Written by Ronojoy Sen.
Well before independence, India had been sending contingents to the Olympics as well as fielding cricket and football teams. India’s first international outing after independence was the cricket tour of Australia against Don Bradman’s ‘invincibles.’ If the cricket was disastrous for India – losing four out of five Test matches – the Indian team was advertised by the Australian press as a beacon of hope for the newly independent and recently partitioned country. One of the Australian newspapers wrote that the Indian cricketers may “well prove the magic elixir to banish national and inter-racial bitterness.”
The 1948 Olympics
It was in the 1948 London Olympics that newly-independent India had the opportunity to best its former colonial master on the playing field. Unsurprisingly it was in hockey where India had already been crowned Olympic champions on three successive occasions. When India played England in the hockey finals at Wembley Stadium before some 10,000 spectators on August 12, just three days before India’s second independence day, neither the persistent wet weather nor a muddy ground could stop the Indian team. As a correspondent reported, despite “the heavy, muddy turf and the light rain…[the Indians]…outclassed the British team with their superb ball control, accurate passing and intelligent positional play.”
India’s barefoot footballers also made quite an impression in London despite getting narrowly knocked out in the first round. This was evident in the reaction in London and the several legends that grew up around the Indian team’s exploits. When at a reception in Buckingham Palace, Prince Margaret reportedly asked India’s star footballer Sailen Manna if he was afraid of playing barefoot, he replied that it was “easier to keep the ball under control.”
The first two decades
During the first two decades of independence India did rather well in sports. Oddly enough cricket was the exception with the high point being India’s victory over Pakistan in 1952 in the first ever series played between both countries. India won the Olympic gold medal in hockey in 1952 and 1956, beating Pakistan for the first time in 1956. Although India lost to Pakistan in the 1960 hockey finals, it regained the gold by defeating Pakistan in 1964. The 1960s were the golden years of Indian football too. The pinnacle of Indian football was perhaps reached at the 1962 Asian Games in Jakarta, where India won its second football gold medal but against a much stronger field than in the 1951 Asiad. The final against South Korea was played before a hostile crowd, incensed by India’s protests on barring Israel and Taiwan from participating in the Games.
There were some stirring individual performances in this period. While Milkha Singh’s fourth-place finish at Rome might be the most debated non-medal finish in Olympic history, K.D. Jadhav won a bronze in wrestling in 1952. That was to remain the only individual Olympic medal for India till 1996. In tennis, Ramanathan Krishnan charmed the world with his elegant style. Though he did not win any of the majors, he did achieve in 1959 the highest ever seeding by an Indian player – number 3 – in the world rankings. In the 1952 Games, Indian women for the first time participated in the Olympics with athletes Nilima Ghose and Mary D’Souza representing India. Rita Davar was runner-up in the junior women’s event at Wimbledon the same year and in the 1954 Manila Asiad the Indian women’s relay team won gold.
The story of Indian sport in the 1950s and 60s would be incomplete without a mention of a unique ‘sporting’ hero, someone who was less a sportsperson in the conventional sense and much more of an entertainer: Dara Singh. Dara was the undisputed champion of professional wrestling and his bouts would often draw crowds in excess of 50,000.
From the 1970s India performance in most sports, including hockey, plummeted. It was only in cricket, where India were also-rans earlier, that the Indian performance brought occasional cheer. The year 1971 was a landmark year for Indian cricket when India defeated both West Indies and England on overseas tours. It took the 1983 World Cup win to change the face of cricket and indeed sport in India forever. The onward march of cricket in India since 1983 is a story that needs no re-telling. Even as cricket gained in popularity, the Indian team won major trophies and India became the de facto headquarters of world cricket, but India’s performance in other sports was tardy.
Except for the occasional individual brilliance of a Prakash Padukone, Vijay Amritraj, P.T. Usha or Pullela Gopichand, India had little to show for in the sporting field since the 1970s. Over the past decade, however, India’s performance has begun to improve. Though India still performs well below par given its size and population, beginning with Leander Paes’s bronze medal in the 1996 Olympics and Abhinav Bindra’s gold in 2008, India has been harvesting more medals in international competitions.
There are three things to note of this sporting resurgence: first, women sportspersons, such as Saina Nehwal, Mary Kom, P.V. Sindhu and Sania Mirza, have been at its forefront; second, there has been a decentring of sport with the smaller cities and hinterlands contributing more than the metros; and finally, it is spread across several sports. India will not be a sporting superpower in the near future. However, if this trend continues, it might at least find itself on the medal sheet of international competitions – such as the ongoing Commonwealth Games in Gold Coast, Australia – with more regularity.