Independence Day Special: 12th August 1948, three days before India could complete the first anniversary of a long dreamt Independence - an Indian Hockey team was to script history in London. On 15th August 1947, Great Britain's nearly 200-year rule was brought to an end by the unparalleled efforts of India's brave freedom fighters. They fulfilled the nation's long-standing dream to live in free air.
While the nation now dreamt to begin its path to new glory, in some other part of the world, a few young champions were breathing fire. An Independent Indian Hockey team was ready to break down the British. But the path to a historic Olympics Gold was not that easy.
When India got Independence, it left a major consequence of partition as Pakistan was formed. This impacted the hitherto united hockey team. Several key players Niaz Khan, Shah Rukh Muhammad, Aziz Malik and Ali Shah Dara who were part of India's 1936 Olympics win, chose Pakistan. A young Indian squad was picked with full of debutants and led by Kishan Lal. KD Singh Babu was made the vice-captain but the team had a future gem somewhere within who was earlier not picked due to internal squabbles. India's gem Balbir Singh Sr. was not in the squad until a 1932 Gold winner Dickie Carr rallied to bring him in.
India trained for the mega contest in Bombay (now Mumbai) so that a young squad could gel together. As a result, the Indian hockey team reached England late and was sent by flight instead of a ship. But when the Games began, India steamrolled every other opponent to remain unbeaten ahead of the final.
India's dominance in the early part of the campaign
Kishan Lal's Indian team was placed in Pool A of the tournament alongside Austria, Spain and Argentina. The defending champions faced Austria first, steamrolling them to an 8-0 win. However, Balbir was not part of the winning team.
He was included in the second match against Argentina and made a thumping debut. Balbir scored six goals in India's 9-1 cakewalk win over Argentina to make India one of the most dominating teams.
A difficult period followed India next
After those two brilliant starts, India were tested in challenging English conditions. Even though they managed to register a win against Spain and later in the semifinal against the Netherlands, the team was tested. The rain had poured down as it made the pitch muddy to prevent India from taking an advantage. The other factor for difficulty was the absence of Balbir, who made a stunning debut in the Argentina game.
Balbir was not picked after the second game and even though he walked out for the semifinal clash against Netherlands, he was sent back. India managed a 2-0 win against Spain and a 2-1 victory over the Dutch.
But next was England, the country which ruled India for around 200 years. From being controlled by them to challenging them at their own home in London in front of their own fans, would have been some goosebumps moment. For the final, Balbir was brought into the team in a very surprising way. A few Indian students in the UK demanded Balbir's inclusion via a protest to the Indian High Commissioner VK Krishna Menon. The management played Balbir in the final.
In the showdown clash, England wanted the rain to help them and India wanted the heat to benefit them. However as it turned out to be, it rained in London on the eve of the final. But Indians made a masterstroke plan for it. They used boots with studs to help them grip the surface better. The Indians were dominant in the first half and it became clear that an Indian victory in inevitable. In a match report filed by Alex Valentine in The Times of India, he reflected on how the team played the match.
"India’s superiority was never in dispute. Despite the heavy, muddy turf and the light rain, which fell for a considerable time during the game, the Indians outclassed the British team with their superb ball control, accurate passing and intelligent positional play. Long before half time, it was evident that India should win comfortably. If England had had any other goalkeeper but Brodie, India might have doubled their score…(By the middle of the second half) Britain had resigned to the fact that they had lost the game," a part of his report read.
As it stood out, India won the match by 4-0 and Balbir scored two goals. This was some statement by a new India that knew how to challenge the world. This was Independent India's first-ever Gold medal in the Olympics. This was the first time that India's tricolour was on top of the podium in an Olympic event. Balbir rightly quoted the moment, "It was a matter of pride that we had beaten England. It was thrilling. And now the world saluted our flag."