History of hockey in India: Taught by the British, India conquered the world

Introduced in the Indian army during British rule, hockey attracted the masses so much so that India won a hat-trick of gold medals not once but twice.
By Rahul Venkat

Among the world’s premier sports with an Olympic legacy and featuring blue riband events like the World Cup, Champions Trophy and FIH Pro League, field hockey traces its roots back to the 16th century.

One of the most ancient games in the world -- a crude form of the sport was played in Egypt some 4,000 years ago -- the history of hockey can be traced back to 1527 in Scotland. Back then, it was called ‘hokie’ – where players hit around a small ball with sticks.

However, the first version of modern-day field hockey was developed by the British sometime between the late 18th and early 19th century. It was introduced as a popular school game then and made its way to the Indian army during British rule in the 1850s.

The availability of large plots of land as playing fields and the uncomplicated nature of equipment meant that hockey gradually became the popular sport of choice among children and young adults in India, with the country’s first hockey club being formed in then Calcutta (now Kolkata) in 1855.

In the next few decades, national competitions like the Beighton Cup in Calcutta and Aga Khan tournament in Bombay (now Mumbai) popularised the sport further, especially in erstwhile provinces of Bombay and Punjab.

There were talks of forming a hockey association in India in 1907 and 1908, but it didn’t materialise. The Indian Hockey Federation (IHF) was only formed in 1925, one year after the formation of the International Hockey Federation (FIH).

The IHF organised its first international tour in 1926 to New Zealand, where the Indian hockey men’s team played 21 matches and won 18. The tournament saw the emergence of a young Dhyan Chand, who would go on to become arguably the best hockey player the world has ever seen.

After a rocky relationship with the Olympic Games until 1924 -- hockey was only played in 1908 and 1920 and dropped for the other editions -- the presence of a global sports body (FIH) ensured that hockey gained permanent Olympic status starting Amsterdam 1928.

The Indian Hockey Federation applied and earned an FIH membership in 1927, thus ensuring that the Indian hockey team would play its first Olympics in 1928.

It was the beginning of a legacy - decorated with eight gold medals - a record till today.

Dominating the Olympics

The Indian hockey team clinched the Olympic gold medal in its first attempt in 1928. India played five matches, scoring 29 goals and conceding none, with Dhyan Chand scoring 14 of them.

The hockey wizard became the cornerstone of the Indian hockey team as it won two more gold medals in 1932 and 1936, completing a hat-trick of Olympic hockey golds. Dhyan Chand was made captain in 1936 in what would prove to be his final Olympic Games.

Dhyan Chand (standing second from left) with the Indian hockey team at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Photo: Olympic Archives.

When the Olympics returned after World War II in 1948, India found a new genius in the legendary Balbir Singh Sr as he steered them to a second hat-trick of Olympic gold medals in 1948, 1952, and 1956, this time as an independent nation. The period was one of the most significant in the history of hockey in India.

While Pakistan halted the gold run in the final at the 1960 Rome Olympics, India would ascend to the top step at Tokyo 1964. However, it was apparent that India’s domination of the sport was weakening.

The Indian hockey team had won silver at the 1958 and 1962 Asian Games, before finally winning gold in the 1966 edition. However, India only managed a bronze at Mexico 1968, in what was then their lowest finish in the Olympics.

The 1970s: Women’s team goes international

Hockey expanded its reach beyond the Olympics with the first Hockey World Cup held in 1971 in Spain. Though Pakistan beat Spain to win the title and India finished third, the sport was steadily gaining popularity in Europe, and innovations were underway.

India did manage another bronze at the 1972 Olympics in Munich, before making the World Cup final in 1973, where they lost to the Netherlands.

While India’s representation in global hockey was largely restricted to the men, the women’s team made its first appearance in international competition at the inaugural women’s Hockey World Cup in 1974, finishing a creditable fourth.

There seemed to be an upturn when the men’s team won its only World Cup title in 1975.

But the 1976 Montreal Olympics was the first to be played on astroturf – artificial grass fields specially curated for the sport - and the men’s Indian hockey team finished seventh.

It ended India’s Olympic podium run for the first time while the women’s team mustered a similar finish at the 1978 World Cup.

In this decade, the men’s team also ended up with three consecutive Asian Games silver medals in 1970, 1974, and 1978.

1980s-2008: A period of stagnation

The 1980s actually began well for the Indian hockey teams.

The men’s team took advantage of a depleted field to win their eighth Olympic gold at Moscow 1980 while the women’s team finished fourth in what was the first edition of women’s hockey at the Olympics.

At the 1982 Asian Games in New Delhi, where women’s hockey was played for the first time, the women’s Indian hockey team clinched a historic gold at home while the men’s team won silver.

However, there were no more accolades forthcoming after this period.

India were slow to take to the astroturfs, with local players still mostly playing on natural grass fields, which meant that the Indian hockey teams fell short at global events.

Neither the men nor the women were able to make the semi-finals at the World Cups or the (only men’s) Champions Trophy, with their medals restricted to a bronze each at the 1986 Asian Games.

Dhanraj Pillay's debut for the Indian hockey team in 1989 breathed new life into the sport as India boasted of a global superstar once more.

However, without adequate support, Pillay was unable to inspire a wave of success for the Indian hockey team, though he almost single-handedly ended India’s Asian Games gold drought with a stellar individual campaign in 1998.

The women also continued to struggle globally through this period, though they won silver at the 1998 Asian Games.

The introduction of hockey at the Commonwealth Games in 1998 provided another platform for global hockey. The Indian men’s and women’s teams finished fourth in the inaugural edition.

The women’s Indian hockey team then went on to win gold at the 2002 Commonwealth Games, an edition where the men were unable to qualify. The women then won silver in the 2006 edition, as the men could only manage sixth place, and bronze at the 2006 Asian Games.

The decline of Indian hockey hit rock bottom in 2008 when the men’s team, for the first time since 1928, failed to qualify for the Beijing Olympics.

Revival of Indian hockey

After the disappointment of 2008, the men’s Indian hockey team responded by returning to the podium at the 2010 Commonwealth Games, winning silver and the 2010 Asian Games, where they won bronze.

The men’s Indian hockey team qualified for the 2012 London Olympics. Though India ended last, it represented a small bit of progress.

The men also qualified for Rio 2016 but this time, it was the women who stole the spotlight as they qualified for their first Olympic Games in 36 years.

The women’s Indian hockey team won silver at the 2018 Asian Games.

In the years since, Indian hockey seems to have found its feet again.

The women’s team, led by Rani Rampal, won silver at the 2018 Asian Games, achieving their best ranking of ninth in the world the same year.

The men’s Indian hockey team has imbibed an attacking philosophy under new head coach Graham Reid and young captain Manpreet Singh.

The men’s team played its first FIH Pro League campaign in 2020, winning games against the best in the world like Belgium, Australia and the Netherlands.

At Tokyo 2020, the men’s hockey team ended a 41-year Olympic medal drought with a bronze medal after a thrilling win against Germany in the playoff.

The women’s team, in only its third Olympic appearance, showed tremendous grit to finish fourth, narrowly losing out on the bronze medal to Great Britain.

India women also achieved one of their most famous victories when they knocked out favourites Australia in the quarter-finals

Both the men’s and women’s teams are formidable contenders on the global stage and Indian hockey is now in a position to reclaim the glory of old.