Balbir Singh Senior’s genius helped the Indian hockey team overcome some infighting, drop in form and the elements to land their fifth straight Olympic gold.
When the Indian hockey team won a second hat-trick of Olympic gold medals (1948, 1952, 1956) as an independent nation, it created a legacy that would be talked about for decades to come. Those were the days of Balbir Singh Sr., KD Singh Babu, Leslie Claudius and Keshav Dutt.
July 24, 1952 was another red-letter day in Indian hockey. They reigned supreme over the Netherlands in the final of the Helsinki 1952 Olympics to clinch the gold medal for the fifth time overall.
However, the journey to Finland was anything but ideal for a team that was considered as a runaway favourite.
A month prior to the 1952 Olympics, the Indian hockey team for the Summer Games had been finalized with KD Singh Babu named captain and Balbir Singh Sr. his deputy.
However, the Indian Olympic Association (IOA) faced pressure from the Uttar Pradesh and Bengal state hockey associations to include centre-half OP Malhotra and striker CS Gurung in the team, respectively. This interference seemingly impacted the team’s combination.
The Indian hockey team suffered an unexpected defeat against a local team in one of their practice matches in Madras. Worse, KD Singh Babu was injured, losing a few of his front teeth after colliding with a Madras XI player.
It led to some questions on the preparedness of the Indian hockey team that went to Copenhagen, Denmark for a preparatory camp. The main idea was to get acclimatized to the cold Nordic weather and the alien conditions they would encounter in Helsinki.
Finland, known as the ‘Land of the Midnight Sun’, would experience daylight for 24 hours a day for almost 70 days after the summer solstice on June 21, and the period coincided with the 1952 Olympics.
It was a phenomenon that the Indian hockey team, with 10 out of 18 members making their Olympics debut, was not familiar with. The time difference and those additional hours of sunlight were playing havoc with the team’s sleeping pattern.
“Nanaji (grandpa) told me that the team would draw the curtains at all times and even used bedsheets to block out the light and make an entirely dark room to be able to get some sleep,” Kabir Singh, Balbir Singh Sr.’s grandson, told the Olympic Channel.
The Indian hockey team was given a bye in the first round, along with Great Britain and Pakistan and so, they began their campaign against Austria in the quarter-finals.
Acclimatize, the players did, but only just. The 4-0 scoreline against Austria looked great but India looked sluggish in their passing and the damp conditions made it difficult for the Indians to demonstrate their artistry on heavy grass. The inadequate sleep was certainly playing its part.
However, the Indian hockey team put on an improved show in the semi-final, beating Great Britain 3-1 with Balbir Singh Sr. scoring the second of his three Olympic hat-tricks. The deputy was especially pleased with how they had broken open the British defence.
“We were a completely changed lot in the semi-final against Britain. We moved swiftly and smoothly and scythed their defence with copy-book moves.”- Balbir Singh Sr.
India reserved its best for last though, defeating the Netherlands 6-1 in the final.
Balbir Singh Sr. scored five goals on the day, a record in the final of a men’s Olympic field hockey tournament that stands to this day, and captain KD Singh Babu put his name on the scoresheet too.
The Indian hockey team had won their fifth Olympic hockey gold in style. India scored 13 goals in all - a number incidentally Balbir Singh Sr. considered lucky - of which the legendary hockey player scored nine.
However Balbir Singh Sr. also believed that India had received divine blessing.
“He shared a room with the coach Harbail Singh in Helsinki and Nanaji would hear him pray all night for the team’s victory. He felt it did play some part in the win,” revealed Kabir Singh.
When the players returned home, the Indian hockey team got a grand reception, even playing an exhibition match which was attended by then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and President Dr Rajendra Prasad.
Punjab fans went overboard with fans even mobbing the train in which the four Punjab Police players – Balbir Singh Sr., Udham Singh, Dharam Singh and Raghbir Lal Sharma – had returned home.
“When we emerged from the train, they almost crushed us with bear hugs and shows of affection. We were taken in open Jeeps in a huge procession in Jalandhar,” Balbir Singh Sr. had recalled to authors Boria Majumdar and Nalin Mehta in the book, Dreams of a Billion: India and the Olympic Games.
“Thousands of people lined the streets and cheered us from treetops and housetops. We were showered with small gifts, baskets of fruits and sweets and garlands — these constituted the people’s simple way of showing their gratefulness.”- Balbir Singh Sr.
Of course, the biggest moment would arrive four years later in Melbourne where India bagged their sixth consecutive Olympics gold. That was enough to make India a hockey superpower, a tag that still remains with the Indian men’s hockey team.