As a country, young and inexperienced at self-government, India at the 1948 Olympics was something of a novelty. The scars of colonialism still fresh in everyone’s mind, a certain amount of tension was expected. Therefore, it came as no surprise when stories of suppressed conflict between the Indian and Western contingents came to light.
In one story, it was widely reported that the Indian contingent failed to dip the flag in salute to the King during the opening ceremony.The explanation provided by the Indian officials was that the flag bearer for the contingent had been changed as a last minute resort. Needless to say, the Londoners were not having that.
The 80-strong contingent of the Indian team went to London without the heavy burden of expectations on them. The Games themselves were being held after a monumental gap of 12 years and after the completion of World War I, the presumptions for stellar performances were rare and minimal. Nevertheless, one aspect that India seemed to garner popular support in was Hockey.
Before the Second World War, the team from India had won gold at the highest level thrice in a row. As an extremely popular game in the country, the 1948 team contained some very talented faces. It was the only sport that the possibility of a medal could be dreamt of. Albeit being a team that consisted of none of the stalwarts that previously won them medals, the inexperienced squad of India was the last remaining bastion of hope.
The 1948 Olympics were special for more reasons than one. It was that year that India famously played a football match bare feet against a strong European opponent and narrowly lost out after putting up a fighting spectacle at the game. It was also the year when India eased some of the anger of post-colonial chaos by snatching a sweet victory against Great Britain’s field hockey team.
A descriptive match report by Alex Valentine for the Times of India the day after India defeated Britain was one that highly praised the winning side.
“India’s superiority was never in dispute,” he wrote. “Despite the heavy, muddy turf and the light rain which fell for a considerable time during the game, the Indians outclassed the British team with their intelligent positional play.”
And how must that have felt? The phrase “outclassed the British” would have stuck in one’s mind for quite some time. It was something that could accurately capture the glorious victory of the freedom struggle. Defeating Britain at Wembley would certainly have stuck.
As Valentine put it, the 4-0 victory was certainly decisive. The Indian half-backs were the ones who made this possible. With their incredibly fast paced passing and their accurate blocks, the trio of Maxie Vaz, Amir Kumar, and Keshav Dutt was relentless when it came to setting up scoring chances for their team. After falling behind by 2 goals, the home team definitely did try to tighten the noose against the team that was widely hailed as a subaltern class in social matters. However, every time they were blocked, the ball won and maneuvered right back in the Indian half and set up chances that were capitalised upon.
The other team of half-backs did not get a moment’s peace. The legendary George Sime constantly found himself under attack from the relentless playthroughs initiated by Merwyn Fernandes and Patrick Jansen. At one point, the only high point for Britain’s campaign proved to be a saved penalty struck by Keshav Dutt. English goalkeeper David Brodie, sans the customary heavy padding of a goalkeeper, nimbly saved it.
But rather than mar the spirits of a charged up Indian team, this one missed opportunity only spurred them on as they went on to net in two more goals. By the end, Brodie seemed to be the only competitive face left in the otherwise dispirited British squad. He was still in the game and he made very sure that India did not win by a bigger margin. 4-0 seemed embarrassing enough.
Another standout Indian from that particular squad was defender Tarlochan Singh Bawa who almost doubled up as a second goalie for his team. On the rare occasions that the ball did find itself dangerously close to the Indian goal, goalkeeper Leo Pinto had absolutely nothing to worry about due to the escapades showcased by Singh. An unassailable wall, he was there for the team on the few occasions that the ball managed to slip past the wall of Indian half-backs.
As the match neared its end, it was clear that the slight drizzle which was threatening to turn into torrential rainfall with each passing second could do nothing to dampen the cheer that the Indian players felt. They had walked away from the wreckage left by 90 years of imposition by the Crown and they had done it in style. The game has gone down as one of the most meaningful victories by independent India at the Olympics.
Since no team from Great Britain participated in the Games between 1928 and 1936, it was Major Dhyan Chand’s big regret that he would never get the opportunity to defeat the teachers at their own game. This regret culminated into a kind of catharsis in 1948. And that is why the victory over Great Britain that year remains special.