“It’s so much darker when a light goes out than it would have been if it had never shone.”
The above quote from the 1961 novel “The Winter of Our Discontent” could perhaps describe the state of Indian hockey at the turn of the last decade – but had the slide started even before author Steinbeck’s work was published?
After winning six consecutive gold medals from 1928 to 1956, the indomitable Indians finally lost – a lone sixth-minute goal was quite enough for Pakistan to create history and a new champion team was born at the 1960 Games.
Since that momentous day in Rome, the Indians have managed to win just two gold medals – beating Pakistan in the final of the Tokyo 1964 and making the most of the US-led boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics where Vasudevan Bhaskaran led India to glory.
In the absence of the hockey heavyweights, the Indians stood atop the podium at the Dynamo Stadium but post-Moscow a steady and rapid descent was to follow – the most successful hockey team in history failed to make it to the semi-finals in Los Angeles in 1984.
All hell broke loose when the Indians finished last in the 1986 World Cup and surrendered their global giant tag – could things get any worse?
For the time in history, the Indians failed to qualify for the Olympic Games in 2008 – the absolute nadir point had finally been struck.
Just when it seemed that the game was heading towards a state of oblivion, a slow but steady turnaround ensured that Indian hockey was back on the international radar with the 2010 Delhi World Cup.
As the game transformed itself from a 70-minute affair divided into two halves to a superfast four quarters of 60 minutes each, the Indians veered back on a path to ascendancy which has stunned the detractors and pleased their loyal and die-hard fans no end.
Not to be left behind, the Indian women’s team have learned to punch well above their weight with astounding performances both at the Asian level and the World Cup.
We take a look at ten of the best moments of Indian hockey in the decade of resurrection.
India 4 vs 3 Australia (Azlan Shah Cup 2010)
The Indians faced Australia in their fourth pool match of the 19th Azlan Shah Cup at Ipoh, Malaysia. The Indians were not too impressive, to begin with managing a 1-1 draw with China but came back strongly to beat arch-rivals Pakistan and South Korea – next up were the Aussies.
India’s Analytical Coach Chris Ciriello and Trent Mitton were part of the formidable Aussie side but Tushar Khandekar and Rajpal Singh put the Indians ahead and the much to the disbelief of spectators far and near the 3-0 half-time scoreline favoured the Indians.
The Aussies came back strongly with two goals in as many minutes immediately after the long breather with Ciriello back in business, but Shivendra Singh with his trademark headband scored a fourth to give the Indians a two-goal cushion with nine minutes left on the clock.
Mark Paterson’s 69th-minute goal reduced the deficit but it was the Indians who picked up full points and registered a rare win over the almighty Aussies.
India 1(4) vs 1(2) Pakistan (Asian Games Final 2014)
Up until 1982, India and Pakistan reigned supreme in Asia but the Koreans won the Asian Games title in 1986 opening up continental hockey like never before. So much so, that neither of the two subcontinental giants featured in the 2006 final between Korea and China.
The Men in Green won gold in Guangzhou 2010 and after a gap of 24 years met old rivals India in the Incheon final of 2014.
Playmaker Muhammad Rizwan Sr. put his team ahead three minutes after the opening whistle but Kothajit cancelled out the lead before half-time.
The Indians kept their head in the shootout that followed and re-asserted their Asian supremacy after a gap of 16 years – the resurrection had well and truly begun.
India 2 vs China 1 (Asian Champions Trophy – Final 2016)
All those who have followed the incredible journey of India’s Golden Girls will agree that the final of the Asian Champions Trophy of 2016 was a major turning point for women’s hockey in India.
For, at the Sengkang Stadium at Singapore, the Indians were up against an established Chinese side who had drawn level just before the end of the third quarter after Deep Grace Ekka had netted India’s first goal in the 13th minute.
Veteran Deepika Thakur came vigorously to life at the death as she made a spectacular solo foray deep in the Chinese half getting past four opposition defenders in the process.
A tumble in the attacking circle, notwithstanding, she had the time to strike a powerful tomahawk which was saved – but the move spurred the Indians on and Deepika sent one crashing past the Chinese goalie after the Indians tried a clever PC variation.
The referee, however, refused to allow the goal and finally retracted after consulting her colleague – with 20 seconds left to go, the Indians had achieved what seemed, hitherto, impossible.
The Chinese were miffed but the result stood – and the Indian girls began their long march ahead.
India 0 (1) vs Australia 0 (3) (Champions Trophy Final 2016)
The elite Champions Trophy featured only the crème-de-la-crème of hockey – and, for a great many years the Indians had to be content playing the second-rung Champions Challenge, but at the London edition India’s big moment finally arrived.
The Indians made it to the final ahead of Germany, Great Britain, and Belgium where the Australians – then coached by Graham Reid – were lying in wait.
A rare goalless draw was played out before a pulsating tie-breaker which went the way of the Aussies – the Indians protested against what they felt was a controversial shootout but came out with their heads their high – the Australian fortress had very nearly been breached.
History was repeated at Breda, in 2018, when the Indians lost yet another shootout to Australia in the final of the last edition of the Champions Trophy – an epic clash that will forever be remembered by hockey aficionados worldwide.
India 7 – Pakistan 1 (Hockey World League Semi-finals Pool Match 2017)
It was a day when two India-Pakistan matches were being held – not so far away from each other – the one making the headlines, however, was being played at the Oval.
The two old foes came face to face in the final of the ICC Cricket Champions Trophy – a match which was being shown live at the Dhyan Chand Stadium in Delhi – while the Indian hockey team faced Pakistan in a league match of the HWL Semifinals in London.
As Pakistan piled up a huge score and Mohammad Amir ripped through the Indian top-order, elsewhere, on the hockey pitch Manpreet Singh and co. wreaked havoc in the opposition circle.
While the Indian supporters left the Oval ruefully, hockey fans back home in India rejoiced. The 1-7 defeat at the Asiad final in New Delhi had finally been avenged – at least, to a certain extent.
India 4 vs 1 Japan (Women’s Asian Champions Trophy 2018)
After a short stint with the Indian men’s side, Sjoerd Marijne was back where he truly belonged – with the team he wished to mentor into a fit and fighting world-class unit.
Less than two weeks after he was re-appointed as Head Coach of the Indian women’s team, Marijne was at Donghae, as the Golden Girls sans Rani Rampal faced Japan in the opening match of the Asian Champions Trophy.
The Indians took the lead amidst overcast conditions as the rain pelted down forcing play to be suspended early in the third quarter with the Indians leading by a 2-0 margin.
Navneet Kaur scored a hattrick and Anupa Barla added to the tally as the Indians thrashed Japan by a 4-1 margin welcoming Marijne back into the camp- it was just the beginning of a momentous period for Indian women’s hockey.
India 1 vs England 1 (Women’s Hockey World Cup 2018 – Pool Match)
The Lee Valley Hockey Stadium was packed to the rafters with vibrant chants of “England, England” emanating from every corner as the opening match of the Women’s World Cup got underway.
The Indians girls went about their business unruffled as hosts England wilted under the pressure of expectations and conceded a 25th-minute goal.
Neha Goyal gave India a vital first-half lead forcing the English to play catch up. Just when it seemed that the Indians were on the verge of a historic win, Lily Owsley saved her team the blushes by beating Savita in goal with six minutes left on the clock.
The Indians, had, of course, beaten the Olympic champions at the CWG in Gold Coast earlier in the year, but the gritty show in front of a mammoth London crowd was one to remember – for the Indian players and for all of those who were fortunate enough to have witnessed the proceedings.
India 4 vs 1 South Korea (Asian Games 2018 – Pool Match – Women)
The Indian eves were fast establishing themselves as the best team in the continent with convincing wins over China and Japan but failed to get the past the Koreans in the Asian Champions Trophy at Donghae.
A draw in the pool phase and a loss in the final laid bare the fact that the Korean riddle had still to be cracked.
Lee Yu-rim equalized for the Koreans five minutes after Navneet Kaur had given the Indians the lead a minute into the second quarter as the Pool B match of the Asian Games got off to a blistering start.
With just over five minutes left to play, the scoreline read 1-1. Were the Koreans, indeed, so unbeatable?
Hey presto – the Korean defence which was looking ever more resolute as the game progressed caved in to some sustained pressure from Rani Rampal and co. with three unbelievable goals being scored in as many minutes.
A PC brace from Gurjit Kaur was backed up by a goal Vandana Katariya – and by the 58th minute, the Koreans were well and truly left with no chance whatsoever.
The killer instinct of the Indians eves left even fans dumbfounded – and was a sign of things to come.
India 2 – Belgium 2 (Men’s Hockey World Cup 2018)
Alexander Hendrickx silenced the boisterous local fans at the Kalinga Stadium with an early strike – this after eight minutes of relentless pressure that forced the Indians to retreat in numbers and stay pegged back for pretty much the entire first half of play.
The Indians looked a side transformed in the third quarter as they launched a series of forays which resulted in a penalty stroke. Harmanpreet Singh made no mistake from the spot and Simranjeet made the most of Kothajit’s pass to fire his side ahead in the 46th minute.
Not to be undone, the Red Lions came at the hosts with vengeance, and Simon Gougnard restored parity for the Rio silver medalists.
A draw against the eventual World Cup champions – and arguably, the best team in the world was no mean feat – one that the Indians are deservedly proud of and a performance that will continue to inspire.
India 4 vs Chile 2 (FIH Series Finals 2019 – Semi-final)
The speedy South Americans had held India to a 1-1 draw in final of the HWL Round 2 in Vancouver in 2017 before Savita Punia stood tall under the bar to help the Indians win the shootout.
Sjoerd Marijne’s chargers had risen up the rankings since – but so had the Chileans by an identical three slots and a mouth-watering contest was on the cards.
At stake was a place in the Olympic qualifiers and irrespective of what transpired in the final, the winner would make it to the two-legged playoff.
The Chileans began on a fast and furious note but the Indians were tidy in defence but Carolina Garcia opened the scoring in the 18th minute.
The pace and power of the Chilean girls were beginning to upset the rhythm of the Indian midfield who were struggling to cope – but Gurjit Kaur’s PC strike calmed the nerves of the Indian bench as the second quarter ended 1-1.
Whatever Marijne told the girls at half-time didn’t take long to translate into action as Navneet Kaur dodged past the Chilean defence and lobbed one into the back of the net.
The ever-dependable Gurjit was on fire as she unleashed a lethal strike to give the Indians their third but Manuela Urroz got one back after a fantastic run from Denise Krimerman.
The tension in the air was palpable with the scoreline reading 3-2 at the end of the third quarter. Gurjit hit the post with four minutes to go for the end of regulation time but Rani’s famous tomahawk sealed the deal. The Indians made it to the qualifiers – and have since qualified for Tokyo 2020.
It was truly the decade when Indian hockey came alive – this time, to flourish through the ages.