Balbir Singh Sr: Indian hockey’s one-stop solution
If winning an Olympic gold medal for the country is the ultimate dream for an athlete, Balbir Singh Sr. fulfilled it thrice.
But the Indian hockey legend’s drive to bring accolades to his country didn’t stop after that.
After hanging his playing boots, Balbir Singh Sr. donned the coach’s hat and steered the national side to a bronze medal at the 1971 World Cup and a gold medal at the 1975 World Cup.
The federation had realized that they had something special available in Balbir Singh Sr. and his services were called upon yet again in 1982 after a barren run by the national side.
Put in charge of an underperforming team struggling to keep up to the challenges of modern hockey, Balbir Singh’s unblemished record of always taking India to a podium finish was at stake.
But he didn’t think twice before taking up the role again.
“Do you desert your own children just because they are weak?" Balbir Singh Sr. had told Sportstar before India’s Test match against Pakistan in the 1982 Dubai tour.
Bringing back togetherness
Despite making a world of difference with his unparalleled goal scoring-skills up top, Balbir Singh Sr. believed in the importance of playing together as a team.
And one of his first tasks after becoming the chief coach was to group his players into alphabetical order for sharing rooms and travelling. Coming from different regions of the country, this move reformed the bond that was previously missing.
“God helps those who help themselves. He is with us always,” Balbir Singh Sr. had said.
“I wanted to let the boys feel that we are one, no matter which religion we belong to," he reasoned.
The new system had removed the existing hierarchy in the dressing room and his mammoth stature in Indian hockey demanded respect from every player.
“Balbir Sr. was intuitive in his management style and quickly forged a bond with players by his personalised touch,” Maneyapanda Muthanna Somaya wrote in his column in Sportstar.
“He was also not averse to taking bold positions and at times his forthright decisions singed senior players,” the 1980 Olympic gold medallist added.
Tackling modern challenges
Tasked with getting good results in tournaments like Champions Trophy and the Asian Games in 1982, Balbir Singh Sr. also had to face challenges he had never encountered before.
The introduction of astroturf in place of the grass fields and a revamped penalty corner rule had given rise to new tactics and coaching systems in hockey.
However, the chief coach had stuck to the oldest rule in the book that he had diligently followed throughout his life – working hard.
“Hailing from a different era, he [Balbir Singh Sr] did not have the experience of modern-day tactics for astroturf hockey,” Somaya revealed.
“Yet, his strong work ethic and exceptionally insightful mind kept him abreast with the best in the business,” he added.
Despite knowing it all about hockey with decades of experience under his belt at the highest level, Balbir Singh Sr. was open to ideas on coaching.
But the chief coach also believed that the players should listen to one head in order to keep things simple.
“I don't expect the half-line or the full-back coach to give instructions separately. That's not my idea,” Balbir Singh Sr. explained.
“It is good to have more people to help me. But not different ideas to be told to the boys,” he added.
A brilliant 1982
The trick had unbelievably worked again as India would go on to win the bronze medal at the 1982 Champions Trophy, which remained the nation’s best performance in the tournament for the next 36 years.
India followed that by clinching the silver medal at the 1982 Asian Games, but Balbir Singh Sr. wasn’t done yet.
“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,” Somaya recalled.
India would reach the final at the Esanda Trophy beating top teams like Holland, Pakistan, New Zealand and others before settling for another silver medal that year.
“For many like me, it was a return of confidence to continue a career in hockey,” Somaya disclosed.
“Balbir’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,” he pointed out.