The groupings for the 17th Asian Games in Incheon reveal that both India and Pakistan are in the same group. This is not surprising as tenacious and speedy South Korea is now on the same level as the sub-continental giants. Malaysia is also a formidable force in Asian hockey.
Hockey was first introduced in the 3rd Asian Games in 1958 in Tokyo. From 1958 till 1982 the final was always contested between India and Pakistan. During this period India won the gold medal just once at the 1966 Asian Games in Bangkok when outside right Balbir Singh’s extra time match winner led to a1-0 win.
Pakistan emerged triumphant in all the other Asian Games tournament finals in 1958, 1962, 1970, ’74,’78 and 1982. They inflicted their worst defeat on India at the National Stadium Delhi during the 9th Asian Games when they won 7-1 in front of former Prime Minister, the late Indira Gandhi and some of her cabinet colleagues.
India and Pakistan’s hockey supremacy got challenged at the 1986 Asian Games in Seoul. India was held to a draw by hosts South Korea in the group league matches and could not top their pool. They played Pakistan in the semi finals. India lost 1-3 and finished with the bronze medal. At the 15th Asian Games in Doha, Qatar, India finished without a medal for the first time, finishing fifth.
India has won the Asian Games hockey gold medal only twice in 1966 and 1988. They have been silver medalists nine times in 1958, 1962, 1970, 1974, 1978, 1982, 1990, 1994 and 2002 and bronze medalists twice in 1986 and 2010. The overall record stands at two gold, nine silver and two bronze medals.
The gold medal in the 1966 Asian Games hockey was the culmination of a golden period in Indian hockey during the 1960s. For the first and only time ever we beat Pakistan in two successive major tournament finals. In the 1964 Tokyo Olympics final India beat Pakistan 1-0 with stockily built right half Mohinder Lal scoring the match winner off a penalty stroke.
Lal who played for Northern Railway scored the match winner in the second half but the hero of this triumph was goalkeeper Shankar Laxman of Services who repeatedly saved numerous penalty corners and attacks by Pakistan. He was the unsung hero of this memorable win but sadly passed away due to gangrene and poverty some years ago.
Due to his seniority and heroics at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, Laxman was made India’s captain for the 1966 Asian Games. The national team was coached at Patiala by ex-Olympian R.S. Gentle and departed for Bangkok in the last week of November 1966.
For the 1966 Asian Games, the selectors along with Gentle made several changes in the 18-member squad. Eight members of the victorious 1964 Tokyo Olympics squad were dropped. The list included captain and centre half Charanjit Singh who had retired, reserve goalkeeper R.A. Christy, centre half Rajinder Singh, outside right Joginder Singh, inside right Udham Singh, inside left Bandu Patel and the two left wingers Darshan Singh and Ali Sayeed.
The selectors went for current form and opted for youthful talent. The team was selected after the 4th Nehru hockey tournament in which the Indian Hockey federation divided the probables into two squads, IHF Blues and IHF Reds. After two successive draws, they finished as joint champions of the tournament. So the national selectors chose several newcomers for the Asian Games squad.
They were the tenacious right half back Balbir Singh (Services), dependable left half back A.L. Frank (N. E. Railway), midfielder Harmik Singh (Combined Universities), dashing outside right Balbir Singh (Western Railway), brilliant inside left Inder Singh (Northern Railway), reserve goalkeeper Jagdip Singh (Combined Universities) and left wingers Tarseem Singh (Punjab) and Noel Toppo (Corps of Signals, Services).
There were some surprises in the squad. Many had thought that the talented centre half Ajitpal Singh of Combined Universities would be picked. But the selectors opted for the experienced Jagjit Singh of Punjab and preferred the versatility and aggression of Harmik Singh to the languid grace of Ajitpal Singh. Young Jagdip was a surprise choice as reserve custodian. He had excelled for Combined Universities in the 1966 Nehru hockey tournament and got selected for the national team. This was his only appearance in the national team. He did not play a match in Bangkok as Laxman was captain and first choice goalkeeper. He barely played in the domestic circuit, after the 1966 Bangkok Asian Games and soon went abroad.
There was also no place for the highly talented inside left Inam-ur-Rehman, as the experienced Haripal Kaushik and Inder Singh were chosen instead. It was felt that Inder who played for Northern Railway had telepathic understanding with centre forward Harbinder Singh, who also played for the same outfit. Haripal was lucky to get the nod ahead of younger and talented Inam-ur-Rehman who had to wait another two years before being chosen for a major international tournament, the 1968 Mexico Olympics.
Inam was probably dropped because in those days the traumas of Partition were still fresh in people’s minds. There was the feeling that Muslim players did not give off their best against Pakistan. The final with Pakistan was inevitable and so Inam was subsequently dropped.
There were just eight entries in the 1966 Asian games hockey tournament. India was in a tougher four team group along with 1962 Asiad bronze medalists, Malaysia, South Korea and Sri Lanka. Pakistan comfortably beat Hong Kong 5-0, hosts Thailand 13-0 and Japan 2-0. In the semi finals they routed Malaysia 5-1 and were favorites for the final.
India started shakily and struggled to beat Malaysia 1-0, minnows Sri Lanka 3-0 and South Korea 1-0. The team was not clicking and Coach R.S. Gentle made several changes which paid dividends. The 1964 Tokyo Olympics match winner Mohinder Lal had slowed down and was replaced by Balbir Singh (Services). Inside right V.J. Peter and Haripal Kaushik were also not at their incisive best. So in came Balbir Singh (Punjab) and inside left Inder Singh made his debut as inside left. The forward line now clicked with guile of Balbir and the dash and slick combination of Inder and Harbinder making it a formidable combination.
The Indian team which trounced Japan 3-0 in the semi finals was a commentator’s nightmare as there were three Balbir Singh’s in the playing eleven. So the radio commentators either identified them by their positions like right half back Balbir Singh or outside right Balbir Singh or their units, Balbir Singh (Punjab). India played in the 2-3-5 formation and the five forwards in both the semi final and final were outside right Balbir Singh(Railways), inside right Balbir Singh (Punjab), centre forward Harbinder Singh (Railways), inside left Inder Singh (Railways) and outside left Noel Toppo (Services).
Balbir Singh (Services), Jagjit Singh (Punjab) and A.L. Frank (Railways) were the three half backs and defenders were penalty corner expert Prithipal Singh and Gurbux Singh who played for Mohun Bagan in Bengal.
The final was as always a battle of attrition with Pakistan. In those days these two arch rivals only clashed in major international tournaments as the concept of Test matches was unheard off. Desperate to avenge their 1964 Olympics defeat Pakistan started playing rough hockey. By the tenth minute the Pakistani left half struck outside right Balbir Singh on his knee. The blow was severe and Balbir was stretchered off. There were no substitutes allowed then and India played the rest of the match with ten men.
Inevitably India played defensively and the match ended in a goalless draw. Balbir Singh of Services played a heroic game featuring as both a midfielder and helping in attack. His work rate was exemplary. Extra time was enforced and the match was drifting into a draw with both defences very tight. In the second half of extra time, the reserve players of India coaxed and cajoled Balbir Singh (Railways) to return to the game despite his injury and swollen knee. They taunted him by saying, “Tu kis tarah ka sardar hai ke chot khane ke baad dar raha hein khelne se. Bahadur ban ja aur khel.” (What type of a Sikh (Lion) are you that after an injury you are scared of playing. Be brave and go out and play).”
A limping Balbir joined the action in the second half of extra time and fortuitously scored the match winner and became an instant hero. Centre forward Harbinder Singh recalls the winning goal just three minutes before the final whistle. He said, “Our team made a long clearance and Balbir trapped the ball in the dee and tried to send a reverse hit to me at the top of the striking circle. Somehow he went off balance, maybe because of his injury and the ball struck one corner of his stick and rolled into the goal at the near post. The Pakistan goalkeeper had advanced to try and narrow the angle thinking it will be a reverse cross but instead the ball entered the goal.”
Harbinder said “we played out the remaining three minutes with ease and won the Asian Games hockey gold medal for the first time and Balbir was hailed as a hero for scoring the winning goal from a zero angle.” As there was no live telecast of the match in those days many people believe that Balbir scored an incredible match winner at the near post but the reality is different.
There was much jubilation as team returned to India but in those days there were no financial rewards. Some of the players just got promotions or a bonus from their offices. Sadly some of them struggled in the last years of their lives. Skipper Laxman lacked money for medical treatment after retirement when he got gangarene and died soon after. The family of another stalwart from the Services, outside left Noel Toppo’s family also lived in penury
In the earlier years of the 21st century Noel’s widowed wife Biswasi Toppo struggled on her nurse's salary of Rs.700 a month. Disgusted at the lack of help and false promises, a bitter Biswasi felt her husband would have been better off as a shoeshine boy. Noel Toppo, played hockey between 1960 and 1969 but the family even lost the Asian games gold medal after his death. There was nothing left from those glory days except for some faded photographs and souvenirs.
Newspapers reported her plight and some NRI’s from USA sent financial donations which were forwarded to her through the concerned district magistrate. Several of the stalwarts of that Asiad gold medal winning team, like Shankar Laxman, Prithipal Singh, V.J. Peter, Inder Singh and Noel Toppo have expired but in December 1966 they were heroes as the nation remained glued to their transistor sets to listen to the running commentary of the India vs Pakistan hockey final from Bangkok and rejoiced at Balbir Singh’s dramatic match-winner.
The 18-member Indian squad was as follows:
1966: Shankar Laxman (Capt-Services), Gurbux Singh(Bengal), Prithipal Singh(Railways), Dharam Singh(Punjab), Mohinder Lal(Railways), Jagjit Singh(Punjab), Balbir Singh (Services), Haripal Kaushik(Services), Harbinder Singh(Railways), Victor John Peter (Services), AL Frank (Railways), Balbir Singh (Punjab), Balbir Singh (Railways), Inder Singh(Railways), Tarseem Singh (Punjab), Harmik Singh (Combined Universities), Jagdip Singh (Combined Universities) and Noel Toppo (Services).