M. M. Somaya pays tribute to late Balbir Singh Sr

Hockey has indeed lost its brightest star and signalled the end of an era. RIP Balbir Sir. Thank you for inspiring a generation of hockey players.

M. M. Somaya: There seemed a halo of calmness around him. Call it charisma or mystical presence, there was something special in this man that touched your heart at the very first meeting.   -  AKHILESH KUMAR

Growing up in Bombay, I had read a lot about Balbir Singh’s accomplishments. As though his three Olympic gold medals were not enough, he had gone on to be the manager of the successful team at the World Cup at Kuala Lumpur in 1975. He also held the coveted post of director (sports) in Punjab.

In the late 1970s, as I started out my fledgling career, stories of Balbir Sr as a team manager started filtering through. After all, he was the man in charge when India won the World Cup. While most showered wholesome praise on his man-management skills, there were a few who were wary of his style of functioning. His writ ran large and he could wield the whip when needed.

After making my debut in international hockey in 1980, there was this deep desire to meet him and get to know the person behind the legend. He did come to meet the team before the 1980 Olympic final with his three gold medals worn proudly round his neck and even gave us a pep talk – that had been but a fleeting glance. Later in 1982, he was appointed manager of our team slated to participate in the Champions Trophy at Amsterdam.

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It was my first exposure to the great man. There was a sense of understated elegance in his measured step and upright gait. There seemed a halo of calmness around him. Call it charisma or mystical presence, there was something special in this man that touched your heart at the very first meeting. It was as much his persona as his playing achievements that had me in awe.

Balbir Sr was intuitive in his management style and quickly forged a bond with players by his personalised touch. He was also not averse to taking bold positions and at times his forthright decisions singed senior players. In particular, he did not take kindly to players who did not keep team interests above their own. Hailing from a different era, he did not have the experience of modern-day tactics for astroturf hockey. Yet, his strong work ethic and exceptionally insightful mind kept him abreast with the best in the business.

The Champions Trophy at Amsterdam saw our team play with renewed vigour under his guidance. In the match against Pakistan, we were trailing 0-3 in the first 15 minutes. His composure in the situation convinced us that all was not lost. We recovered to beat Pakistan 5-4 riding on a hat-trick by Rajinder Singh Sr. It was a gruelling tournament where we had to play six matches against the best in the world within eight days. We went the distance and finished on the podium as bronze medallists. This was a performance that remained India’s best in the Champions Trophy for 36 long years. It was in large measure due to the astute handling of the team by Balbir Sr, ably assisted by Colonel Balbir, who was his deputy.

For someone who had been ever victorious in his era, there was a rude surprise in store. The team that had promised so much at the Champions Trophy tanked on the horrendous day at Delhi in the 1982 Asian Games final. It was a collective failure of everyone on the field. A blowout if there was one. With a nation in mourning and brickbats flying thick and fast, it would have shattered the nerve of most. Not Balbir Sr. On the contrary, it brought to the fore the true mettle of the great champion.

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He regrouped the team and somehow convinced us that we should go to Melbourne to play the Esanda Trophy, which had the best countries on view – a virtual World Cup competition. Exactly 20 days after our monumental loss in the Asian Games final, the Asian arch-rivals were pitted against each other again in the opener at Esanda, Melbourne. India won 2-1 and went on to defeat Holland, England, New Zealand and a host of top teams to make it to the final. Although we ultimately lost to hosts Australia, it was a retribution of sorts to beat the old enemy and finish on the podium from a fully competitive field.

For many like me, it was a return of confidence to continue a career in hockey. Balbir Sr’s association with the Indian team across the three tournaments in 1982 gave the team two results that were never equalled by any Indian team for many decades. In our meetings subsequently, he would always remember the good times and not let us feel the burden of the one big loss. He would lightheartedly also remind me of the days when he pulled me up on the odd occasion for violating team curfew timings!

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The discipline that he maintained enabled him to retain a sharp memory and excellent health. He always alluded to his glass of cold milk that was the secret of his fitness and immense energy. During our last meeting in March this year, he had the same angelic smile and maintained the poise and serenity that he had when I first met him. At age 96 and mobbed by many admirers, he took the time to say, “No. 4 (my shirt number), how are you and how is your friend Joe (Joaquim Carvalho).” His passing is a personal loss since I was greatly influenced by his managerial style.

Hockey has indeed lost its brightest star and signalled the end of an era. RIP Balbir Sir. Thank you for inspiring a generation of hockey players.

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