table for two Food

A winner all the way

Memories fade but not some figures. Some heroes from the past you revere live forever. Some athletes who gave you joy with their exceptional deeds on the field. Ajitpal Singh is one such gentleman. A gentleman, who played hockey, a robust body-contact game, like a gentleman. Dictating the course from his position of centre half, Ajitpal was a towering personality who was richly rewarded with the World Cup in 1975.

“My memories are close to my heart. It was intoxicating. We were world champions. I can recall the matches we played. It was a remarkable journey. We went with expectations but never could have imagined that it would be such a big thing. I vividly remember the grand reception as people showered praise and affection,” recalled Ajitpal as we met for lunch at the 24x7 restaurant at The Lalit.

Ajitpal prefers “mosambi” (lime) juice as he settles down to relive the triumph. India won the Cup, the only time thus far, with hard-earned wins in the knockout, beating Malaysia and Pakistan. “We played preparatory matches but playing in Malaysia was to our advantage. Slight advantage but remember Pakistan was also playing. Three Asian teams figured in the semi finals and it was pretty obvious that we exploited the conditions well.”

“There was nothing called hype. Our target was the gold medal. People had faith in us. They knew we would win a medal. The media was not so strong and vibrant as today. But we had the backing and expectations were high since the team had prepared well for the tournament.”

India had a legacy to defend. The glory of Olympics looked a distant past. The 1975 feat was a pleasant reminder of India’s hockey traditions. “To me, the best thing was that the team played with amazing cohesion and unity. The hard work reflected in our performance. My colleagues were pro-active and played for each other. Each player was an icon for his position. Believe me there were eight to ten claimants for one position. The competition was fierce but there were no hard feelings.”

The ambience at the 24x7 is soothing. “We had a huge pool to pick players from,” Ajitpal reminds us. “I think this pool has shrunk drastically and it impacted our status in world hockey. To me the mantra of success in that team was that we played to win. This confidence was the propelling force and when it came from 11 committed men it became a storm on the field. We played some fantastic hockey.”

It is time invade the buffet. It is a large spread. “I eat light,” mumbles Ajitpal. He indeed eats light. A small helping of biryani and a piece of roasted chicken. “I am not fussy about food, can adjust. But I mostly prefer to eat at home. I must have fruits at lunch. I love fruits. My favourite would be aloo-mattar (peas and potato). I can eat it 365 days.”

I take him back to Kuala Lumpur in 1975. The semi-final at the Merdeka Stadium against Malaysia. “It was nerve wrecking. I would say it was an epic. We had some supporters but then they were not vociferous. Before the match, one of the local politicians had warned people against supporting India. We almost lost the match. Trailing 1-2, with eight minutes to go, we brought in Aslam Sher Khan in place of Michael Kindo. You know what happened. Aslam pulled off a miracle. Harcharan (Singh) scored in the extra time and we were through to the final.”

The final, against traditional rival Pakistan, was fascinating too. “There was tension in the air. We knew we had to play well. It was Ashok Kumar’s turn to swing the game our way. His match-winner crushed Pakistan. It also helped that Samiullah could only play a few minutes for Pakistan. But we played a much better game than Pakistan.”

Praising that team and times, Ajitpal noted, “I would say it was a glorious period of Indian hockey. It was not that the players had emerged overnight. They came into the reckoning in 1969-70 and it was a great build up. In 1975, they were ready to take on the world. We did take the world by storm. True, the team declined in the subsequent years but the reasons were many, complacency, playing on astro-turf with little experience of the surface. It cost us dear. And then the paucity of talent was a fact one could not deny. I will repeat what has been said a million times. You will not improve unless you look for talent at the grass root level and also improve our coaching standards.”

How did he combine captaincy and his duties as centre-half. “I was known to be cool. I take pride in saying that I did not lose my temper. So, it suited my game too as a centre half. It was sort of ingrained in my system and it helped me grow as a player. As a captain, I had to look after my team. The players looked up to me for guidance. I think I did not let them down. My discipline also helped me. I would tell myself ‘Do or die. Now or never’.”

Having played on natural grass, Ajitpal showed his preference for it. “Playing on grass was tougher but thrilling too. Trapping and ball control was a challenge. It involved lot of skills. I thought hockey was difficult in my time. Now the surface is smoother but then you need more fitness and speed. Skills have diminished as the game is so fast now.”

Ajitpal signs off with a plate of fruits and an advice to young hockey players. “Play only if you want to play. Not because there is glamour or money. Hockey should be your life. At no stage should you compromise your dignity. We would get three to four dollars per day on foreign tours. But we played hockey. For me, it was natural because my village (Sansarpur in Punjab) gave so many internationals. You must play for your pride.”

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Printable version | Oct 24, 2020 9:06:23 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/metroplus/Food/a-winner-all-the-way/article6008495.ece

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