Charanjit Singh: Regaining Indian Hockey's Lost Glory

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He was a captain for whom winning was not the goal, at least, not the ultimate goal. For Charanjit Singh, bagging gold at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics would mean reclaiming lost glory for his country.The Indian hockey team’s defeat to Pakistan in the 1960 Rome Olympics was the first time in history that India had won anything less than gold at the Olympic Games. Worse, it had raised questions about India’s supremacy over the sport.

After winning gold at six consecutive Games, India had to settle for silver in 1960, vanquished by arch rival, Pakistan, which had been fast emerging as a fierce rival with talented players in its ranks. In addition, hockey had found a firm footing in Europe. So the challenge would be even greater in Tokyo.

Charanjit Singh and his boys had their work cut out for them.

Born To Lead

But Charanjit was determined to do his country proud. His absence from the 1960 Rome Olympics final due to a fractured leg was one of the reasons he was even more pumped up for the 1964 Games. Also, there was no doubt he would make an able captain.

Even though aggression was central to his play as a midfielder, Charanjit led his boys with calmness and grace, the mark of a true leader. But it would be an especially tough assignment. In those times, the captain doubled as coach and the task of scripting a playbook too fell to him.

“We were tested hard but also showed great character, and won the match by a narrow 1-0 margin, to return home with that historic gold medal,” Charanjit Singh would say about his team’s victory in Tokyo.

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Indian captain Charanjit Singh at the peak of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics podium as India defeated Pakistan in the gold medal match

How does one prepare for a win with the expectations of an entire nation resting on one’s shoulders? One way was to not cave under the strain. For instance, en route to a stadium before every match, Charanjit would lead his boys, singing his favourite Mohammed Rafi song ‘Watan ki rah mein watan ke naujawan shaheedho ’(Let us attain martyrdom in the path of the freedom)from the movie Shaheed. Charanjit knew how to inspire his teammates and draw the best out of them.

He was also compassionate, which was another mark of great leadership. When Pakistan’s four-time Olympian Brigadier Manzoor Hussian Atif was captured by the Indian Army in the 1971 Bangladesh Liberation War, Charanjit would often inquire about his well-being. He was respected not only as a captain but also as a human being.

Tokyo: Olympic Journey

In the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, India’s journey to the top was fraught with challenges. Belgium and Germany offered stiff competition and India pulled off a narrow 2-1 win over Holland in the quarter-final. In the semi-final, India beat Australia 3-1, to scrape through.

The team would meet old rival Pakistan on D-Day. Ever since the Partition of India in 1947, tensions between India and Pakistan had been running high and the Tokyo final was obviously much more than an Olympic face-off; it was an all-out war. The outcome: India narrowly trumped Pakistan 1-0 to wrest back gold.

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The victorious Indian Hockey team, led by Ajit Pal Singh after the 1975 World Cup Victory

Rene G Frank, the then Secretary-General of the International Hockey Federation, summarised the contest thus: “The India-Pakistan final, which was played in a highly charged, emotional atmosphere, was really extraordinary. If India finally proved a winner by a narrow margin, this was because in my personal opinion its players seemed to me to be inspired with a greater will than their opponents…”

A Golden Era

Charanjit Singh was born on 13th February 1931, and he belonged to an era when hockey was the country’s most popular sport and a source of national pride. He was among the first sporting heroes of Independent India.

Hailing from Mairi village in Una district of Himachal Pradesh, he fell in love with the game as a schoolboy, at Col Brown Cambridge School, Dehradun. He went on to earn a Bachelor’s degree in Agriculture from the Government Agriculture College, Lyallpur, Punjab University, Lahore, and he represented Panjab University and later the Punjab Police in provincial hockey in undivided India. It was during his Punjab Police days that the centre-half would rub shoulders with Balbir Singh Senior and Udham Singh, legendary hockey players and Olympics gold medallists.

Charanjit debuted for India in 1958, fighting his way into a star-studded midfield comprising the likes of Leslie Claudius, Keshav Chandra Datt and Joe Antic. He was a regular member of the Indian team from the 1958 Asian Games to 1965. Like the 1960 Rome Olympics final, he also missed the 1962 Asian Games final against Pakistan due to an injury.

As a midfielder, Charanjit was not flashy but played a compact game, something that came to the fore when he countered Pakistani centre-forwards at the Tokyo Olympics.

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Charanjit Singh after retirement

After his retirement, Charanjit served as Dean of Student Welfare at Punjab Agricultural University and Hisar Agricultural University before becoming a Director of Sports at Himachal University. He died on 27th January 2022, at age 90, in his home in Una. He had played a golden innings and, most importantly, he had fulfilled his mission.

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