India has had a glorious past in the sport of Hockey. With 11 Olympic medals – 8 Gold, 1 Silver and 2 Bronze medals – India is the most successful team in the history of field hockey.
Despite languishing in the 5th spot in the World rankings currently, India has produced many top players throughout her history. Although, India has petered away of late, her achievements are unparalleled and when talking about the best hockey players, no list would be complete without including players from the subcontinent.There have been plenty of players who have captured the attention of the viewers with scintillating stickwork, mazy runs, brilliant defending and their goalscoring prowess.
We try our best to narrow the list down to just 5 of the greatest hockey players India has produced:
5. Udham Singh
Originally from Jalandhar Punjab, Udham Singh was one of India’s finest players. Standing at just 5 foot 6 inches and weighing just 58 kgs, he never let his small stature affect his game. He is the joint most successful Indian Olympian, winning 3 Olympic gold medals and 1 silver medal. He was part of the Helsinki (1952), Melbourne (1956) and Tokyo (1964) Olympic gold-winning teams apart from winning the silver at the 1960 Rome Olympics.
He could have made his Olympic debut as early as 1948, but a finger injury prevented him from becoming the only Indian to have represented the country at five consecutive Olympic Games. Moreover, he could have also become the most successful Olympian by being part of the all-conquering 1948 Olympics hockey team.
After his playing career, the diminutive hockey player took charge of the Indian team as manager winning the silver medal at the Mexico Olympics in 1968 and the 1970 Asian Games in Bangkok. He was conferred with the Arjuna award in 1965 for his contribution to Indian hockey.
4. Leslie Claudius
Born in 1927 in the town of Bilaspur in Chattisgarh (Bihar then), Leslie Claudius, along with Udham Singh, has won the most Olympic medals (3 Gold and 1 Silver) for India. He is considered to be the best half-back in the history of the sport.
He was the first player to have represented India in four consecutive Olympics and win 100 caps. He was manager of the Indian team at the 1978 Asian Games in Bangkok, where India finished 2nd, losing a closely-contested final to Pakistan.
In 1971, he was felicitated with the Padma Shri Award to celebrate his status as one of the finest to have won the game.
3. Dhanraj Pillay
Although Dhanraj Pillay wasn’t born in the golden generation of Indian hockey, his name is first on the lips of players who have mesmerized us with intricate stickwork and mazy dribbling. He made his debut in December, 1989 and hung his boots in August, 2004 after a glorious career which saw him captain the Indian side as well.
Pillay is the only player to have represented the country in 4 Olympics (1992, 1996, 2000 and 2004), 4 World Cups (1990, 1994, 1998 and 2002), 4 Asian Games (1990, 1994, 1998 and 2002) and 4 Champions Trophies (1995, 1996, 2002 and 2003). Under his captaincy, India won the 1998 Asian Games and 2003 Asian Cup.
His talent certainly merited plenty more medals than he has in his kitty. At times, he single-handedly carried India to victory and will go down in history as the most talented player to not have won an Olympic medal.
In 339 appearances for the national team, Pillay has scored 170 goals. He has been conferred with the Padma Shri Award, Arjuna Award and is the only hockey player to have been awarded the Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna Award.
2. Balbir Singh Sr.
Balbir Singh Sr. is the only player in the history of the sport to have scored 5 goals in an Olympic match where he scored 5 in a 6-1 win against the Netherlands in the final. He became the second Indian to win three Olympic gold medals after winning the top honour in London (1948), Helsinki (1952) and Melbourne (1956). He captained the team at the Melbourne Olympics and was the second in command at Helsinki. He also represented the Indian team which returned with silver medals from the 1958 Asian Games.
Post his playing career, the celebrated Sikh took charge of the Indian team as the coach, guiding the team to a 3rd placed finish at the 1971 Hockey World Cup which he bettered by winning the 1975 World Cup – the only time India won the tournament.
In 1957, he became the first sports personality to win the Padma Shri award. He has also written two autobiographies – The Golden Hat-trick (1977) and The Golden Yardstick: In Quest of Hockey Excellence (2008). The legendary forward is also the only hockey player and the only Indian to feature in the top 16 most iconic Olympians of all time.
1. Dhyan Chand
The greatest player to have graced the game, Major Dhyan Chand was known as ‘The Wizard’ courtesy of his brilliant stick-work and ball control. You would be shocked to know that his actual name is not Dhyan Chand. He was christened ‘Dhyan Singh' at birth and he was named Dhyan Chand by his teammates as he used to practice in the night when generally the moon, Chand, is visible.
Dhyan Chand has won three Olympic Gold medals for India, winning the Amsterdam (1928), Los Angeles (1932) and Berlin (1936) Olympics. He is the highest goalscorer in hockey, with over 400 goals across his career. Watching him play, Australian legendary batsman Don Bradman paid a glowing tribute to him saying, “He (Dhyan Chand) scores goals like runs in cricket”.
The National Sports Day, where the President gives away various sports awards, is celebrated on his birthday – 29th August. India’s highest award for lifetime achievement in sports is named after this hockey magician – Dhyan Chand Award. He is the only recipient among hockey players of the Padma Bhushan (1956) – India’s third highest civilian award.
Dhyan Chand’s hockey stick was the subject of extensive research as it was claimed he had a magnet in his stick and that he applied glue on his stick. All of the claims were false, of course, and to prove his quality, Dhyan Chand once, reportedly, used a lady spectator’s walking stick to score a goal. The German dictator, Hitler, even offered the hockey magician German citizenship so he could represent West Germany, which the army man rejected.