Balbir Singh Sr: Always a star among stars

Balbir Singh Senior was part of three gold medal-winning Olympic teams before taking over as the manager of the national team. He played and managed at a time when hockey players were treated as celebrities by the movie world.

After winning two more Olympic golds (1952 Helsinki and 1956 Melbourne), Balbir helmed India’s World Cup Hockey title-win in Kuala Lumpur in 1975.   -  SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

Balbir Singh Senior was part of three gold medal-winning Olympic teams before taking over as the manager of the national team. He played and managed at a time when hockey players were treated as celebrities by the movie world and were invited to post-win felicitations by Bollywood celebrities, playing exhibition games with these reel stars. Recently, his Olympic heroics were immortalised in the movie Goal.

His two goals in India’s 4-0 rout of home team England at the 1948 London Olympic Games hockey final resulted in a delirious independent India, free from England rule a year earlier, erupting in joy. After winning two more Olympic golds (1952 Helsinki and 1956 Melbourne), Balbir helmed India’s World Cup Hockey title-win in Kuala Lumpur in 1975.

Amidst a series of felicitations nationwide, one unique event stood out. The late Raj Kapoor invited Team India, captained by midfielder Ajitpal Singh, to Mumbai, for an exhibition match against the film world. The world champion took on hockey-stick wielding actors and actresses on a makeshift pitch at the Wankhede stadium. The squad under Balbir Senior was also invited to a grand reception at the thespian’s farmhouse.

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India captain Ajitpal Singh recalls: “Raj Kapoor was a great fan of sports. He invited our team to a Baisakhi function and we visited his farmhouse. We played with a team of 11, they were 20, actors and actresses coming in and going out. It was an exhibition tie for fans to enjoy.” Balbir Sr, as team manager, was present at the Wankhede and watched with pride as his heroes enjoyed fame and adulation.

Hockey was the pride of Indian sport then, so playing under a manager with a lifetime of achievements, was Ajitpal’s career-high. “Sir brought out the best in his players,” said the captain about Balbir Senior, whose life story later was woven into the GOLD movie, based on the 1948 Olympics triumph.

On that day at the Wankhede, the manager watched his players showcase their skills against artists of another craft. Ajitpal Singh recalls Dara Singh, Danny Denzongpa, Navin Nishcol, Prem Chopra, Asrani, Randhir Kapoor among actors on the pitch.

The late Raj Kapoor invited Team India, captained by midfielder Ajitpal Singh, to Mumbai, for an exhibition match against the film world.   -  SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

 

GALLERY: Balbir Singh Sr's stellar career - In Pictures

Mumbai’s Onkar Singh, a World Cup-winning team member, whose personal album includes images from the Wankhede exhibition tie, says: “Hockey drew packed crowds across the nation. India players had fans everywhere, the public followed the sport closely. I hope more hockey movies are made, Indian has hockey legends whose life story can be inspiring.”

The latter was studying in Khalsa College (Lyalpur, Jalandhar) in 1975, toured with the squad for felicitations and is currently the Sports Director at Mumbai’s Guru Nanak Khalsa College. Onkar recalls the names of Rakhee, Bindu among actresses present for the festivities, but is unsure about  who played.

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