Balbir Singh Senior Interview: India's hockey legend remembers his Olympic exploits, World Cup triumph and more

There are two parts to his first name — Balbir — which is spelled as one. They translate to ‘power’ and ‘bravery’. But like most men who have withstood the vicissitudes and vagaries of time, Balbir Singh Senior doesn’t read much into anything: neither his name, nor his fame. He is a frail man now. 94 years of existence can do that to you. His hand trembles as he tries to hold the saucer, his voice quivers at the end of each sentence he delicately speaks. The skin is a thin sheet of pale brown; the beard is a pristine, cascading fluff. He is a proud man too. He arrives for this interview in his Olympic blazer that has seen better days. The gait is slow and limpless. It doesn’t take long for one to realise that India’s oldest living hockey player is a man of indiscreet concoctions — frail and firm, slender and solid – and like most such brews, he is high and heady. Balbir Singh Senior at his residence in Chandigarh. At 94, he is India's oldest hockey player. Shantanu Srivastava/Firstpost They call him ‘nananji’ in the neighbourhood – a title that translates to maternal grandfather but also what people in north India use to address a wizened soul with affection. “He is nanaji to everyone,” informs his daughter Sushbir Bhomia. Sushbir briefly played hockey at the University and state levels during 1967-68, and had the good fortune of watching our venerable old man in full flight. “Oh he was just so quick and effortless. A lot of times he would not even look at the post and score. The opposition would employ 4-5 defenders to mark him, but once he got the ball in the ‘D’, fir toh…” she says with a snap of her fingers. One may be forgiven to mistake him for the apocryphal genial saint who rides a sleigh. And much like Santa Claus – or nanaji, if you will — he is a treasure trove of tales. It does help that he possesses an enviable memory. Athletes are an inscrutable lot: they may welcome you warmly to their palatial mansions but won’t give the slightest peek into the obscurity of their mindspace, they are unbelievably sceptical of how you would interpret their idiosyncrasies, inexplicably unsure if you would notice and exploit their insecurities. Balbir Singh is different. He lets himself flow. In a hall overflowing with trophies collected over a stellar 20-year career (1942-62), it’s his joi de vivre that shines the brightest. He remembers his school days, his college days, his first trophy – the tiny ubiquitous Cup that has lost its shine but not its lustre, and his days of practising his pin-point strikes by placing a solitary brick in his backyard and aiming at it from a distance. He also remembers being identified by Sardar Harbail Singh who coaxed him and his family to let Balbir move from Sikh National College in Lahore to Khalsa College in Amritsar, a move that would change his and Indian hockey’s destiny forever. Balbir was born to Karam Kaur and Dalip Singh Dosanjh on 31 December, 1924. World Wide Web records his birthday as 10 October, but that was a random date registered by his freedom-fighter-teacher father who was too busy getting in and out of prisons to record his correct date. Young Balbir would spend evenings watching kids play hockey near his house in Moga, Punjab, and the game grew on him. He started as a goalkeeper, before moving up as a full-back, and eventually a centre-forward. “I never missed a class, but never paid attention either. I used to make hockey nakshas (maps) in my notebooks. Not surprisingly, I failed my Class 12 exams. My father was a strict disciplinarian, but he didn’t say anything,” he remembers. It so happened that Professor RS Gill from Lahore’s Sikh National College saw him play at Moga’s Basant Memorial Tournament. Balbir, representing DM College where he then studied, finished the event as its leading goal-scorer, and so impressed was Gill with the young boy’s skills that he persuaded Dalip Singh to send his son to Lahore. “Boarding and lodging included,” Balbir adds, “because in those days we didn’t have much money, and we couldn’t have afforded college otherwise. My father thought if I stay in Moga, I might end up loitering around with other boys.” Instant success followed. Balbir pulled Sikh National College from Division B to Division A in Lahore’s local league. He also met his future wife, Sushil Sandhu, there. As Balbir’s sharpened his skills in Lahore, word spread about a young Sikh with lightning speed and unmistakable precision. Next, Harbail Singh, Director of Physical Education at Amritsar’s Khalsa College, spotted him at a match against his college. “The rest, as they say, is history,” recalls Balbir. He packed his bags and came to Amritsar where Harbail put him through a punishing regimen. “Harbail was an excellent coach. He made me a player. At the end of long practices sessions, he would make me stand at the top of ‘D’ and aim powerful shots at my ankle. I had to save myself, intercept the ball and hit it in the goalpost,” he says. “Kya zamaana tha! He taught me about combinations, passes, co-ordination with side-halfs and wings. He taught me not to go overboard with dodging. It’s alright to go one-two with a defender, but you should not overdo it, else other defenders will catch up and you may lose the ball. We see it a lot nowadays; it’s an epidemic. He taught me to play for the team, to pass to the wings,” he says. Balbir met Maqbool Hashmat, Aziz, Shahrukh, Ali Iqtidar Shah Dara and Khurram – all future Pakistan players – at Khalsa College. He became a key member of the Punjab University team that won three consecutive All-India Inter-University titles from 1943 to 1945, the last under Balbir’s captaincy. “Maqbool (Hashmat) was my senior and my right wing. An excellent player, and an even better human being. He taught me to look left and pass right. Aziz was my left wing. Those were very fine players, maybe better than me. “Then there were Khurram and Shahrukh. Khurram was an excellent full-back. Shahrukh was a very good left-half, and a fine human being. He came from Afghan royal family, and was also an Olympic cyclist. He came to India with the Pakistan cricket team in 2005-06. Someone asked him why he was in India, since he was not part of the cricket team. He simply said, ‘I am here to meet my yaar, Balbir.’ What a man!” It’s hard to keep pace with Balbir’s mind that leaps decades and eras with unfair ease. It’s this mind, now over nine decades old but once incredibly sprightly, that decoded the best of formations on the hockey pitch and made burly defenders look like clueless storekeepers who have been duped by a ten-year-old. That, in an age when specialist coaches were unheared of and analytics was yet to take over creative thinking. Tales of Balbir’s outrageous talents continued to travel far and wide, and Sir John Bennett, the then Chief of Punjab Police, was the next to be charmed. Word was sent to Balbir – who was completing his post-graduation in English – that Sir Bennett wanted him to join Punjab Police so that his services could be used as a player. The offer, though lucrative, failed to impress the young man. “There was no question of me accepting it. My father was a freedom fighter. I could not think of taking that police job,” he remembers. Refusing an offer extended by the Police Chief was not easy, and Balbir sneaked out of Amritsar to save himself from the consequences. He fled to Delhi and joined the Public Works Department (PWD) and played a couple of tournaments for them. True to form, he excelled, and made headlines. Sir Bennett came to know of Balbir’s feats through newspapers, and the furious officer duly sent his men to bring Balbir back. The handcuffed man thus became a policeman who played every tournament for Punjab Police from 1945-61, and won most of them. Balbir’s stickwork fetched six Nationals titles for Punjab Police (1946, 47, 49, 50, 51, 54) besides two runners-up trophies in 1952 and 1953. Post-independence, Balbir became an integral part of national hockey team, and perhaps country’s first sporting superhero. He represented India in three Olympics, returning with gold medal on each occasion. Balbir Singh in action at the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki. Facebook: @Balbirsinghsenior His mentor at Amritsar’s Khalsa College, Harbail Singh, went on to coach the Indian hockey teams that went to the 1952 and 1956 Olympics in Helsinki and Melbourne respectively. Balbir was the flag bearer of Indian contingent at both those Olympics and also the vice-captain (1952) and captain (1956) of the team. He would room with Harbail at the Olympics, and observed something revealing of his coach’s desire to win in 1956. “Harbail’s promotion was due back then. One morning, I heard him pray, ‘Wahe guru, promotion ho nah ho, team jeet jaye’. I was so moved. It inspired the entire team.” Balbir’s men duly responded by winning the Olympic gold, beating Pakistan 1-0 in the final. The 1952 Olympics saw Balbir at his imperious best. The team, led by KD Singh, defeated Netherlands 6-1 in the final, with Balbir sounding the board five times. It remains a world record for most individual goals in an Olympic final. In total, he scored nine of India’s 13 goals in the event, firmly establishing his credentials as the best centre-forward of the time. He still remembers his goals from the final. “I scored thrice in the first half, and twice in the second half. We beat Britain 3-1 in the semi-finals. I scored all three goals, each in the first half.” However, it’s the final of the 1948 London Olympics against Britain that holds a special place in Balbir’s heart. He had already won the Nationals in 1946 and 1947, and given his stellar form in the lead-up to the 1948 Olympics, he was purportedly an automatic selection. As it turned out, the mandarins of Indian hockey didn’t invite him to the training camp in Bombay. When he was belatedly called at the insistence of an Anglo-Indian player, he was asked to play in the left wing and not in the forward line. The snub continued deep into the Olympics. “More than once, I was asked to sit out. I was very angry, but obviously you can’t show your emotions on the field. At the start of our first match, after we had hopped on the field, our captain Kishan Lal pulled me from behind and said, ‘bhaiyya, aap aj nai khel rahe’ (Brother, you are not playing today).” He played the second game, against Argentina, and pumped in six goals in India’s 9-1 romp. Curiously, he was ‘rested’ against Spain and in the semi-final against Poland. That’s when a number of foreign and Indian fans escalated the matter to VK Krishna Menon, India’s High Commissioner to the United Kingdom. It was only after Menon’s intervention that Balbir got a place in the team for the final. “I was one of the 20 players shortlisted from the initial batch of 48 who went to the Olympics. Sir John Bennett greeted me at the Heathrow Airport and gave me a tip. He told me that the grounds in India are hard and fast and ball travels quickly there. However, in England, grounds are heavy and soggy, and ball travels a lot slower. He said, ‘Tell your boys to run for the ball,’” Balbir remembers. Balbir and his boys did run for the ball, and ended up with an Olympic gold in their independent country’s first dig at the Olympics. Balbir played just two of India’s six matches – including the final in which he scored twice in India’s 4-0 win  – and still emerged as the joint-highest scorer. It was the first time that the flag of independent India was hoisted at a world sporting meet. “I still remember the date. 12 August, 1948. In the backdrop of new-found freedom and the partition, it was an amazing feeling to see the tiranga flying high. I scored in seventh and 15th minute. Tarlochan Singh and Pat Jansen scored the third and the fourth goals,” he says. In 1957, Balbir was conferred a Padma Shri and became the first ever sportsperson to get country’s fourth-highest civilian honour. He went on to win silver medals in the 1958 and 1962 Asian Games, before calling time on an extraordinary career. Second innings In 1961, Balbir made his debut as an administrator when he helped set up sports department in the Punjab government. By the time the 1975 Hockey World Cup came about, he was far removed from active hockey, with little inclination to return. Balbir was in the US as the chief guest for John F Kennedy Tournament when he got a call from KS Bains, Secretary, Education and Sports in Punjab Government. Balbir had casually mentioned to Bains about how he could improve India’s performances if he was given charge of a national camp. With India having failed to win the World Cup in its two earlier attempts, Balbir’s words stuck with Bains. Balbir flew home for his second fling with Indian hockey. First thing that the newly-appointed Chief Coach and Manager of the World Cup-bound team did upon assuming charge was doing away with the practice of preparatory tours, as he thought travel was a big distraction for the players. He also barred any foreign teams to visit India for preparations. “They would come here, learn our skills and came better prepared against us in matches,” he reasons. A national camp was set up in Chandigarh. The team stayed in the Punjab University campus – “Girls’ Hostel No 3, right opposite Hostel No 4, the Senior Girls’ Hostel,” Balbir remembers – and the brawny boys practised under the furtive glare of the occupants of Hostel No 4. “Our boys were quite popular,” Balbir laughs. “A number of girls wanted to meet them. But I said we will come back here after winning the World Cup, and then you can meet them. Till then, it’s going to be serious hockey.” “We laid lot of emphasis on building physical strength, technical passing, tactical team combinations, running, conditioning and yoga. I invested a lot of time on mental aspect of the game.” The coach also introduced the concept of diet in Indian hockey. A nutritionist from Chandigarh’s SGPGI was contracted to chart the right diet for country’s elite hockey players, and Balbir personally oversaw the selection of ingredients and cooking methods. The camp was not a smooth sailing though. Tragedy struck one week into the camp as Balbir’s father, Dalip Singh, passed away. The feisty coach put aside personal trauma and refused to leave the camp. He took a few hours off to perform the last rites, and returned to the camp. The shock of Dalip’s demise proved too much to handle for Sushil and she suffered a brain haemorrhage. Balbir would be by his wife’s side after ensuring the boys had slept, and would rush back before they would wake up. “My father had drilled ‘duty first’ approach in me. I am a freedom fighter’s son and respect for tiranga means everything to me, and I thought I was on national duty. Also, the doctors did a fine job. They told me to concentrate on hockey, and they would take care of my wife,” he says. The team beat England, Ghana, and West Germany, lost to Argentina and drew Australia to seal a semi-final spot against Malaysia. Trailing 1-2 and with time running out, Balbir unleashed a 21-year-old Aslam Sher Khan on the hosts. Khan made instant impact, netting the equaliser via penalty corner, and the match went in extra time. India eventually prevailed 3-2 to set up a dream final against Pakistan. This was to be the third meeting at the World Cup between the two sub-continent giants, with both sides having won once; Pakistan had prevailed 2-1 in the 1971 semi-final, and India had exacted revenge in the last-four stage in 1973 by 1-0 margin. “Pakistanis had superior build, and we needed a physically imposing presence to intimidate them. So I decided on Aslam Sher Khan. The great Aslam Sher Khan,” Balbir recollects. There were stray innuendo regarding Aslam’s religion being a factor against Pakistan, and the coach quelled them with a simple statement of fact. “I just said, he is an Indian.” Balbir, in fact, takes immense pride in his secularism, something he insists he inherited from his freedom-fighter father. “I am a Sikh by birth, and a patriot by choice,” he says emphatically. Back to 1975. Balbir, realising that the Indian hockey team was the proverbial melting pot of different religions, set up a common prayer room for his boys. So a copy of Quran lay next to Guru Granth Sahib, which sat next to the Holy Bible and the Ramayana. He built a team that prayed and preyed together. “Two days before the final was jumme ki raat. Aslam asked me if he could go to a mosque. I said, why just you, all of us will go together and pray. As we came out after offering our prayers, we met the Pakistani team that was waiting to get in. Later, their coaches told me ‘Uss din Allah ne aapki sunn li.’” In the final, Balbir fielded Surjit Singh and Michael Kindo as full-backs, two wiry players who, many thought, would not be able to stop the muscular Pakistani forwards. “Surjit was an excellent full-back. He was very good at scoring too, but somehow his hits were finding goalkeepers a lot. But I persisted with him.” The Jalandhar-player repaid his coach’s faith in style, scoring the equaliser before Ashok Singh nailed the winner, and won their first, and till date only senior men’s World Cup. Balbir Singh Senior with the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi after guiding the team to World Cup glory in 1975. Balbir was the manager and chief coach of the team. Facebook: @Balbirsinghsenior By the time the team returned, Balbir’s wife Sushil had recovered. “When I went to see her, the first thing she said was, ‘Where’s the Cup?’ She didn’t believe me until she actually saw it,” says Balbir. He also kept his promise with Hostel No 4. A press conference was organised at the very venue where the boys had prepared to win the World Cup, and girls were indeed allowed to meet the world champions. By the time we wrap this interview, Balbir seems to have entered a zone. His eyes are fixed to some yonder point, and going by their unmistakable glint, one can suitably imagine him flipping through vignettes from a lifetime dedicated to hockey. Your correspondent took a moment out to ponder what could this frail man, who still keeps his hockey stick on his bedside, be thinking. Could he be revisiting the thrill of standing on the Olympic podium with the world at his feet, or is he reliving his fifth birthday, when he was gifted his first ever hockey stick? Is he remembering the sessions under Harbail Singh, or silently seething at the criminal indifference of country’s officialdom that has allowed his 36 medals and the 1956 Olympics blazer to disappear without a trace? There could also be the endearing image of him gifting his 1946 Nationals’ winners’ medal to his wife, or the warmth of the yaars he grew up with in Amritsar, some of who went to Pakistan in 1947 but ensured their friendships outlasted the blood and bile of Partition. It’s a sacred space to be in, one thinks. The endless tales from ‘nanaji’ have stopped, and exhaustion has little to do with it. He appears in some trance, looking intently at the tamrapatra that the Government of India gave to his father for his contribution in the freedom struggle. It occupies a pride of place not only in Balbir’s well-stocked trophy cabinet, but deep in his soul. “I am a Sikh by birth, and a patriot by choice,” he repeats.