18 September 2020 07:07 PM

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PARTAB RAMCHAND | 3 JUNE, 2020

Balbir Singh - The Last Connect to The Golden Era of Indian Hockey

A Tribute


First there was Dhyan Chand. And then there was Balbir Singh (sr). There is no point in looking beyond these two as the greatest Indian hockey players ever. Indeed they were the world’s best during their time. The period they dominated – from the late 20s to the late 50s – was when Indian hockey ruled the world and predictably they were at the forefront.

If Dhyan Chand's wizardry was a source of joy in a colonised India, Balbir Singh's artistry was an inspiration for India in the immediate post-independence era. Indeed Balbir's magic inside the circle was such that opposition players could only shake their heads in amazement. Simply put, the iconic centre forward was one of India’s finest sporting icons.

In fact Balbir always maintained that the one moment which meant more to him than any other was when the national anthem was being played and the tricolor going up after India had defeated Britain 4-0 in the Olympic hockey final in London in 1948. ``I felt that I too was flying with the flag. The sense of patriotism that I felt was beyond any other feeling in the world’’ he said

The first gold was always going to be special but then Balbir won two more at Helsinki in 1952 and Melbourne in 1956 when he led the Indian team that defeated Pakistan 1-0 in the final. He thus emulated Dhyan Chand who had also won three gold medals wih the Indian team emerging triumphant at Amsterdam in 1938, Los Angeles in 1932 and Berlin in 1936. Balbir in fact fittingly titled his autobiography ``The Golden Hat-trick’’. He also won a silver medal at the Asian Games at Tokyo before calling it a day.

Balbir’s world record for most goals scored by an individual in the hockey final of the Olympics still remains unbeaten. He scored five goals in India's 6-1 victory over the Netherlands in the gold medal match at Helsinki.

Almost equal to Dhyan Chand in skill and artistry, Balbir was the last connect to the golden era of Indian hockey. Nostalgia is what that era evokes, a time when Balbir and Dhyan Chand became symbols of India's dominance in international hockey. Indeed it was Balbir who carried forward the original wizard’s legacy.

Balbir and Dhyan Chand never played together at the international level but the comparisons were constant and the former acknowledged how as a schoolboy he felt inspired by watching the original icon. ``But there is no comparison at all’’ maintained Ajitpal Singh captain of the 1975 World Cup winning team. ``The two were at par in all departments. They were both immensely skilful centre forwards and were both three time winners of the Olympic gold medal. The only difference was that both played in different eras," he said.

"Many Balbirs came and went in Indian hockey but none could match him and his achievements," said Ajitpal, talking about the incredible journey of the legend who was admired for his warmth and the willingness to share his experience with anyone who cared to ask. He would love to talk about hockey and was a walking encyclopedia.

In 1957 Balbir was the first sportsman to be conferred with the Padma Shri award but that was all the recognition he could get despite his countless achievements as a player and later as coach and manager.

After his retirement, Balbir was involved with coaching and mentored the Indian team that won a bronze medal at the 1971 World Cup. Four years later, he became the manager of India's only World Cup winning side in Kuala Lumpur. He was particularly proud of that achievement.

A prolific goal getter, Balbir scored 246 goals in 61 matches for the country in an 11-year international career. Of India’s 13 goals at the Helsinki Olympics Balbir scored nine including a hat-trick against Britain in the semifinal. Balbir’s goal tally for India in the Olympics was 22. Under his captaincy India scored 38 goals without conceding even one while winning the gold medal at Melbourne. He is the only Indian to have the honour of being the flag bearer at the opening ceremony of two Olympics – Helsinki and Melbourne.

Balbir's relationship with the sport, in fact, went beyond the goals and the trophies. It was like a timeless love affair, one that he described vividly in his autobiography. "Her love for me was eternal. Our love blossomed in London. We married in Helsinki and honeymooned in Melbourne. After a period of 11 long years (from the 1964 Tokyo Olympics), she returned to me as fresh, as gay, as charming as she ever was," he spoke of hockey, the one true love of his life. "This time she took me to Kuala Lumpur and we were again top of the world. I am waiting for her -- my hockey fairy."
 

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