Balbir Singh Sr: His hockey stick was a magician’s wand

Hockey was hugely popular in India when Balbir Singh Sr was winning the hearts of his countrymen. He played fair and there was an indefatigable spirit that marked his game.

Balbir Singh (Sr.) is triple Olympic gold medallist (1948, '52 & '56).   -  R. V. MOORTHY

The hands that once held the hockey stick firmly, guiding the ball, caressing or slamming it, leaving the opponents chasing his shadow, trembled to hold a pen as he bravely tried to scribble his name. Giving an autograph seemed such an arduous task for Balbir Singh Sr, who could once produce a goal from nowhere. His frail figure was proof of the world having whizzed by, time leaving its mark on this wonderful athlete, who dazzled on the hockey field like none other, with the glorious exception of Dhyan Chand.

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Having watched neither in action, one could only wistfully visualise the treat they must have dished out to their fans. We could feast only on stories recounted by old timers. Polite to a fault, Balbir Sr sported an infectious smile. His warm hug created such positive vibes about a man who spent his life helping fellow sportsmen, his upright character a testimony to the values that underlined his commitment to his team and nation.

Balbir also respected cricketers. And cricketers respected the hockey star in return. Vijay Hazare had earned fame on the tour to Australia in 1947-48 with a century in each innings of the Adelaide Test against Don Bradman’s team. Balbir Sr would mention Hazare in our conversations, but not a word of his own dazzling role in India winning the 1948 Olympic gold in London. His humility restrained him from making pompous references to his hockey feats.

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He does write about the harsh treatment meted out to him at the London Olympics. He was twice dropped from the playing XI despite scoring six goals against Argentina, including a hat-trick, in his debut match of the Olympics. The final against host Great Britain was a thriller. Kishan Lal and K. D. Singh Babu played barefoot after it rained. And India won 4-0 after Balbir Sr scored the first two goals. The team was accorded a red-carpet welcome in Bombay.

Balbir Singh (right) pictured with Dhyan Chand.   -  The Hindu Photo Library

 

“Hockey was the only sport that gave the country something of a ray of golden hope, something to shout about,” wrote Balbir Sr.

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The team was feted by Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and Balbir Sr would often recall those memorable days of hockey being the “darling sport” of the nation. It is said that Balbir Sr and ‘Flying Sikh’ Milkha Singh never required an appointment to meet the Prime Minister. “It’s true. We could meet him at short notice. He loved hockey,” Balbir Sr told this writer once.

Hockey was hugely popular in India when Balbir Sr was winning the hearts of his countrymen. He played fair and there was an indefatigable spirit that marked his game. He was said to be the fittest in the team and had a penchant to come up with some innovative streaks. Those who watched him in action would recall his impeccable timing in releasing the ball. His control of the ball was astonishing and it was rare that he would lose possession.

It was memorable meeting this legend at his home in Chandigarh last February. The place was a virtual hockey museum and one basically soaked in tales from India’s glorious domination of the game. He had clearly aged and his grandson Kabir was his means of communication. The National Flag in his room was a constant reminder of the momentous occasion in London when he took pride in ‘mastering’ the master, Great Britain. Independent India celebrated the hockey gold on English soil and he could relive every moment of that epic contest with minute details.

His speech was a mumble. You had to sit close because he had also become hard of hearing. There was a time when he would, in a flash, hear a call for the ball amidst the din of spectators and unerringly find his partner. “Those were such lovely days,” the sparkle in his eyes confirmed that he had dug deep into the past to recall those magical moments.

Three gold medals at the Olympics – 1948 (London), 1952 (Helsinki), 1956 (Melbourne) – brought him the status of greatness as a player. In 1975, he was the coach when India won the World Cup at Kuala Lumpur. It has not won it since.

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Balbir Singh with his daughter Sushbir at her residence in Chandigarh.   -  Akhilesh Kumar

 

He was emotionally attached to the game. A hockey defeat would result in Balbir Sr giving his meal a miss. Family members often hid the news of India’s loss from him. The game was that much dear to him. He was an inseparable part of hockey discussions in any era. Towards the end of his journey, he yearned for the company of young players and scribes. He wanted to share his memories and regale them with inspirational stories. On one of the trips to his house, some of us expressed our desire to “feel” the gold medals. He pulled them out of his treasure box and let us hold them. “Do you feel the current?” His eyes were moist.

In his death, Balbir Sr took away with him a large chunk of hockey history, documented only in his mind. He was a kind soul, who served Indian hockey with distinction, and remained its most loyal supporter even in times of acute distress. He refused to believe that Indian hockey had plunged to irretrievable depths. He always advocated hope. “Hard work and dedication can take you places. We have hockey in our blood. All it needs is proper guidance,” he would repeat at various forums and seminars.

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In The Golden Hat Trick, his captivating autobiography, he documents his attachment to the game. “Her love for me was eternal. Our love blossomed in London. We married in Helsinki and honeymooned in Melbourne. After a period of 11 long years (from the 1964 Tokyo Olympics), she returned to me as fresh, as gay, as charming as she ever was. This time she took me to Kuala Lumpur and we were again top of the world. I am waiting for her – my hockey fairy.”

Alas, his yearning for another date with the hockey fairy shall remain an unfulfilled dream.

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