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'Class of 52': The story of India's legendary hockey win at Helsinki Olympics, 69 years before Tokyo Games

·12 min read

Our cavemen ancestors did not have electricity. At first, they did not even have fire. So, when it became dark, they slept, and when the sun rose, they woke up. Life was simple. Twelve thousand years later, that is how the human race is still wired: we need darkness to rest.

Unfortunately, in the summer of 1952 at Helsinki, there was none to be found.

The Book of Genesis in the Old Testament tells us that God said, 'Let there be light: and there was light.' If the members of the Indian hockey team at the 1952 Olympic Games had read The Book of Genesis or been on holiday, they could perhaps have better appreciated Finland that summer €" but they had not, and were not. It was therefore no surprise that the wonder of 24-hour days with unrelenting sunshine brought them little joy in the days following their arrival at Helsinki.

Speaking to the Olympic Channel, Kabir Singh, grandson of Balbir Singh Sr., the hero of that team, recounted last year: "Nanaji (grandpa) told me that the team would draw the curtains at all times and even used bedsheets to block out the light and make an entirely dark room to be able to get some sleep." With 10 out of 18 members of the team making their debuts, the unfamiliar conditions were not easy to adjust to, despite a pre-Olympic preparatory camp in Denmark where the conditions were not dissimilar.

Before the stint at Denmark and their arrival at the Helsinki Olympic village, the team was asked to play 'warm up matches' €" appropriately named in retrospect, because they were bizarrely organised at the peak of the Chennai summer. The result was predictable.

Gasping for breath in the oppressive 45 degrees heat, the team lost 0-1 to a local outfit. Adding insult to injury, rough tackling from the Madras XI side injured and knocked out a few of KD Singh's teeth. Singh, the Indian captain, was a man that the national team was highly dependent on for its success. Fortunately, it would not prevent him from making the trip.

The tale of the Singhs

The Olympic Games in London had brought hope. In 1948, the world was still reeling from the aftermath of a terrible war that lasted six years. To hasten the return to normalcy, the first post-war Olympics were organised. Despite suffering widespread devastation and still reeling under war-time rationing, London volunteered to host the games. Among the countries sending their gladiators to this historic event was the newly independent India, making its debut as a sporting nation, flying the tricolor at the Olympics for the first time.

Hockey was a sport in which India had already won three gold medals in the previous editions. The wizardry of Dhyan Chand was well known the world over. Even a man as obsessively racist as Adolf Hitler had been left mesmerised by his stick work at Berlin in 1936. While Chand captained the side in London, playing alongside him in the inside right position was a man the west had never seen €" his vice-captain, Kanwar Digvijay (KD) Singh 'Babu'. The previous year on a tour of East Africa, Babu had scored 70 goals against a series of hapless opponents, while Dhyan Chand netted 62.

Watching the two operate in tandem against the home team and inflict on them a 4-1 defeat less than a year after gaining independence from them, a stunned British reporter wrote: "Babu's performance was as near to perfection as was possible. Scintillating dribbling and adroit through passes characterised his play and he was the chief instigator in completely tying the dogged England defense. On many occasions he dribbled past the whole defense with ease throughout the tournament. He was the brain behind the attacks. It is tempting to write that Babu is as elusive as Dhyan Chand."

There were other stalwarts in that 1948 team, including Leslie Claudius, but among the special new talents the Indians had on show was Balbir Singh.

In the final against Great Britain, not only was the score line decisive, but a hat trick from Balbir Singh made the Indians' superiority look even more pronounced. "At the 1948 victory ceremony, as the tricolor was going up, I felt as if I was going up, too. I felt as if I was flying. As a child, I used to ask my father (Dalip Singh), who was a freedom fighter, what the flag means. That day, when our flag was hoisted (at Wembley Stadium), I realised what independence means. It was the proudest moment for me,' Balbir told Sportstar last year, before his death.

While his hat trick at the Olympics was celebrated widely among Indian fans in the stands and across the world, much more was to come from his magical stick in the years ahead. In 1952, he was the flag bearer of the Indian Team at Helsinki. It was an honour he would repay in ample measure within a couple of weeks.

The 1952 hockey team to Helsinki

As they'd done for decades, Babu's 18 hockey stick wielding boys carried a nation's hope on their broad shoulders to Helsinki.

Besides Babu and his deputy Balbir Singh, the other members of the team were: Ranganathan Francis, Chinnadorai Deshmuthu, Randhir Singh Gentle, Dharam Singh, Swarup Singh, Govind Perumal, Keshav Dutt, Leslie Claudius, Jaswant Singh Rajput, Meldric Daluz, Raghbir Lal, Udham Singh, Muniswamy Rajagopal, GS Dubey, Grahanandan Singh, and CS Gurung.

The team was a very well balanced one. Standing like a rock at half-back was Keshav Datt, a man who'd been a part of the team at London but would now be the fulcrum of the squad at Helsinki. He was a simple man who treated hockey as a simple game: have stick, get ball. He would focus on the ball to get possession, and wouldn't care if a player got injured by his tackle. Once he got possession, he kept it until he had a teammate to pass it to.

Then there was Leslie Claudius, the only man who had been a part of the 1948 games and would also play a role in 1956 and 1960. Besides taking part in four Olympic Games, he would also go on to become the first Indian to represent his nation in 100 international matches. Not bad for a man whose first love was football. Claudius' strength, playing in midfield, was his stamina and the ability to be at the right position and time to blunt an attack, while leading breathtaking counter attacks with his intricate reading of the game.

RS Bhola, his teammate in the 1956 and 1960 teams, told The Hindu a few years ago: "We were together for a long time. He was a strong right half, rock like. We were convinced he was a born genius like Dhyan Chand and KD Singh Babu. It was said that Dhyan Chand practised in moonlight. So did Claudius. He used to train by himself and achieved perfection. He was extremely devoted. I had my contests with him, and some were very memorable. I was tall and he would look to block me with his anticipation. My only option was to beat him on speed. Otherwise, it was tough to get past him."

The doyen of Indian broadcasting AFS Talyarkhan described Randhir Singh Gentle, India's full back on that tour, as the 'most outstanding, feared and sound full back in the world.' Balbir Singh described his teammate as 'one who towered above the rest with his hard and yet clean tackling'. Gentle was anything but what his name suggested, as any forward who came up against him realised over the course of the three Olympics where the tall, strapping Indian wore the Indian colours.

Manning the centre-half of that team was Jaswant Singh Rajput, another member of the 1948 side, who ushered in the Golden Era of hockey in Bengal with Leslie Claudius, Keshav Datt and another member of that 1952 team €" Meldric Daluz.

The campaign gets underway

Such was the core of the team that stepped on to the grass at the Kapyla Sports Park in Helsinki on 17 July, 1952, to face Austria in the quarter finals of the 12 team competition, having been given a bye in the first round.

The Kapyla Sports Park was a unique venue. On the inside was a hockey field, and around it a velodrome for cycling events. Like the other venues around Helsinki, it had been completed in time to host the 1940 Olympic Games. Finland had been given just three years to get all its infrastructure ready when the original hosts Japan withdrew in 1937. All the work was actually completed in two. But then Hitler marched into Poland, and Finland's chance to host the Games was gone. Twelve years on, the stadiums could now finally be used.

Austria was not expected to pose a challenge to the Indians, a team that had taken home the gold medal in every outing since 1928, and they didn't. The 4-0 score line hid the fact that on the heavy grass at the Sports Park, the Indians looked sluggish. If they had been in full flow, Balbir and Babu would've scored far more than the one they managed each, Raghbir Lal and Gentle netting the other two.

Three days later, India met her former colonial masters once again. Great Britain was a side that had improved considerably as compared to the one India vanquished in war-scarred London. Babu's side shook off the cobwebs in their minds and sticks, and put on a dazzling display, breaking through the defense of the British time and again.

Once again, the nemesis was Balbir Singh. He sent three veritable bullets streaking past the hapless British goalkeeper, to register his second hat-trick at the Olympics. The scoreline at the end read 3-1, and not unexpectedly, India was in the final for the fifth successive time. Balbir was disappointed after the showing against Austria, but after this victory, he remarked with some satisfaction: "We were a completely changed lot in the semi-final against Britain. We moved swiftly and smoothly and scythed their defense with copy-book moves."

A final for the ages

The Netherlands got a bye into the quarter finals, along with India and Pakistan. There they met the Germans and in a hard-fought match, prevailed by a single goal. In the semi-finals they met and scraped past Pakistan with a similar scoreline.

Among the European teams, the Dutch had the most stellar record. In 1928 they had won the silver, and in 1936 and 1948, the bronze. On each occasion but for 1936, they lost to India. In 1928 it had been Dhyan Chand who had scored two of the three goals let in by the Dutch, but the semi-final contest at London had been a close affair. Some pointed to the 2-1 scoreline to suggest that India made it by the skin of their teeth. Babu scored one of the two goals on that occasion, and he and Balbir were determined to make a point this time around.

On 24 July, 1952, the two teams trooped out to do battle. With Dhyan Chand not in the team, the Dutch may have believed that they were in with a chance to finally go for gold. They could scarcely have imagined the carnage that awaited them.

With the three knocks of the stick starting off proceedings, India went on the attack. The captain and the vice-captain were like men possessed. Balbir's forays into Dutch territory were so frequent that his teammates could barely keep up with him. For every goal he scored, he lost his temper at a colleague who had failed to help him convert the next. The reality was that his anticipation of open spaces was so canny that day, the others just failed to react in time in order to pass him the ball.

In the end the scoreline read 6-1. Babu had one goal to his name, Balbir had scored the rest. As the Guinness Book of Records has pointed out in edition after edition, never before or since has one individual scored five goals in an Olympic final. India were Olympic champions for the fifth successive time. It was a match that was destined to become a part of hockey folklore.

A legacy to cherish

In the seven decades that followed the 1952 triumph, India won only three more Men's Hockey golds at the Olympics, the last of which came against a depleted field in 1980. The total tally of eight, however, still puts it significantly above any other nation in the history of the sport. The next highest tally is that of Germany with four, and Pakistan and Great Britain with three each.

Sadly, no one from that 'Class of '52' was around to watch Captain Manpreet Singh lead the Indian squad out onto Tokyo's Olympic hockey field, for the quest for gold that began with a victory against New Zealand today. The last two members of that 1952 side, Keshav Datt and Balbir Singh, passed on as they waited for the Tokyo Olympics to raise the spirits of a world devastated by an unforgiving pandemic. Manpreet and his men will, however, draw inspiration from the fact that on this very day, 69 years ago, eleven men steeped in self-belief, put on one of the most remarkable performances on a hockey field to bring the gold medal home, to their newly independent nation.

As PR Sreejesh, arguably the world's most reliable goalkeeper, looked up one last time before he settled down at the goal line, he would've undoubtedly pointed out to his mates the 'Class of '52' showering their blessings from above. Indian hockey could not have chosen a more auspicious day to begin its campaign to reclaim lost glory.

Anindya Dutta is a cricket columnist and author of four bestselling books. His latest, Wizards: The Story of Indian Spin Bowling won India's Cricket Book of the Year award for 2019 and is long-listed for the MCC Book of the Year.

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