Reliving Indian hockey's 1975 World Cup triumph: How Ashok Kumar, Ajit Pal Singh guided India to victory
Forty-six years ago, on March 15, India lifted the hockey World Cup, their first and only title to date.
What made the victory more special was the fact, that they beat Pakistan in the finals 2-1. The win also helped India get rid of the "chokers" tag, as they had lost to the Netherlands in the same final two years ago.
The winning goal was scored by Ashok Kumar, son of hockey wizard Dhyan Chand. He was a key member of the team in 1971 and 1973 where India ended with a bronze and silver medal respectively. However, before the start of the tournament, he was added only as the 16th man in the squad and his chances of playing were very slim.
Therefore, when he reached Kuala Lumpur he just stared at the trophy in the glass case for quite some time. He knew it was now or never.
"The defeat in 1973 final still haunts me, to be honest, as we lost on penalties after the score remained 2-2 after the extra time," he recounted to IANS. "In extra time, B.P. Govinda missed a penalty stroke in 'sudden death'. The Netherlands won 4-2 in the penalties. It was a well-balanced team, and the loss was a setback."
In 1975, India lost just one match to Argentina. They beat European powerhouse Germany 3-2 and knocked out hosts Malaysia 3-2 in extra time to book a final with Pakistan.
"Before the final, the entire team went to mandir, masjid, and gurudwara in Kuala Lumpur and prayed. In the final, when Pakistan took a one goal lead in the 17th minute, some of our players got disheartened. Surjit Singh equalised in the 44th minute. And then in the 51st minute I scored a goal that turned out to be the match-winning strike.
"India's 1975 World Cup triumph had created a tehelka (storm) at the time. It makes us feel proud of our achievement. March 15, 1975, is indeed a historic day for Indian hockey. Before this win, India had been labelled as a team of silver and bronze medallists. With this triumph, we removed that label," he stated.
Upon returning home, the legend himself was waiting for him along with the entire city of Jhansi. He was given a hero's welcome and a three-km route from the station to his house took four hours to reach.
"When I reached home, 'dadu' (father Dhyan Chand) patted my back in appreciation. It was a rare occasion when he had touched me, since out of sheer respect for him I used to keep a distance from him. And, anyway, he had never encouraged us to take up sport as a career as the rewards were few and far between, and he had seen all that," said Kumar.
Similar to Kumar, Ajit Pal Singh carried the burden of the 1973 loss in his heart. He wanted to make amends for the earlier loss as life seldom gives a second chance. After scoring seven past Ghana in the group stage they had the belief that they can beat any team in the competition. However, Pakistan is always a complicated opponent as emotions run high against the neighbours.
"It was a fast-paced match. We were on the field, playing, so we did not realise that. However, those who watched the game told us that. The Pakistani team always had a strong forward line, and that team was no exception. We had to defend well against their forwards," stated Singh.
The 1975 win remains a jewel in the crown for Indian hockey. The players were gifted a scooter following their return to India. But the love and respect that was showered on them surpassed any monetary benefit.