Farewell, hockey legend

ByShaunak Ghosh

May 29, 2020

Triple Olympic gold medallist and hockey legend Balbir Singh Sr breathed his last on 25 May at Mohali. Patriot looks back at his spectacular career to pay tribute to the great man

Before cricket became such a popular sport in the country, it was hockey that ruled the roost till the early 70’s. Since independence this was the most popular sport as the tricolour dominated the world stage, winning three Olympic gold medals in a row from 1948 to 1956. The chief architect of all these wins remained one man — Balbir Singh Sr — often regarded as one of the greatest hockey players the world has ever seen.

In the 1940s and 50s, Singh’s stick was regarded as nothing short of a magic wand, as he could score field goals from anywhere on the pitch.

Born in Haripur Khalsa, Punjab on 31 December 1923, Singh was attracted to hockey from his early days. Before even making his India debut, he was the talk of the town in the domestic circuit, a force to reckon with in the All India Inter-University tournaments. In fact, Punjab University won the title thrice in a row from 1942 to 1945 under his able leadership. He then went on to star for India in the years to come — and the rest, as they say, is history. Singh still remains the only Indian to have three Olympic gold medals to his name.

“There is absolutely no doubt that he was a player par excellence. I have always maintained that he is the Dhyan Chand of independent India”, says former India hockey player Zafar iqbal

z Yes, there are players who have played more than Balbir saheb such as Leslie Claudius and Udham Singh.What set Balbir apart from the rest was that he was such a prolific scorer”, he adds.

Indeed, the legend was nothing short of a goal machine. He scored a mammoth 246 goals in just 61 appearances, averaging more than four goals per game, a feat that is unheard of nowadays.

In fact, in the 1952 Olympic finals in Helsinki, Singh scored five goals in a 6-1 victory against the Netherlands. This is the record for the most goals in an Olympic hockey final, and the record is still intact.

Speaking of the Olympic wins, the legend himself always held the 1948 win was far more important than any of the others. India was just 362 days old as a newly formed independent nation, and the hockey team had to be rebuilt because as many as four key players now played for Pakistan after the partition. India were regarded as underdogs for the tournament.

Singh was just newly introduced in the squad and hardly ever got picked in the starting XI throughout the tournament. However, he started in the final against England at London’s Wembley Stadium, and proved to be the hero as he scored a brace in a 4-0 victory. This was independent India’s first major achievement. That too, it came by beating the country’s former colonisers on their home turf.

“That day, when our flag was hoisted in front of thousands at Wembley stadium, I realised what independence meant. It was the proudest moment for me and for all Indians back home. When the national anthem was played and the flag was going up, I felt like I was flying”, said Singh in an interview to Hindustan Times in 2018.

In the 1956 Melbourne Olympics, Singh was the captain of the hockey team and the flag bearer for India, in what was his last appearance in the Olympics. He proved to be an able leader as well, as he guided India to its third straight olympic gold by beating Pakistan 1-0 in the finals.

On his back, the hockey legend wore the number 13, a number considered unlucky by all and sundry. “During the acclimatisation for the 1952 Olympics in Copenhagen, a girl said I am wearing an unlucky number. I told her that in north India, ‘tera’ (13) is also a form of addressing God. So, for me it’s my luckiest number”, Singh said in the same 2018 interview. In fact, he went on to score 13 goals in the 1952 tournament.

Apart from being a great player, Balbir Singh was also one of the greatest hockey coaches the country has ever seen. “In the eight years I played, from my debut in 1976 to 1984, many coaches came and went, but none was as influential and loved by the players as he was”, says Iqbal.

“He used to understand all of our games, and would guide us accordingly. In our free time, he used to joke around with us, with his impeccable sense of humour”, he remembers.

 Balbir Singh in the winner’s podium at the 1956 Melbourne Olympics // Photo: Getty

During the tenure that Balbir coached the Indian team, they won the bronze medal in the 1971 Hockey World Cup, but the crowning achievement was when under his tutelage the nation lifted the gold at the 1975 World Cup, often regarded as the one of the country’s greatest ever achievements in the sport.

During the preparatory camp for the 1975 World Cup, his father passed away and his wife was in the hospital for four weeks due to a brain haemorrhage. But Singh never missed a day in the camp, barring the day when his father was cremated, such was his dedication.

He was the first sportsperson to be awarded the Padma Shri in 1957, four years before the Arjuna Awards were announced. Thus, one can argue that he set the stage for sportsmen to win the highest civilian honours in the country.

“However, in spite of so many achievements, he never showed off. He remained humble and soft spoken throughout his life, and exuded of so much positivity”, says his grandson Kabir. In fact, when in 1965 then prime minister Lal Bahadur Shastri had asked all Indians to contribute to the National Defence Fund, he wanted to hand over his Olympic medals.

On Singh’s insistence, the medals were kept in the Punjab’s chief minister’s office. A few months later, they were sent to Singh, then head of the sports department in Punjab — with a letter which said: “These medals are the country’s pride and prestige and couldn’t be sold.”

“Balbir Sr’s achievements in hockey cannot be emulated. It is difficult to mention him in past tense because for us he was always there. One could call on him for advice at any time, his spirit and adulation for the game will be missed. I am sure even in his absence, his life as a hockey legend will inspire many generations,” stated Rajinder Singh, secretary-general of Hockey India.

“One by one the members of 1948 Olympics team are going and very soon we would have the complete team up there. My number is also going to come soon, as the team can’t afford to ignore the services of their most trusted forward player”, Singh had said in an interview after his 1948 Olympics teammate Tarlochan Singh Bawa passed away in 2008. Perhaps, the time had finally come for the team up in heaven to secure the services of their trusted goal machine.

(Cover: Balbir Singh // Photo: Hockey India)