The discerning reckon the hockey team to the 1956 Melbourne Olympics, led by centre-forward Balbir Singh, was one of the best ever to leave Indian shores. The squad was brimming with experience and youth besides tremendous firepower. It was hardly a surprise then that the team came away with another gold medal, the sixth in a row.
Four of the team — Balbir Singh, Randhir Singh Gentle, Leslie Claudius and Ranganathan Francis — were playing their third Olympics, while for Govind Perumal, Udham Singh, Raghubir Lal and Amit Kumar it was their second Games. There were some young guns too in the squad that had an aura of invincibility and so it turned out to be.
The team played four warm-up games in Ambala and Bombay, winning all, but some players stayed out citing injuries. The Indian Hockey Federation ordered fitness tests and Gursevak Singh (PEPSU) was ruled unfit with a dodgy knee and was replaced by Amit Singh Bakshi of the Services on the eve of the team’s departure.
The Games were marred by boycotts as some of the nations from Middle East stayed away in the wake of the Suez Canal imbroglio while a couple of European nations, including Spain and the Netherlands, dropped out protesting the Russian handling of the Hungarian revolution.
Consequently, only 12 teams took part. The teams were split into three groups of four each. India (Group A), Great Britain (Group B), and Pakistan and Germany (Group C) advanced to the semifinals.
For India, the league phase was a relatively easy affair as they hammered Afghanistan 14-0, the United States 16-0 and Singapore 6-0, but they lost skipper Balbir Singh, who suffered a fractured finger in the first game. Balbir’s injury provided Udham Singh a great opportunity to showcase his scoring ability, which he did with seven against the U.S., two versus Singapore and then the match-winner in India’s 1-0 win against Germany in the semifinals. Gentle converted a second-half short corner for India who beat Pakistan 1-0 in the final.
Incidentally, India did not concede a single goal in the entire tournament to match their 1928 Olympics record, but then there were enough indications that other teams were catching up and so it proved to be. India’s reign was to end four years hence and though they regained the gold in 1964 and again in 1980, the King had lost his crown.
Indian team: Balbir Singh Dosanjh (captain), Shankar Laxman, Ranganadhan Francis, Bakshish Singh, Randhir Singh Gentle, Leslie Walter Claudius, Amir Kumar, Charles Stephen, Govind Perumal, Gurdev Singh Kullar, Udham Singh Kullar, Raguhbir Singh Bhola, Balkrishan Singh Grewal, Haripal Kaushik, Raghbir Lall Sharma, OP Malhotra, Hardayal Singh Garchey and Amit Singh Bakshi.
League — India beat Afganistan 14-0 (Balbir Singh Dosanjh 5; Udham Singh Kullar 4; Randhir Singh Gentle 3; Gurdev Singh Kullar 2).
India beat USA 16-0 (Udham Singh Kullar 7; Hardyal Singh Garchey 5; Gurdev Singh Kullar 3; Leslie Claudius 1).
India beat Singapore 6-0 (Udham Singh Kullar 2; Charles Stephen 2; Randhir Singh Gentle 1; Hardyal Singh Garchey 1).
Semifinal: India beat East Germany 1-0 (Udham Singh Kullar 1).
Final: India beat Pakistan 1-0 (Randhir Singh Gentle 1).
Positions: India 1; Pakistan 2; Germany 3; Great Britain 4; Australia 5; New Zealand 6; Belgium 7; Singapore 8; Malaya 9; Kenya 10; USA 11; Afghanistan 12.