The members of the 1975 hockey world cup winning squad feel the current team can match their feat

“We went to the World Cup to win the tournament. We didn’t set ourselves any targets of finishing in the top three or four,” remarked Ashok Diwan, the custodian of India’s goal at the 1975 hockey World Cup.

Hockey India general secretary Narendra Batra may take note of this statement. On the occasion of felicitating Diwan and the rest of his teammates 39 years after India’s only World Cup success, Batra had an “instruction” for the national men’s team that leaves in a week’s time for the latest edition of the competition in the Netherlands.

Batra will be content if the team finishes seventh. Whether this helps the team to exceed or match expectations is a moot point.

Another World Cup winner had his say.

“We shouldn’t say so. Why shouldn’t we say we’ll win? Are our players so bad? We need to be positive. The team contains top players,” opined Ashok Kumar, scorer of the winning goal in the final against Pakistan.

“What’s the point of calling us here? We haven’t come here to inspire them to finish in the top eight. We have to make them believe they can do it,” he added, with a hint of exasperation.

The 1975 team certainly did not have to deal with such low expectations. Back then, hockey was still played on grass and India was counted among the ones to be feared. As VJ Phillips, who grabbed a brace in the opener against England, claimed, “India hasn’t had such a good side since the one that played from 1973-76.”

It’s tough to dispute his view. Yet, the successful campaign was not without its moments of agony as India realised before and during the final.

Ashok Kumar suffered on a personal level. “I couldn’t sleep the night before the final. I spent my time strategising and wondering how we would fare in the match. B.P. Govinda and I decided to fall back 25-35 yards whenever Pakistan was in possession of the ball. Such was our commitment that we made our team defensively stronger too.”

“When we fell behind early, I had to utter some harsh words to the senior players in our team. I also motivated them by saying, ‘We have conceded only one goal and there are 60 minutes left. Khelo, khelo’.”

The team received support throughout the tournament from its Malaysian fans as well. “Before a match, a few fans used to put a red or yellow cloth in our pockets as good-luck charms,” revealed Ashok Kumar.

The team’s skipper Ajit Pal Singh provided a different nature of encouragement to the team.

“He was the backbone of our team. We’ve never had such a good captain. He was the big cat in our group and as little ones, we still follow him,” said Phillips.

However, the shift to Astroturf a year later ensured the team would never touch similar heights again. “We were mentally disturbed at the Montreal Olympics (in 1976). We played on a tight mat and the ball bounced like a tennis ball. The surface demanded physically strong players.”

Aslam Sher Khan, who equalised as a substitute in the semi-final against Malaysia, believes the change hurts Indian hockey to this day. “Our players are still carrying the burden of that change. It was hockey’s fault,” he said with disappointment writ large on his face, while encouraging the current side to do better than finish seventh.