Balbir Singh Sr, a Rare Gem in Indian Hockey’s Golden History
Balbir Singh Senior won three back-to-back hockey gold for India at the Olympics from 1948 till 1956.
(Balbir Singh Sr passed away on 25 May, 2020. He was 96. This story is being republished from The Quint's archives to mark the passing of the Indian hockey legend)
The era in which a sportsperson performs matters a lot. The prevailing economic, social and political conditions play a major role in making a person just a winner, a well-known athlete or a legend. Without belittling Major Dhyan Chand’s Olympic golden deeds, it can be said he was noticed more for performing in front of Hitler rather than his unquestionable dribbling skill.
For instance, when hockey legend Balbir Singh and his teammates crushed Britain 4-0 at Wembley on 12th August 1948 for the Olympic gold, India was already a one-year old independent and sovereign nation.
What if India were not yet independent, beating the ‘Colonial Masters’ at home would have made 23-year-old Balbir and his teammates even bigger stars. Just a matter of time!
Due to the partition of India, a rich talent of Indian hockey had shifted to the new State of Pakistan. The Indian hockey team at London Olympic Games was, therefore, a brand-new side, without a single player with previous experience of the Olympics.
Playing his first match against Argentina, Balbir scored six goals as India went on to win 9-1. In the final against Britain, Balbir scored the first two goals in India’s victory.
Balbir always considered London Games as something very special.
“There were two reasons for this. I had heard stories of British atrocities from my freedom-fighter father so winning gold and our national flag going up on British soil was something that I could never forget,’’ Balbir had told me on his visit to New Delhi’s YMCA some years ago. “Also I was almost dropped from the Indian team but managed to play in London so it holds a special significance for me,” he added.
Despite being a member of the team that won the National title in 1946-47, Balbir was not invited for the national camp at Bombay. Later when he was called at the last minute he was asked to play at inside left and not at his favourite position of centre forward.
“It was indeed a setback but then there was hardly anything that I could do then,’’ he recalled.
His humiliation did not stop just there. Just before the first match when the team was entering the field, “Team captain Kishen Lal called me and said I was not in the playing eleven,’’ said Balbir.
“Even after my six goals against Argentina I was again dropped against Spain and for the semi-final against Holland. But then some of Indian fans came out openly in my support and informed Mr V K Krishna Menon, then Indian’s High Commissioner to Britain. It was only after his intervention I was included in the team for the final,’’ he recalled.
Many years ago, late Henry Rebello, Indian triple jumper at London Games told me how fans mobbed Balbir after the final.
“And mind you they were not just Indian fans, there were English girls too,’’ said Rebello.
But Balbir just smiled when I recalled the incident.
By the time next Olympic Games came in 1952, Balbir was an automatic choice and vice-captain of the team behind captain K D Singh Babu. He was also flag-bearer of the Indian contingent at the Opening Ceremony. There were only eight teams in the fray and India had an easy time retaining the gold. Balbir scored a hat-trick as India beat Britain 3-1 in the semi-finals. He pumped in five goals as India beat Holland 6-1 to claim the fifth successive Olympic gold. He accounted for nine of India’s tally of 13 goals in the competition.
At Melbourne in 1956, India won its sixth hockey title at Melbourne. This time the captain of the team was none other than Balbir. He also had the honour of leading the Indian contingent – the only athlete to be the flag bearer twice!
Balbir scored five goals in the opener against Afghanistan but then was injured. He had to miss the group matches. But he played in the semis and the final. Playing against Pakistan for the first time, India went on to win the final 1-0 for the gold medal.
Balbir Singh Senior – as he was generally referred to since too many players share the same name in Indian hockey – was a true legend of Indian hockey. But despite his unmatched golden exploits, he has remained rather hidden from the world.
For visitors to Chandigarh, his bungalow ‘Olympia’ however was a must see site!
Four years after Padmashree Balbir’s golden moments at Melbourne, India lost the Olympic title at Rome. Losing the title was bad enough, but losing it to Pakistan made it worse. And hockey, which once ruled over Indian hearts, was pushed behind the popularity chart. So were Balbir Singh and other hockey stalwarts. Again sheer bad timing.
“Yes Rome was indeed tragic but then the decline of hockey began after the Mexico Olympic Games,’’ Balbir said with a great deal of disappointment. Besides bad outing on the field, due to dirty politics off field, India played with two captains – Gurbux Singh and Pritpal Singh.
After two successive Olympic debacles at Mexico and Munich, India won the World Cup in 1975. And as luck would have it, Balbir Singh was the manager of the team.
But then under his command, the country suffered one of the biggest defeats when Pakistan crushed India 7-0 at the Asian Games in New Delhi. This when he had lit the flame in the cauldron at the Opening Ceremony of the Games.
A modest and humble player to the core, Balbir Singh never courted controversy. Many times comparisons were made between him and Major Dhyan Chand. But he never uttered a word.
Some years back Balbir Singh, on a visit to Delhi, stayed at the New Delhi YMCA. Patiently he obliged every single employee of YMCA and visitor in the lobby with pictures. A legend, but a humble legend.
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