The 77-year-old also gave advice to the current Indian players ahead of the Tokyo Olympics.
The Indian hockey team’s golden run at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics is nothing short of inspiring. India had lost against Pakistan in the final of the 1960 games but managed to defeat the arch-rivals in Tokyo by the same margin.
The preparation that went into securing the seventh gold medal was also special for the players, as they faced many difficulties along the way.
“The Tokyo Olympics were scheduled for October 1964 and the selection process was based on the performance at the National Championships which was held at the beginning of the calendar year. The venue was Delhi’s Lady Hardinge Ground (now Shivaji Stadium), and I distinctly remember there being more than 15,000 people to watch the Championships. It was a memorable outing for Railways as we beat Services in the Final. About 77 players were shortlisted for a month-long training based on their performance in the nationals,” revealed Harbinder Singh, who was a part of the medal-winning team.
“The number was pruned down further to 55 and then eventually 36 before the final squad was announced. Those days national camps were mostly held in Jalandhar and the Federation had to take up the costs while the Government would sponsor our tours.”
He added, “Making it to the final 18 was to be decided after a three-day selection trial but the competition was so tough that it had to go into the fourth day before the team was finalised. We played positional hockey those days and there were minimum seven players who were exceptional in their role. This made the selectors’ job tougher.”
Touring New Zealand ahead of the Games
India went on the New Zealand tour before the start of the Tokyo Olympics, where they faced many challenges including tough weather and a strong rival.
Harbinder Singh recalled, “In those days, we didn’t have too many tours round-the-year and players would stay active with domestic matches. But ahead of our arrival in Tokyo, we toured New Zealand followed by Malaysia. It was raining in New Zealand and it had similar weather like Tokyo which was also expected to get some rains during the Games. Hence, it was decided we would play in New Zealand against the home team.”
“Unfortunately, our campaign in New Zealand began with a 1-2 loss. We played this match a day after we arrived in New Zealand and we were hardly rested. What made it worse was the rains. Back in those days, we played in leather boots as stud shoes were not available in India. Grip and control when it rained was not the only issue but our boots would soak up and the next day, it would get tight so we would use heaters in the room to dry our shoes all night.”
He added, “The loss in the first match meant that the local media would write us off. We had lost the Asian Games in 1962 to Pakistan and our loss to New Zealand saw the local media proclaim that the New Zealand squad would win the Olympics. But the next venue we played at was Christchurch and the conditions were much better. Usually, when it rained during matches in India, the match would be abandoned but abroad, they would still play in the rain. Luckily for us, there was no rain in Christchurch and we won 5-2 and in the next game at Wellington, we won 8-2. The papers in New Zealand finally ended up saying we were the favourites to win the Gold for the Olympics.”
“After spending three weeks in New Zealand, we went to Malaysia. After some good matches there, we arrived in Tokyo about 10-12 days early. We got some good practice matches against the teams from the other group consisting of eight teams. When we arrived, we also got a kit with stud shoes which came as a blessing in disguise.”
Current crop should focus on fitness and avoid injuries
Harbinder Singh advised the current players to stay positive ahead of the tournament and give their 100 percent to win the medal for the country.
The former Indian player remarked, “What I want to state here is, there will be many hurdles in the lead up to the Olympic Games but our focus should never be wavered. I understand being in national camp continuously without touring can affect the morale of athletes, but many teams across the world are facing similar setbacks due to the Covid-19 pandemic.”
“Our players should continue to keep up their fitness, avoid injuries and I am sure we will get some exposure tours ahead of the Games. We should prepare keeping in mind that the Olympics will go on as per schedule,” he concluded.