The late Balkishan Singh, a revered coach but not a Dronacharya awardee

There is a strong case for Balkishan Singh to be given Dronacharya award, even if posthumously.

Balkishan Singh, the then Indian hockey team coach, snapped during training in New Delhi on June 26, 1992. - THE HINDU ARCHIVES

Celebrated as the National Sports Day, the birth anniversary of Dhyan Chand, the genius wielding a hockey stick, is a good time to reflect on hockey in India from the national recognition point of view.

This year, the grandeur of receiving the awards at the Rashtrapati Bhavan was missed by the awardees as India honoured its sporting achievers - players, coaches, and mentors - in a virtual ceremony. For each hockey player, coach or mentor proud to be among the honours list on August 29, there are names from the past which have been overlooked for a specific award.

For example, Olympian and noted hockey coach, the late Balkishan Singh’s name is missing from the list of Dronacharya awardees for outstanding coaches so far.

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Thirteen coaches have been honoured so far. Gurdial Singh Bhangu was the first recipient in 2000, Jude Felix and Romesh Pathania were honoured in 2020.

Interestingly, Balkishan, mentor to numerous Indian Olympians or World Cuppers, was named in the 2000 list for the Arjuna award, usually given to outstanding players. He passed away in 2004, having won two Olympic golds medals (1964 Melbourne as player, 1980 Moscow as India coach). The fact is that Balkishan was better known as a coach than a player, both home and abroad. In the event, there is a strong case for him to be given Dronacharya award, even if posthumously.

‘Only Indian who can be called a coach’

The great defender Surjit Singh was named posthumously for the Arjuna award in 1998, so there is a precedent as far as National Sports awards are concerned. Former India men’s hockey captain and ace playmaker, Jude Felix, a Dronacharya awardee in 2020, states in a chat with the Sportstar: “I don’t know the technical rules about honouring people posthumously, but from my more than 25 years of coaching experience, plus the Dronacharya award this year, I have the right to safely say that Balkishan Singh was not just one of our national coaches, he was the only Indian who can be called a coach.”

Felix added: “I played under him at the 1992 Olympic Games in Barcelona. He had the uncanny eye for spotting quality and knew which player could fit into a specific position as per the plan in his mind. He built great teams, the 1980 Moscow squad won the gold, the 1984 Los Angeles group was a fantastic group which deserved a podium finish but did not happen. In 1992, working with an entirely different generation, Sir formed a powerful side, brought the team to a peak in the run-up to Barcelona, where we suffered due to differences within.”

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Explaining the difference between Balkishan and other Indian national team coaches, the midfielder states: “He was different in his thinking. I remember the smart way he convinced me to play the attacking centre-half, the way he did with Hardeep Singh (Los Angeles Olympics). For me, he was fantastic.”

Unique achiever

Incidentally, Balkishan coached India at four Olympics (1968, 1980, 1984, 1992) after a successful playing career, culminating in the gold medal as a member of the 1964 Melbourne Olympics side under Balbir Singh Sr. as captain.

Balkishan had an uncanny eye for spotting quality, says Jude Felix (in picture). - R. RAVINDRAN

Balkishan earned a reputation in South Korea and Australia. South Korea’s successful national coach, Kim Sang Ryul (later coach of Chinese national team), refers to him as hockey guru after spending time at NIS Patiala doing a coaching course under him. Balkishan travelled to Australia, on invitation, to train their women players.

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Felix concludes: “He improvised by making players train on gravel to prepare the side for Moscow Olympics. We had no turfs in Bengaluru then. The team came back with the gold. Four years later, he employed four forwards and two centre-halves at LA 1984, different from the way Indian teams play.”

Revered in Korea, respected in Australia and admired in Dhyan Chand’s nation by players and coaches spanning generations, master coach Balkishan Singh remains an unique sporting achiever, known for radical changes in the way national teams played and able to bring players to his point of view.

Dronacharya awards list (source: www.hockeyindia.org):
  • G. S. Bhangu (for year 2000),
  • M K Kaushik (2002),
  • Rajinder Singh Sr (2003),
  • Baldev Singh (2009),
  • A. K. Bansal (2010),
  • Rajinder Singh Jr (2011),
  • Harendra Singh (2012),
  • Narinder Saini (2013),
  • P. A. Raphael (2017),
  • Clarence Lobo (2018),
  • Merzban Patel (2019),
  • Jude Felix and Romesh Pathania (both 2020).

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