Dhyan Chand: The hockey wizard who had the world on his stick

With three Olympic gold medals, he was the poster boy of Indian hockey for decades. Dhyan Chand's birthday is celebrated as National Sports Day in India.

By Naveen Peter

For many, Dhyan Chand is simply the greatest Indian field hockey player of all time.

He was the man who mesmerised everyone with his silky stick-work earning him the nickname ‘hockey wizard.’

Born on August 29, 1905, in Allahabad to Sharadha Singh and Sameshwar Singh - a soldier in the British Indian Army, Dhyan Singh was drawn towards hockey at a very early age. Like his father, he too enrolled himself in the army at the age of 16 and continued to play his favourite sport there.

His time in the force saw him play various army hockey competitions and regimental games between 1922 and 1926. The youngster would take to the game like fish to water, and develop into a fine craftsman for his side.

Dhyan would be so engrossed in the game that he played hockey even during the night after his duty hours, practising under the moonlight, a reason that earned him the name Dhyan Chand (‘Chand’ means moon in Hindi).

Making it to the Indian hockey team

His progress through the ranks saw him make the Indian Army team for a tour to New Zealand in 1926.

The Indian side was firing on all cylinders in New Zealand, where they won 18 matches, drew two and lost just a solitary tie during the tour.

Their performance was lauded by many and Dhyan Chand, in particular, received a lot of praise for his show on his first international assignment. On return, he was named a Lance Naik in the Punjab Regiment of the British Indian Army.

His quality and performance didn’t go unnoticed for long as Chand would soon make it to the Indian team for the 1928 Olympics in Amsterdam.

With the sport included in the Olympic fold for the first time, the newly formed Indian Hockey Federation (IHF) was eager to send the best possible team for the Games in the Netherlands. For that, the IHF called for an inter-provincial tournament to decide on the squad for the Olympics.

Five teams -- Punjab, Bengal, Rajputana, United Provinces (UP) and Central Provinces -- participated in the inaugural Nationals. And with the army sides choosing to skip the competition, Dhyan Chand was allowed to turn up for UP.

The magician ensured that he made the most of the opportunity to not only make a case for himself in the Indian hockey team but also entertained the selectors and the spectators with his quality ball control and darting runs that had the opposition defence in trouble time and again.

The Olympic dream

His splendid performance at the inter-provincial tournament as the centre-forward and his partnership with George Marthins, the inside-right, meant Dhyan Chand was in India’s first-ever hockey squad for the Olympic Games.

Though they had to face some financial troubles before reaching Amsterdam, once in the Dutch city, the Indian field hockey team was in their groove as they made the competition their own with some fantastic hockey.

Leading the charge was their centre-forward hockey player, Dhyan Chand, who top-scored with 14 goals in 5 matches en route to a gold medal in their debut appearance.

The coming years would see Dhyan Chand’s legend grow manifold as the man from Allahabad took his game a notch higher and helped India defend their Olympic gold at the 1932 Los Angeles Games.

This time though, the win was a little more special as Dhyan had his brother Roop Singh along in the team that took the gold in LA.

Dhyan Chand (bottom right) with members of the Indian hockey team.

While the previous two editions saw Dhyan lead the Indian hockey team with his emphatic performances on the field, at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, he was named the captain of the side.

The added responsibility only spurred him to greater exploits. The Indian hockey team scored a total of 38 goals in the competition as they bagged another Olympic gold, conceding just once in the final.

India won three successive Olympic gold medals thus completing their first hat-trick at the Games.

Legacy enshrined in National Sports Awards

Returning from their triumph in Berlin, Chand joined his regiment and confined himself to army hockey. Though the sport in India continued to scale greater heights with the likes of Balbir Singh Sr leading the charge as India went on an all-conquering era, Dhyan Chand's contribution remains unparalleled.

He retired from his army service in 1956 as Major Dhyan Chand and was conferred the Padma Bhushan - the third-highest civilian award in India - the same year. He would take up coaching soon and was later named the chief coach of the National Institute of Sports (NIS), Patiala.

He died late in 1979, at the age of 74, but the legend lives on in India.

The nation celebrates its National Sports Day on Dhyan Chand’s birthday (August 29), and he is the only hockey player to have a commemorative postage stamp and the First-Day Cover in his honour.

The Dhyan Chand Award for Lifetime Achievement in Sports is a national sporting honour named after the hockey legend.

The national stadium in New Delhi is also named after him and the legend of Dhyan Chand continues to serve as an inspiration to many hockey players.