From Dhyan Chand to Dhanraj Pillay: The best Indian hockey players in history

India boasts of a rich hockey history and some legendary players helped shape that legacy with aplomb. Here are five of the best.
By Rahul Venkat

For much of the previous century, Indian hockey players were the real superstars of the sport, worldwide.

India’s global domination of field hockey and mesmerising skills became the stuff of legends as other nations tried, mostly in vain, to catch up and beat them.

While such levels of brilliance are often a team effort – and India was blessed with quite a few prolific attackers over the years – there is always the one player in a team who stood out.

Here, we take a look at five of the greatest hockey players of all time:

Dhyan Chand

Dhyan Chand may quite simply be the best hockey player in the history of the game.

Nicknamed the wizard, Dhyan Chand’s skills with a ball at the end of his stick was second to none and his knack of getting into scoring positions meant that he scored plenty of goals, including hat-tricks in two Olympic finals.

First noticed on the global stage during India’s first international tour in 1926 (to New Zealand), Dhyan Chand made his Olympic debut with the Indian hockey team at Amsterdam 1928 and scored 14 goals en route winning the gold medal.

Dhyan Chand would go on to win two more gold medals in consecutive Olympics at Los Angeles 1932 and Berlin 1936, the latter as captain, to complete a hat-trick of Olympic golds and retire with an unbeaten Olympic record to his name.

Balbir Singh Sr.

When the Olympics returned in 1948 after being suspended for two editions in 1940 and 1944 due to World War II, Indian hockey was searching for its next superstar to take them forward.

Enter Balbir Singh Dosanjh.

Better known as Balbir Singh Sr, he is widely acknowledged as one of the best centre-forwards in hockey history. He overcame internal politics to score eight goals in two matches to bring home the Olympic hockey gold once again in 1948.

Balbir Singh Sr would go on to become India’s most integral hockey player in the following years as he led the team to a second hat-trick of Olympic golds, scoring five goals in the Helsinki 1952 final, a record which stands to this day. He was awarded the Padma Shri, the fourth highest civilian honour in 1957.

After his playing career, Balbir Singh Sr. also served as head coach and manager of the Indian hockey team and was at the helm when India won their only men’s Hockey World Cup title in 1975.

The legend battled hard with illness before passing away in May 2020 at the age of 96 but had left behind a lasting legacy.

Mohammad Shahid

An unheralded name in the history of Indian hockey, Mohammad Shahid was said to be one of the most skilful hockey players ever to emerge from the country.

Making his debut for the Indian hockey junior team in 1979, Shahid impressed enough to be included in the Olympics squad for 1980 and was quickly recognised as the lynchpin of the team.

An attacking winger, Shahid formed a deadly partnership with Zafar Iqbal upfront for the Indian hockey team and inspired India to their eighth and final Olympic gold medal to date at Moscow 1980. It was also India’s last Olympic medal in hockey.

Mohammad Shahid’s ability and importance to the team was hailed by 1980-Olympic gold winning captain Vasudevan Baskaran. The boy from Varanasi continued to etch his name as one of the finest hockey players in India in the coming decade, highlighted by an Asian Games bronze in 1986.

Shahid retired in 1989 and succumbed to a liver ailment in 2016.

Dhanraj Pillay

A name synonymous with Indian hockey, Dhanraj Pillay was among the last big superstars.

Making his debut for the Indian hockey team in 1989, Pillay picked up the baton of best player from predecessor Mohammad Shahid in the next few years.

Pillay, renowned for his burst of pace which left defenders in his wake and combined with his ability to pick the perfect pass, became one of the best attackers in international hockey in the 1990s. He was honoured with the Arjuna Award, which recognises performance in sports, in 1995.

Dhanraj Pillay is one of India’s best hockey players.

He also led the Indian hockey team to an Asian Games gold in 1998 after a 32-year gap with a brilliant individual campaign and then steered India to their maiden Asia Cup triumph in 2003.

Pillay was also one of the fittest players during his prime – playing in four Olympics, four World Cups, four Asian Games, and four Champions Trophy tournaments, the only player to do so – before finally hanging up his boots in 2004 after a 15-year long international career.

PR Sreejesh

For someone whose primary sport in childhood was not hockey, goalkeeper PR Sreejesh carved an excellent career at the highest level.

The veteran custodian had to wait a long time to make his debut for the senior national team but a sparkling performance in the 2011 Asian Champions Trophy - where he saved two penalties against Pakistan to win the title - made him the first-choice.

Since then, PR Sreejesh’s vocal leadership and superb shot-stopping skills have firmly established him as one of the top goalkeepers in the world.

PR Sreejesh has captained the Indian hockey team in the past and overcame a career-threatening injury in 2017 to regain his place in the team.

He was pivotal in the Indian hockey team’s maiden FIH Pro League campaign in 2020, guiding them to four victories - two of them in penalty shootouts.

In his third Olympic appearance at Tokyo 2020, PR Sreejesh was at his brilliant best, bailing out his defence on numerous occasions and constantly organising his back four with vocal instructions.

The veteran was probably the player of the tournament for the men’s team as they won Olympic bronze, ending a 41-year medal drought. It fulfilled a lifelong dream for PR Sreejesh.