Balbir Singh Sr: The silent jewel in Indian hockey’s golden crown
Begin a discussion on Indian hockey and the first name that pops up is Dhyan Chand. They may next move on to the glory years of yore, where India seemed to be an indefatigable winner, triumphing in six consecutive Olympics.
Balbir Singh Sr. was the humble, down-to-earth individual and someone with a memory as sharp as his finishing skills in his heydays.
“It was destiny which helped me to achieve all I did during my career,” is how Balbir Singh Sr. how had summed up his accolades in an interview with The Hindu.
Finding gold amidst the partition chaos
Having been fascinated by hockey as a wide-eyed 12-year-old watching India win its third Olympic gold at Berlin 1936, Balbir Singh decided then that it would be the sport he would want to make a mark in.
He moved to Amritsar six years later, where Harbail Singh, the Indian hockey team coach at the 1952 and 1956 Olympics, spotted him and thus began his journey to achieve legendary status.
In Their Own Words: Excellence is not an art but a habit
In Their Own Words: Excellence is not an art but a habitOlympic triple champion and record holder for goals scored, Balbir Singh presented a blend of style and success on the hockey field.
Balbir Singh came from a family of freedom fighters, he rarely saw his father as he shifted in and out of prison, and the pride for his country came in-built with the genes.
As a 20-year-old, he was ‘arrested’ by the Punjab Police, not because he was involved in illegal activities but because they wanted Balbir Singh to play for them. “My father and uncle were revolutionaries, the police were loyal to the British. How could I have joined them?” he told The Times of India years later.
He witnessed first-hand the horrors post-independence as the state of Punjab was divided - the poverty and violence in villages. Most of his teammates became citizens of Pakistan overnight.
He faced multiple obstacles to get to the London Olympics in 1948. The striker was not included in the original 39-man squad list as the authorities ‘forgot’ about him and made it there only after the insistence of Dickie Carr, a member of the 1932 Olympic gold medal-winning team.
Once in the reckoning, he made it to the final 20-man Indian hockey squad for the Olympics, but inter-team dynamics saw him banished from the playing XI in the first match. Only an injury to Reonnie Rodrigues saw him take the field against Argentina and he responded with six goals in a 9-1 hammering.
He was again axed in the third game and had almost entered the field for the semi-final before he was informed that he would not be playing. A few medical students took offence to this and their protest to the Indian high commissioner in London is what got him into the team for the Olympics final.
Balbir Singh scored two more goals then at Wembley Stadium, against Great Britain no less, to help the Indian hockey team to a 4-0 victory and their fourth Olympic gold, the most special one to date. The win, and more importantly, the pride gave him an unprecedented high.
“For the first time in 1948, the tricolour was hosted at the top of the world. As the flag was going up, I felt as if I was going up too. Then I realized, no, I am on the ground. And I still remember how it felt, as if I was going up as well. I felt as if I was flying,” he had told ESPN.
Stamping his authority
By the time the next Olympics rolled around in 1952, Balbir Singh had become an integral part of the Indian hockey team and was named vice-captain to KD Babu for the Helsinki Olympics. He was also the flag-bearer for the Indian contingent.
"Finland is the land of the midsummer nights. The first night was terrible for us; the glare in the open window would not give us sleep. We adjusted to the odd sight of the sun shining in the night by downing our shutters and darkening our rooms with heavy curtains," he wrote in his memoirs, The Golden Hat Trick.
A disturbed sleep cycle aside, the 1952 Olympics was where Balbir Singh was truly recognized as the heart of the Indian hockey team as he scored nine goals, including a hat-trick each in the semi-final and final.
In fact, his five goals in the 6-1 win in the final against the Netherlands broke a 44-year record for most goals in an Olympic final and it still stands almost seven decades later.
In Melbourne 1956, Balbir Singh was named captain and though he was not as prolific as before, with Udham Singh taking the honour with 15 goals, the brave forward soldiered through a fracture in his right hand to help the Indian hockey team win the final and secure a sixth Olympic gold, its second hat-trick and first as an independent nation.
Leadership had taken on a new meaning then.
The love affair with hockey
Balbir Singh became the first sportsperson to receive the Padma Shri, India’s fourth-highest civilian honour in 1957 and went on to win silver at the 1958 Asian Games, only conceding the gold to Pakistan on the basis of goal difference.
Though he did not play another Olympics, Balbir Singh’s love for hockey saw him take up coaching after retirement. He guided the Indian hockey team as the sport expanded beyond the Olympics.
He managed the Indian hockey team to bronze in the 1971 World Cup and then was at the helm for their only World Cup win to date in 1975. In between, he also came to be known as Balbir Singh Sr. after three other Balbir Singhs were part of the bronze-winning team at the 1968 Olympics.
Balbir Singh Sr. also had a doting family, he was survived by his daughter Sushbir and her son Kabir, who left a lucrative job in South Africa to stay with his loving grandfather.
The nonagenarian still attended hockey matches whenever his health permitted, and he had one specific request for the national team.
“My wish and prayer is that India will get back to the top of the pedestal once again at the 2024 Games in Paris. I will be 100 then!” he had exclaimed.
While he may not be around anymore, fulfilling that wish would be the best possible tribute to a bonafide great of Indian hockey.