Exclusive Extracts from Olympics: The India Story by Boria Majumdar and Nalin Mehta
‘The World’s Best Centre-Forward’:
At Amsterdam the onus was on the hockey team to lead the Indian challenge. The athletes, Chawan in the 10,000 metres, Hamid in the 400 metres hurdles and Murphy in the 800 metres, had failed to qualify for the second round. In hockey, India played her first match against Austria winning 6–0, an encounter reported in detail at home. Already, Dhyan Chand was being described as the ‘world’s greatest centre forward’. As the Statesman put it: "The Indian Hockey team has successfully surmounted the first obstacle towards the prize for which they journeyed to Europe. India defeated Austria 6–0 with the world’s greatest center forward Dhyan Chand giving another masterly exhibition. He scored all 3 goals in the first half. After the interval Dhyan Chand scored the fourth goal. The fifth was obtained by Shaukat Ali while Gately secured the last goal…"
Dhyan Chand eventually scored 14 of India’s 29 goals in Amsterdam. The very next day, the Statesman published another detailed report on India’s 9–0 win over Belgium. The space allotted to the report was nearly double compared to the first, an indication of the growing popularity of the team back home: "All India followed up their brilliant victory over Austria by defeating Belgium 9–0. The point about today’s victory was it proved India can pile up goals even if Dhyan Chand does not think it necessary to improve his goal average. In his skilful manner he worked out scoring possibilities yet tapped the ball either to Feroze Khan or Marthins. Seaman, whose clever stick work on left wing has been the feature of the tour, bewildered Belgium’s goalkeeper twice. Allen in India’s goal did not have much to do. Jaipal Singh was brilliant and Penniger did all that was required of him with polish…"
Subsequently, the Indians beat Denmark and Switzerland to set up a title clash with hosts Holland on 26 May 1928. When the Indians trounced Holland 3–0 in the final, the press back home went ballistic. The Statesmen had an entire report titled ‘How India Won Honors’ and went on to suggest that 40,000 people went into raptures over the brilliant exhibition of hockey displayed by the Indians in the final. It reported that despite having to reconstruct their side in the absence of Feroze Khan, who had broken his collarbone in the clash against Denmark, and Shaukat Ali, who was down with flu, India won comprehensively.21 Interestingly, the report does not mention the absence of captain Jaipal Singh who had, for personal reasons, walked out of the team before the semi-final. This is one of the most enduring mysteries of the tour and perhaps the first known political controversy within the national hockey team. Jaipal too is remarkably silent about this discord in his memoirs, one that had raised doubts over who had actually captained the final victory—Jaipal or Penniger. Jaipal left the Olympic team on the eve of the semi-final and did not take part in the final either. He refused to discuss the issue ever again in public and until new evidence emerges, the mystery of Jaipal and why he walked out of that first Indian Olympic victory will remain unresolved.
Coming back to the victory, the Statesman report quoted above also hit upon another intriguing aspect of those years of Indian dominance at the Olympics: ‘It is no empty title, for the critics are of the opinion that even if England had been competing in the Games, honors would have gone to India, though possibly not with the record of not conceding a goal remaining intact’. The colony had won in Europe but the colonizer was absent. In fact, there was a rumour in Olympic circles that England had initially entered a team for the Olympic hockey competition at Amsterdam. According to this rumour, after the 4–0 drubbing they received at the Folkestone festival at the hands of the Indians, the English were scared of losing on an international stage to their ‘colony’ and withdrew from the event. That there is some truth to this rumour is evident from Dhyan Chand’s recollections: "I reiterate that this is mere hearsay (that England dropped out of the Amsterdam Games fearing the Indians), although we fondly hoped that at least in future Olympics we would have the honor of meeting Great Britain and showing them how good or bad we were. It is my regret that this hope was never realized so long as I participated in Olympic events."
The English team did not participate in the Olympics until 1948, by which, time India was an independent nation. When India beat England 4–0 in the 1948 Games, it unleashed great celebrations in the newly independent nation and the win contributed to national self-confidence and self-belief. It was in Amsterdam that the legend of Indian hockey was created. Even the Dutch papers praised the team with generosity; ‘So agile are the Indians that they could run the full length of the hockey field, juggling a wooden ball on the flat end of the hockey stick’.27 England many not have participated but soon after the win, the Viceroy, Lord Irwin, sent a telegram to the team manager B. Rosser: ‘Please convey to Jaipal Singh and all members of his team my heartiest congratulations on their magnificent victory. All India has followed the triumphal progress throughout the tour and rejoice in the crowning achievement’. This telegram, which mentions Jaipal as captain, laid the captaincy debate to rest.