The Switch

The day India moved on from its national sport.

The Switch by Sundeep Misra; Illustration by Akshaya Zachariah for

The first day of December 1982. Masses of people converging, from every direction, on the colosseum-like structure of the National Stadium in Delhi. The objective: to grab a seat at the most talked about event of the Asian Games, the final of the men’s hockey tournament, India versus Pakistan.

Fans had started to trickle in at ten in the morning. People who’d arrived a day or two earlier from Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and Punjab vied with locals for a way in. Not a single hotel room was available.

The entrance opposite India Gate was out of bounds for all but VVIPs. They included Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, her cabinet colleagues, and several of India’s chief ministers. The actor Amitabh Bachchan was a special guest. At this point in India’s history, hosting the Asian Games was akin to playing host to the Olympics. India had won hockey gold at Moscow just two years earlier, and Indian athletes in other disciplines had done well at the Games so far.

Security was tight: it was the high noon of the Khalistani movement. By mid-day, the stadium was already half-full, and queues snaked behind checkpoints where paramilitary forces shook down every pocket, bag and person. A rumour started to circulate that fake tickets had been printed.

25,000 fans packed into the stadium as the teams warmed up. More than 8000 extra chairs had been placed in the space between the stands and the pitch. Pakistan were reigning world champions, [1] but the partisan crowd added to India’s psychological edge. Six of the Moscow gold medallists were playing this final, including the full forward line: captain Zafar Iqbal, Mohammad Shahid, Charanjit Kumar, Mervyn Fernandis. Less than six months earlier, India had beaten their cross-border rivals in a nine-goal thriller on the way to winning bronze at the Champions Trophy in the Netherlands. In that match, penalty corner specialist Rajinder Singh had scored a hat-trick.

The whistle blew at 3pm, and India was off to a flyer. When, after just four minutes, Iqbal converted a penalty stroke, the stadium’s roar could be heard all the way in Defence Colony to the south and Daryaganj to the north. In and around Pragati Maidan, among the ticketless, cloistered around transistor sets, a collective cry of joy went up when commentator Jasdev Singh called Iqbal’s goal.

Then, inexplicably, the tide turned. Kaleemullah Khan, top scorer at the World Cup in Mumbai less than a year ago, levelled scores. Hanif Khan put Pakistan in the lead with a deflection. Before the break, Manzoor Jr banged in a third past goalkeeper Mir Ranjan Negi. When Pakistan scored their fourth after resumption, Indira Gandhi left the stadium, perhaps to avoid being photographed handing out gold medals to the opposition players. A trickle of spectators was seen walking out after the fifth goal. By this time, even the faithful had abandoned hope. The sixth and seventh goals were just nails in the coffin.


t the outset, it doesn’t make any sense to compare the release of Thriller, the Michael Jackson album, with the worst-ever defeat in Indian men’s hockey. [2] Hype and hope surrounded one, and doom and gloom the other. But the two events were separated by just a day in 1982; and both Thriller and the Asian Games final changed the way the winds were blowing in their spheres. Their impact shaped the decades to come.

In The New York Times, Rob Hoerburger wrote: “Since the beginning of time (1954, or when Elvis came along), there had never been a bleaker year for pop than 1982.” Time magazine overlooked Thriller completely and would later say that its release came at a time when the record industry was “stuck on the border between the ruins of punk and the chic regions of synthesizer pop.” Later, Jackson himself would write that Thriller “sounded so crappy” to him that it “brought tears” to his eyes.

Thriller started slowly, but in three months, it hit No. 1 on Billboard’s album chart, launching a 37-week run on top, and becoming the best-selling album of all time. It was the stimulus package for the entire music business. It changed everything.

‘It changed everything’ is more or less the story of that time in Indian sport. For hockey, on the cusp of a revolution powered by colour television and the  continental sporting showpiece coming home, the final was a shellacking, a blowout. The 7-1 scoreline left an indelible gash on the Indian psyche, and haunted the team for life. Incredulous fans switched off from the sport and turned their attention elsewhere.

The following summer, seemingly out of nowhere, Kapil Dev lifted the Cricket World Cup trophy at Lord’s.

The Moscow gold was the last to come for Indian hockey. At the Los Angeles Olympics in 1984, the defending champions didn’t make the semi-final of the men’s hockey event.

The following year, India’s men’s cricket team won the Benson & Hedges World Series in Australia. Visuals of player-of-the-series Ravi Shastri taking an Audi for a spin around the Melbourne Cricket Ground were beamed live on freshly purchased TV sets around India. [3]  In 1986, India finished last at the men’s hockey World Cup in London.

Then came 1987, when 95,000 cricket fans thronged Eden Gardens in Calcutta to watch Australia beat England in the final of the Reliance World Cup. Sponsorship deals and brand associations meant that cricketers became the country’s first sporting multi-millionaires. In five years, from December 1982 to December 1987, cricket unequivocally managed to displace hockey as India’s number one sport. The first domino fell on that winter night in Delhi.

The Day Before


he 1982 Asian Games was a time for heroes. The capital had been spruced up for a grand display of some of the finest athletic talent of the continent. At the brand new Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium, M.D. Valsamma and Charles Borromeo had brought golds in the 400m hurdles and 800m events, respectively. At the Indira Gandhi Indoor Stadium, also built for the occasion, India’s badminton contingent had won five bronze medals. [4]

“If we were to win the final, we would each be given a flat in Siri Fort and a Maruti car.”

Romeo James

Expectedly, however, the highest measure of hype and excitement was reserved for the men’s hockey final. Fans appeared willing to pay anywhere between ₹100 to ₹1000 for a ₹50 ticket. Millions were supposed to watch the clash on television: colour broadcast had been introduced at the Games.

Romeo James, goalkeeper: The management had assembled the team in the evening. We saw that Buta Singh, chairperson of the Asian Games Special Organising Committee, had come. He told us he had a message from Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. If we were to win the final, we would each be given a flat in Siri Fort and a Maruti car.

The team had a rotation policy for its goalkeepers. James had played the semi-finals so Mir Ranjan Negi, from Garhwal, would be between the posts in the final.

Romeo James: But to beat Pakistan in front of more than 25,000 fans, you did not really need an incentive. Before the Games, Rajiv Gandhi also met each of us and said, ‘Just play to your best ability.’ We were doing exactly that. The women had already won the gold and we took that as a sign that things were going India’s way. We had beaten Pakistan in the Champions Trophy and except for a few changes, the team was the same. There was immense confidence within the team and both Balbir Singh Sr, the manager, and Colonel Balbir Singh, the coach, [5] knew exactly what to do.

M.M. Somaya: We finished with a bronze in the Champions Trophy in June and could have easily finished in the top two. Understand the background. Despite Pakistan being a superior team individual-to-individual, playing at home balanced it off. We were not overly confident. But we had the team to hold them off and play to our strength.

Somaya, famed for his precise passes, was a member of the gold-winning side at the Moscow Olympics. He told me that the 1982 tournament remains a bit of a blur—he did not remember much of the night before the final.

M.M. Somaya: The evening before, the usual team bonding happened along with the team meeting. Both teams knew each other well. In fact, I think Pakistan would have been more jittery. At that level, when two teams have to play each other and the rest of the six top teams in the world, tactics are important, but it is more important to ease off your pressure and play to the team’s strength. We had a good forward line and the fans on our side.

K.N. Sharma got a diploma in coaching under the legend Major Dhyan Chand at the National Institute of Sports, Patiala. After coaching a number of teams which included the Sports Hostel, Meerut, he was appointed as Technical Supervisor at the National Stadium for the Asian Games. Since scoreboards were operated manually, he was sent a list of the playing XI on the evening before the big match. [6]

K.N. Sharma: I remember that Romeo James’ name as goalkeeper was on the list and so was Vineet Kumar’s as full-back in place of Rajinder Singh.

The Rajinder Conundrum


ol Balbir Singh, coach of that team, believed that 21 October was the day India actually lost the final. It was the day the final squad was selected. Today, the rolling substitution rule means that the introduction of fresh legs can change a game in any of the four quarters. [7] But, back then, when it was a game of two halves and only two substitutions, stamina was as important as skill. Match fitness meant being able to stick it out for full games. That is why manager Balbir Singh Sr was in favour of dropping full-back Rajinder Singh.

I got in touch with Col Balbir to talk about the Rajinder saga. Over the years, he has been understandably reluctant to be drawn into that conversation. But he did say, “Everything is in my book, just read through it.” And so I did.

In his autobiography titled Hitting the Target: Memories of Khular, he claimed that Rajinder had not played active hockey for three and a half months due to a knee injury. In the presence of Buta Singh and Inder Mohan Mahajan, president of the Indian Hockey Federation (IHF), Col Balbir tried to convince Rajinder to go in for surgery. They also approached an orthopaedic surgeon from Bombay. But Rajinder was not keen to go under the knife.

There was some politics at work here. Mahajan, in the fine tradition of IHF chiefs, liked to have a hand in team selections. He was hoping for a half-fit Rajinder to be included in the Asiad squad. Manager Balbir Sr, on the other hand, was in favour of drafting in Surinder Singh Sodhi for the full-back position. Sodhi, captain during the Champions Trophy campaign, was ordinarily centre-forward but Balbir Sr was convinced he had the stickwork and pace to help the defence. India could then play an extra forward up-front.

According to Col Balbir, Rajinder started showing loyalty towards Mahajan at the expense of Balbir Sr. Apart from his fitness, Col Balbir had another complaint: he felt Rajinder used to spoil the atmosphere in the camp. He started putting pressure on Balbir Sr to ask Rajinder to leave the camp on medical grounds.

On the eve of the final trials, when Balbir Sr was not around, Mahajan solicited Col Balbir’s opinion about Rajinder’s inclusion. The selectors were all present. He unequivocally replied that Rajinder was not fit enough to be included in the Asian Games squad. Then, Mahajan insisted it was better to ask Rajinder himself. When the player was called in, he was not in his playing kit. He declared with “full and fake confidence” that he was ready to participate in the trials.

It put the organising committee in a spot of bother: the hockey event was already being marketed as the showpiece of the Asiad.

When the selection committee agreed to give Rajinder a chance, Col Balbir was enraged. On the day, Rajinder casually approached one of the other players and asked to borrow their kit for the trials. Col Balbir blew his top when he saw this: “I lost my temper and shouted at the top of my voice, saying that he was a big cheat for telling lies about his fitness just to get a place in the team.”

Balbir Sr was even more upset with the way the Rajinder situation had been handled. He decided to leave the camp. There were hardly three weeks to the start of the Asian Games. Most of the national media hadn’t gotten wind of this rift but one of the newspapers published a photograph of Mahajan and Balbir Sr in an argument.

Journalists started asking questions. It put the organising committee in a spot of bother: the hockey event was already being marketed as the showpiece of the Asiad. Buta Singh had to step in. The prime minister herself got involved. Buta told the two Balbirs that Mrs Gandhi had asked them to put the team first. Balbir Sr stayed put.

The Match


he team list sent to K.N. Sharma was changed overnight. Syed Ali started in the first half and would be substituted in the second by Jagdeep Singh; usually it was the other way around. And Rajinder Singh, instead of Vineet Kumar, began the game in the full-back position. If one were to make an educated guess, Ali was meant to lend pace to the attack and create opportunities for penalty corners, which Rajinder would have been expected to capitalise on. One can see the logic now: a buzzing forward line, egged on by a packed stadium making an almighty din, unsettling the Pakistani defence into conceding penalty corners.

But it wasn’t to be. Even after all this time, Rajinder’s starting place is a point of discussion. The question is: can one semi-fit full-back do so much damage to his own team? Kumar replaced Rajinder in the second half.

Vineet Kumar: We did pick up tempo in the second half. But Pakistan had momentum, and suddenly we were desperate, which did not help in building moves as time was also running out. In such circumstances, we needed to move up, and so we exposed our back line again. There was no choice. I do not want to blame anybody. With Rajinder on painkillers, playing does get difficult. Always remember that the Pakistan coach would have sensed the injury and, anyway, the media was writing about it.

Now, from India’s point of view, the game can be viewed as a litany of missed opportunities. Pakistan converted their only penalty stroke; India missed one of the two they got. India couldn’t convert a single one of their ten penalty corners; Pakistan managed to score one out of their seven. Pakistan converted five of their nine field shots at the Indian goal; not one of India’s 11 field shots found the back of the net.

Vineet Kumar: I know the prime minister was there, but that is no pressure, and we did not even know when she left. It was a bad day. I know that day in so many ways decided how fans look at the sport. If India had won, even with a small margin, a lot would have been achieved. The loss was very damaging to the sport.

The spectators were in a stupor at the end of the game, primed for victory by the media frenzy and the team’s own record. There were a few angry chants but most fans filed away quietly, walking towards Pragati Maidan, from where Asian Games special buses would take them home to different parts of town. Some stood in groups for long hours, trying to process what they had just witnessed. That same day, historian Ramachandra Guha was in Garhwal for his research on the Chipko movement.

Ram Guha: I watched it on TV, and I think it was a collective failure. People around me were upset as the Indian goalkeeper, Mir Ranjan Negi, was from Garhwal. [8]

It may have been a collective failure, but the ghosts of 1982 weigh heavier on one man in particular. With the benefit of hindsight, Rajinder Singh had a regret. “Inne saal baad, mainu lagda hai final khed ke main galti kardi,” he told me in Punjabi at his home in Mohali in December 2015. Looking back after all these years, I think I made a mistake by playing that final.

The Miracle of ‘83


he defeat sucked the life out of the Indian sporting landscape for a while. At the time, hockey—more than any other sport—was India’s pride and honour on the world stage. That vacuum was there for the taking. It’s tempting to imagine the counterfactuals: the football team beating Saudi Arabia in the quarterfinal and going on to win gold at the 1982 Asiad; Ramesh Krishnan and the Amritraj brothers leading India to a Davis Cup victory; P.T. Usha making the podium in the 400m hurdles at Los Angeles 1984. In the event, it was an unlikely win that changed the trajectory of Indian sport.

Ram Guha: Cricket being number one, the process all started in 1983. That World Cup win was largely a fluke. If Gordon Greenidge had not got out to Balwinder Sandhu, the match would have finished in no time. It came at the right time. Satellite TV was coming in and One Day Internationals were being telecast into the drawing room. One big thing that happened was cricket broke the gender bias and women started to follow it.

Guha felt that hockey’s bastion was already crumbling by the time the 1982 Asian Games came around. But, back then, there was more diversity in the sports that Indians had time for.

Ram Guha: Cricket was always the number one sport, though not by a great distance. People used to follow hockey, badminton, tennis, even billiards. I remember Prakash Padukone was paraded in an open vehicle in Bangalore when he came home after winning the All England Championships.

“The individual excellence that cricket provides also helped in taking it to a different level—bhakti, as we call it.”

Ram Guha

Kirti Azad, member of the World Cup-winning cricket team, vaguely remembers that he was playing a Ranji match on the day of the hockey final.

Kirti Azad: I do remember that many had even called me, asking if I could arrange some tickets for that final. It was good I was out of the city. The result was shocking to all of us. Remember, for most of us, those hockey players were all stars and they had won the Olympic Games a couple of years before.

According to Guha, cricket lent itself more readily to the cult of the individual.

Ram Guha: Yes, I do believe that if hockey had won the Asian Games final, there would have been a bigger emphasis to revive it. But we should not forget the role of hero worship in cricket. It wasn’t there as much in hockey, which is essentially a team sport. Sunil Gavaskar, Kapil Dev and then Sachin Tendulkar took cricket to great heights. The individual excellence that cricket provides also helped in taking it to a different level—bhakti, as we call it. That’s where the shift in popularity happened.

Azad noted that the cricket World Cup win in England was entirely unexpected. It may be hard to contemplate now, but the team wasn’t even expected to get past the group stages.

Kirti Azad: I still remember saying in the media or to someone that selection to the World Cup team meant a free one-month holiday. In fact, a group of players from that team were already booked to fly to the US for charity matches just after the group matches. Who had thought of the semis and final? And a semi-final win wouldn’t have created much of a difference. Remember, not many watched it on TV. They heard it on the radio, so the impact of the visual was not there. But, later, that one image of Kapil Dev holding the trophy on the Lord’s balcony—it propelled a nation.

Ultimately, what sealed the deal for cricket was India’s win in another limited overs tournament: the Benson & Hedges World Championship in Australia in March 1985. Teams wore coloured kits, and matches were played under lights as ‘day/night’ affairs. The B&H tournament was the subcontinent’s introduction to the superlative coverage of Channel 9: multi-camera set-ups, stump mics and the measured cadence of Richie Benaud’s commentary voice. The teams in the final? India and Pakistan. A tight bowling performance meant India had only 177 runs to get in 50 overs. The team’s most flamboyant individuals—openers Kris Srikkanth and Ravi Shastri—struck half centuries in the successful chase.

Kirti Azad: I believe that the Benson & Hedges World Series did it for cricket. We won and the Channel 9 telecast ensured it stayed in every Indian’s heart and mind. People were buying TV sets only to watch the series. That win and Ravi Shastri’s Audi did it for Indian cricket. There was no stopping as money flowed in and the management realised the gold mine they were sitting on. Suddenly, cricket was the sport to follow, play and watch.

Former wicketkeeper Sadanand Vishwanath, a member of the B&H squad, echoed Azad.

Sadanand Vishwanath: If the 1985 win with all its fantastic telecast had not happened, maybe, the impact of 1983 would not have lasted. B&H cemented the idea of limited overs cricket in a big way.

The Slide


he hockey team had a chance to redeem itself at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. Observers will tell you that the squad that went to the US was one of the strongest Indian teams at any Olympics. But teams need more than talent to win tournaments. In 1984, luck was not on India’s side. Ric Charlesworth, winner of the hockey world cup as both player and coach with Australia, has been a keen follower of the Indian hockey and cricket teams. He felt that the shift in India’s sporting landscape was less about performance and more about contrasting styles in the administration of the two sports.  

Ric Charlesworth: I think the 1983 World Cup win was a significant event for cricket, but India’s hockey team was still exceptionally good. In the 1984 Olympics, they were terrific but just missed the semis. I am not sure that a good performance at LA would have mattered. The problem was probably more related to the management of the sport. Cricket privatised, yet hockey seemed content with the government support it had.

According to Ric, India’s poor performance at the 1986 Hockey World Cup in London—where it finished last—was because of a lack of recovery time after a gruelling bronze medal-winning campaign at the 1986 Asian Games in Seoul. The team flew straight from South Korea to London.

Ric Charlesworth: Certainly, India performed poorly in the 1986 World Cup but it was competitive again in Seoul (1988 Olympic Games) as was Pakistan. The problem was that the game in both counties was competing with cricket which was growing its base and support from the corporate world. It was a big game in other countries like Australia and England and these rivalries sustained it in a commercial world. This is what hockey lacked. For example, Pakistan won a hockey World Cup in 1994, yet that did not change the trajectory of the game there.

“Cricket privatised, yet hockey seemed content with the government support it had.”

Ric Charlesworth

In 1987, the men’s cricket World Cup was co-hosted by India and Pakistan and sponsored by Reliance, the Indian conglomerate. In India, matches were played across 14 different venues, including towns like Cuttack and Indore. India lost in the semi-finals but the idea of the cricketer-as-advertising-model had well and truly arrived. In India Today, Prabhu Chawla wrote that “most of the Indian cricket stars will probably have more visual exposure between the pages of glossies and during TV commercial breaks than on the cricket field itself.” In just a couple of years, a prodigious batting talent from Mumbai would make his Test debut in Pakistan. His rising star was to coincide with the bursting open of India’s consumer economy. Hockey stood no chance.

Charlesworth: Central to popularity is a good domestic league, and even soccer does that better than hockey in India and elsewhere. In Australia, we struggle because of geography and costs whereas the Netherlands can do it and it benefits. [9] The Hockey India League (HIL) is, I believe, essential for India as is the Indian Premier League (IPL) for cricket. Likewise, I believe an ‘Indian Ocean League’ with, say, the national teams of India, Australia, New Zealand, would be a good idea. That’ll help us compete with the European leagues.

Veteran sports journalist S. Thyagarajan once told me that in the end, winning is all that matters. This was at the Athens Olympics in 2004. We had just heard that Morocco’s distance running legend Hicham El Guerrouj had won the gold in the 5000m, adding to his win in the 1500m four days previously. “We speak about cricket being popular and why hockey is not getting the support,” Thyagu had said. “If a sport is constantly in the top four, the support base keeps getting bigger. Every fan wants to see the national team winning.”



n the evening, a wind blew across the National Stadium, past India Gate, onwards to Rashtrapati Bhavan, Parliament House, and Teen Murti Bhavan. There was a slight nip in the air. The Delhi winter was setting in. But inside the National Stadium, the mood was leaden. If what had just occurred in there was a heavyweight fight, the boxer in the crowd’s corner sat slumped to the ground, savaged by the opponent. That evening is a bitter memory for the Indians who played and watched. Somaya and Romeo both called it a ‘scar.’

In 2003, Rajinder Singh was the coach of the men's national team when they beat Pakistan 7-4 in a league game at the Champions Trophy in Amstelveen in the Netherlands. At one point in the game, India was trailing 2-4. The comeback was no consolation for the man who played a half in that fateful final more than two decades ago. “It will be difficult to wipe out the humiliation of the 1982 defeat,” he would say to me after the win in Amstelveen. “It was our ground, our conditions, our Asian Games.”

Sundeep Misra is a sports journalist and author. He was the sports editor of TV channel News X and then founder and editor-in-chief of Sports Illustrated India. As a sportswriter, he has covered eight hockey world cups and four Olympic Games. The latest of his three books is Fiercely Female: The Dutee Chand Story.