Saturday, November 21, 2009

The day when India was on top of the world

One of the greatest of days in Indian sport , to me THE greatest day in Indian sport, was the day in March , long ago, when India lifted the hockey World Cup in Kuala Lumpur. India beat Pakistan in the final to win the World Cup for the first, and alas thus far the only, time.

The greatest day was actually not the final win. By the day of the final, it seemed pre ordained that India would win. The day came on the semi finals, just a day earlier. India played Malaysia on their home soil It was on a rain sodden pitch early in the morning (those days they played hockey on natural turf). It was a classic, which will remain in the memory of every Indian sports fan who was around then. There was no TV , of course, so glued to the transistor radio, listening to Melville D’Mello and Jasdev Singh, we followed the match.

The Indian team was an all star team captained by the immortal Ajitpal Singh. I can still get the full team more or less right – Leslie Fernandez in goal, Surjit Singh and Michael Kindo the starting full backs, Virender Singh, Ajitpal Singh and Mohinder Singh the half backs and the forward line of Phillips, Ashok Kumar, Shivaji Pawar, Govinda and Harcharan Singh.

Malaysia were playing way out of their skin, in front of a partisan capacity crowd. They led 2-1 well into the second half. India was virtually camping in front of the Malaysian goal. But the equaliser eluded them. They forced penalty corner after penalty corner. Surjit Singh, who was usually brilliant in taking the corners, just could not score that day. His hits were being frantically saved, somehow. The commentators were besides themselves as corner after corner was taken. Govinda ne push kiya, Ajitpal ne roka aur Surjit ne hit kiya (in 1000 decibels) … lekin …. The goal would just not come.

I vividly recall the feeling of absolute gloom. Two years ago in the finals against the Netherlands, exactly the same thing had happened. India was sitting in front of the Dutch goal, but could not score the winner and ultimately lost in the tie breaker (heart breaker). Was it going to happen all over again ? Surely the fates wouldn’t be so unkind.

8 minutes to go. India made a substitution. They replaced Michael Kindo with Aslam Sher Khan. They continued to besiege the Malaysian goal. Got two more penalty corners. Surjit hit them hard and straight. And yet the goal would not come. 3 minutes to go. By then I had lost all hope and was in tears, with the transistor still glued to the ear. Melville D’Mello was commentating. Yet another penalty corner. This time Ajitpal signaled Aslam Sher Khan to step up. Surjit was having no luck today. Govinda went to the goal line to push. Ajitpal to stop and Aslam to hit. The push came, Ajitpal stopped it dead on top of the circle. Up stepped Aslam. Cracked it true and hard. GGOOOOAAALLLLL. Even the normally suave Melville D’Mello went berserk. India had equalized.

From then on it all seemed pre ordained. India duly got the winner in extra time. And in the finals against Pakistan the next day, it seemed inevitable that India would win. Even the Gods had decided that it was India’s turn this time. Ajitpal was majestic. Fittingly, Ashok Kumar, son of Dhyan Chand, the greatest hockey player of all time, got the winner.

India was on top of the world.