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Kenya’s Hockey Legend Searches for His Roots in India

Avtar Singh Sohal was the captain of the Kenyan hockey team for three different world cups.

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Avtar Singh Sohal does not miss any opportunity to visit the land of his forefathers in order to find his roots. Considered as the greatest Indian sportsperson of all time outside India, Sohal has captained Kenyan hockey side in three Olympics games. Those were the days when it was power house in Hockey world thanks to Sikhs.

“I came here with Kenyan side in 1962 for the first time to play test matches against the Indian side. When I reached the Bombay airport, I touched the pious soil of India. That feeling cannot be described in words,” says Sohal, who is now 78, and also known as ‘Tari’ in the Hockey world.

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Guinness World Record Holder

Sohal boasts of four Olympic appearances as a player - a veteran who has been involved in hockey all his life. His standout performance saw him get a mention in the 1984 Guinness World Book of Records as having the most International appearances at that time, having represented Kenya 167 times between 1957 and 1972. Noted hockey writer and commentator Jasdev Singh said:

It is a phenomenal record that a player led his country three times as captain in Olympic games and played all together 4 times in Olympic games. Avtar was an out of the world player and his record most unlikely to be broken.

The memories of the Barcelona 1971 world cup Hockey semi-final match between India and Kenya are still fresh in his mind. It was a tense semi-final match. India was down 0-1 at half-time, due to a goal from him.

We were in the threshold of knocking out India to clinch bronze medal in the first World Cup hockey championship. But, it did not happen as India scored two goals in the final moments.
Avtar Singh Sohal
Avtar Singh Sohal was the captain of the Kenyan hockey team for three different world cups.

Captained Three Times in Olympics

Sohal was appointed the Kenyan national team’s captain in 1962 for a Test series against Pakistan, a role he maintained for 10 years when Kenya was ranked among the best teams in the world. Avtar was selected for the 1960 Olympic games for the first time as full back.He captained Kenya at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, Mexico (1968) and Munich (1972) and was also captain at the 1st World Cup in Barcelona in 1971.

Even though the hockey side of Kenya was not there at Rio Olympic games, Sohal was there as an observer of FIH. “I used to cheer for the Indian side as and when they played against any other side except Kenya. I am emotionally attached to India as my parents come from Jalandhar, and India is also Guru Ghar,” said Sohal. There in Rio, he met Sachin Tendulkar and both greats cheered for the Indian side sitting together.

Avtar Singh Sohal was the captain of the Kenyan hockey team for three different world cups.
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Idolising Dhyan Chand

How did he develop an interest in hockey?

I still remember the Indian hockey side came to Kenya in 1948 under the captaincy of Dhyan Chand. Those were the exciting times. It had several other stalwarts. After watching magician Dhyan Chand in a match, I developed a keen interest in hockey. His dribbling and dodging were out of the world. My father had also encouraged me to play hockey. Prior to that, I used to play Cricket in School.
Avtar Singh Sohal was the captain of the Kenyan hockey team for three different world cups.

Sikhs in Kenyan Hockey

Talking about the contribution of Sikhs in Kenyan hockey, Avtar Singh Sohal said that it was people from India, especially Sikhs, who introduced hockey there. Mahan Singh was elected President of the Kenya Hockey Union in 1957. He was the life and soul of our hockey. The backbone of the Kenya National Team has been the Sikh Union Club, Nairobi. The Club which started as Khalsa Union in 1920 and became Sikh Union in 1926 fielded majority of players in the National team and won most of the domestic trophies in the 1950s, 60s and 70s.

Sohal adds that the Sikhs have represented Kenya at Olympic Games, World Cups, East African Championships and Africa Cup of Nations.

I cannot think of life without hockey at all. After I retired from playing, I began a coaching career and was Kenyan National Coach from 1978-88, coaching them at the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles. I also took up umpiring and was awarded an FIH International Umpires badge in 1980. I was a judge at the 1988 Seoul Olympics and was appointed to the FIH Development and Coaching Committee in 1988.
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Gory Memories of Munich Olympics

This ‘Olympic Man’ still starts trembling when he recalls the gory incident that happened very close to him in Munich Olympic games in 1972. He was almost in tears while recounting those moments, when athletes killed in the attack were taken to hospital.

A deeply religious Avtar Singh Sohal visiting Patna Sahib, Hazur Sahib and many other Gurdwaras, besides visiting his ancestral village in Phagwara and Reeta Sahib Gurdwara in Uttarakhand, sees it as an article of faith. He is visiting with his wife Ripudaman Kaur and other friends from Kenya for Sewa at the Reeta Sahib Gurdwara in Uttarakhand. Says Avtar Singh Sohal, “ When I reach my ancestral village or Reeta Sahib, I get the feeling of being in the lap of Guru Nanak Dev ji.”

(The writer is former Editor, Somaiya Publications.)

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