NEW DELHI: Way before December 6 became a date of socio-political significance for India, it was a date when India celebrated an iconic moment in its sporting history — when Balbir Singh Sr befuddled the Pakistanis by not letting the opposition know about his injury and his equally illustrious teammates ensured that Indian hockey continued to enjoy the view from the top of the Olympic podium.
On December 6, at the 1956 Melbourne Olympics, India beat Pakistan to win its sixth straight Olympic gold medal.
In 1992, the landscape of Indian history associated with December 6 changed with the Babri Masjid demolition. Slowly, year by year, dust started settling over the day’s sporting significance in Indian minds. But thanks to the 21st-century social media explosion, it stays ventilated on Twitter and Facebook timelines. But that’s about it.
The anecdotes surrounding that campaign, which ended with a sweet 1-0 victory over India’s fiercest hockey rivals Pakistan, in the final played at the Melbourne Cricket Ground, are among Indian hockey’s favourite bedtime stories.
Leading the script of those stories was skipper Balbir Singh Sr, accompanied by legends Leslie Claudius, Udham Singh, Randhir Singh Gentle, Raghubir Lal and many more.
In fact, Udham and Gentle were the architects of India’s wins in the semifinal and final, after the defending champions had sold the opponents a dummy. That story started taking shape right after the first league game.
The campaign began with ecstasy and disappointment in equal measure. India hammered Afghanistan 14-0, with Balbir scoring five of those goals. But a rasping hit from an Afghan defender had hit India’s star centre-forward smack on his right hand to fracture a finger.
“I am surprised how I did not collapse,” Balbir, who died on May 25 this year, wrote in his autobiography ‘The Golden Hat-trick’ later to explain the extent of the impact.
The x-ray in the evening confirmed the seriousness of the injury. Getting through the league phase wasn’t a problem (India followed the win against the Afghans by blanking USA 16-0 and sweeping Singapore 6-0 to storm into the semis as Group A toppers), but the possibility of playing the semifinal and final without their main goal-scorer was a cause for worry.
So the team management got into a huddle after the first match.
The names attending that meeting became icons of India, including the team’s manager Group Captain OP Mehra, who retired as Chief of Air staff in 1976, and India’s Chef de Mission, Air Marshal Arjan Singh, who went on to become the Air Chief Marshal.
“It was decided that I would not play in the rest of the league matches,” wrote Balbir Sr.
#OnThisDay in 1956, India won its sixth consecutive gold medal in field hockey, beating Pakistan 1-0 🇮🇳.… https://t.co/iN3Tb4GMhA
— Olympics (@Olympics) 1607245251000
But that’s not all. A psychological plan was rolled out as well.
“Each member of the team was told to keep my injury, especially the doctor’s report, a close secret…I was told to wear just an elastoplast on the injured finger and always to keep my right hand in my pocket. I was not to shake hands with anybody lest I wince and betray the secret of my throbbing pain,” Balbir Sr mentioned in his autobiography.
Those days, India’s opponents would often plant two defenders to block Balbir Sr. Ironically, India wanted that to continue, so that the other Indian strikers could go through holes in the defence.
“Had they known I was badly hurt, they would have ignored me and concentrated on other forwards, especially Udham Singh, our key inside-left,” the biography further revealed.
‘When we were the Kings’ -@BalbirSenior #OnThisDay A squad that was brimming with experience and youth besides tr… https://t.co/LxHPi8PWHN
— Team India (@WeAreTeamIndia) 1607227966000
Udham scored the all-important goal in the 1-0 semifinal win over ‘United Team of Germany’ and Gentle hit the winner and the only goal of the match in the final against Pakistan.
India’s combined scoreline across the campaign read 38-0. India’s first gold in 1928 had also come without conceding a single goal.
“Our tractis had clicked; our opponents never came to know of my troubles. They kept an additional man hounding me, though I was only a passenger on the ground. We had sold them the dummy,” Balbir Sr’s words expressed the happiness and pride he felt.
At the same Olympics, the Indian men’s football team finished fourth — our best till date at the Games.