Our all-out attack game helped us win the gold medal match against Spain.
Although I played the 1984 and 1988 Olympics in Los Angeles and Seoul, Moscow was special because it was my debut Olympics, like most of my teammates, barring skipper Vasudevan Baskaran and goalkeeper Bir Bahadur Chhetri. However, the US-led boycott over Russia’s presence in Afghanistan saw a six-team men’s hockey competition after top teams like Pakistan, New Zealand, West Germany, Australia and the Netherlands pulled out.
Moscow was my first international competition, too. A young Indian team played against relatively easier opponents like Tanzania and Cuba in the initial stages. I was fortunate that I had a good coach in Balkrishan Singh and an understanding captain in Baskaran. This helped me perform to the best of my abilities. In Moscow, I was playing on an astro-turf pitch for the first time. But we prepared well for it—we practised on gravel hockey pitches in Bangalore to get used to a faster surface. We found out that the pace of a match is vastly different on a synthetic pitch but training on gravel helped. Astro-turf was introduced at the 1976 Montreal Olympics. For the first time in 58 years, India, purely bred on natural grass, were not on the podium, finishing seventh. Hence the comeback at Moscow was a creditable effort.
In Moscow, Spain and Soviet Union were among the strongest sides but Poland looked good as well. They would defend for long spells and then counterattack. We drew against ultra-defensive Poland and Spain in the Pool matches—both tough matches. Against Poland, we drew after being down 1-2. Our final pool match against Soviet Union was a must-win game. After we beat the Russians 4-2, we started believing that India can win gold.
The final was a close affair. We carved out a 4-3 win after Surinder Singh Sodhi scored twice and Mohammed Shahid and M.K. Kaushik once each. Unfortunately, I couldn’t celebrate the gold medal right away. Zafar Iqbal and I had to go for dope tests soon after the game; we celebrated once we were back in our rooms. Moscow also saw the Olympic debut of the Indian women’s hockey team. They finished fourth; Zimbabwe won the gold. Czechoslovakia and Soviet Union finished with silver and bronze in the six-team competition completed by Austria and Poland.
(This appeared in the print edition as "Olympic Diary")M.M. Somaya is a former India hockey captain who played mid-field in India’s gold-winning team at the 1980 Moscow Olympics