Indian men’s hockey team have been synonymous with illustrious names over the years, who have
left their opponents rattled and their supporters jumping for joy with their power-packed penalty
corner (PC) strikes. Prithipal Singh was one such name who wreaked havoc with the opposition’s
defences in the fifties and sixties. Such was the fierceness of Prithipal’s penalty corner hits that he
earned the sobriquet ‘King of Penalty Corners’.
Born at Nanka Sahib (now in Pakistan) on January 28, 1932, Prithipal shifted to Indian Punjab
after partition. He used to study at the Agriculture College, Ludhiana where his hockey prowess
came to the fore – he represented the Ludhiana Agriculture College hockey team from 1950-1956
and was also named its captain in 1955. The prodigiously talented fullback dazzled at the college-
level hockey and subsequently catapulted into national prominence with an eye-catching
performance at the 1957 Senior Nationals, where he had represented Punjab.
Prithipal made his international debut in 1959 on an East Africa tour before his exploits sealed his
spot for the 1960 Rome Olympics. He scored in the first minute of play on his Olympic debut tie
against Denmark before going on to cap off a sizzling hat-trick in India’s fiesty 10-0 win. The
sturdy short corner specialist came to the party in India’s 4-1 win over the Netherlands, scoring
twice – his efforts were instrumental in his side securing a smooth passage to the knockout phase
and eventually settling for the silver medal.
The best of Prithipal was witnessed at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, where he was in a rich vein of
form finishing as the top goal-scorer with 10 goals. Across key games, Prithipal left a telling impact
on India’s fortunes – he pulled off a late equaliser in their 1-1 draw against Germany and also
scored an early goal in India’s 2-1 win over the Netherlands. The ‘Prithipal’ factor showed up in
the semifinals, where he scored a brace in India’s 3-1 win over Australia after their opponents took
an early lead. Interestingly, it was Prithipal’s penalty corner strike that hit Pakistan player Munir on
the foot that resulted in a penalty stroke that Mohinder Lal converted, which turned out to be the
match-winner. Prithipal finished as the top goal-scorer for the second Olympics on the trot – he
was the top scorer at the 1960 Rome Olympics with 5 goals to his kitty.
Despite the immense talent Prithipal possessed, international career did not progress smoothly. His
long-standing frosty relations with the then Indian Hockey Federation (IHF) President Ashwini
Kumar were known to all. It is said that Ashwini Kumar was in favour of dropping Prithipal after
the 1964 Tokyo Olympics but was compelled to take him in as there were no players who could be
considered good enough to replace him. The far-from-ideal relations with the then IHF President
meant that Prithipal had to settle for Joint Captaincy alongside Gurbux Singh (enjoyed support of
Ashwini Kumar) for the 1968 Mexico Olympics. The presence of two captains was responsible for
groupism rearing its ugly head in Mexico. India’s bronze medal effort was considered a new low
and both Prithipal and Gurbux had to cop much of the blame for that.
Like the 1960 and 1964 Olympics, Prithipal was in prolific form, scoring 7 goals, pulling off one goal
in the bronze medal play-off tie against East Germany. He ended up winning 3 consecutive Olympic
medals – Silver in 1960), Gold in 1964 and Bronze in 1968. Prithipal called time on his international
hockey career after the 1968 Olympics. After moving away from hockey, he joined the Punjab
Agricultural University and served as Director of Sports and Students’ Welfare. Tragedy struck when
Prithipal was shot dead by unidentified miscreants in broad daylight at the Punjab Agricultural
Prithipal was the first hockey player to be bestowed with the Arjuna Award in 1961 – he was also
awarded the Padma Shri (the fourth highest civilian award) in 1967. A movie was made on the
stalwart – Prithipal Singh A Story and released in 2015.