On Monday, Balbir Singh Sr, 95, the Indian hockey rock star who could beat any rival defence and won independent India three Olympic gold medals, finally stopped breathing.
The demise of anyone is extremely sad. And
when the person departing happens to be a true legend, it tugs at millions of hearts. There will be
sadness, there will be tears, as this has been a wretched year for Indian sport, what with two
Football legends, PK Banerjee and Chuni Goswami also departing in 2020.
Yet, when one flips through the annals of history, there is so much to feel good about. Hockey is one sport which has been very special for India. If it was legend Dhyan Chand who dazzled with his stick work and won India three Olympic gold medals in 1928, 1932 and 1936, there was a slight difference. At that time India was not independent but competed under the Union Jack.
Balbir Singh Sr. grew up idolising Dhyan Chand. He has talked of how watching a video of the original “Dada” in the Berlin Olympics inspired him hugely. The two gentlemen had met many times with great mutual respect for each other, though by nature Balbir Singh Sr. was like the pupil bowing before the master.
For many, the romance of Indian hockey is dead. Yet, if you happened to be lucky enough to have read, or seen the legends even once, the feeling has been one of awe. Balbir Singh Sr. was humble, humorous, and above all a superb human being.
He had no airs about himself, instead aura. Old timers who have been to the Shivaji Stadium for premier tournaments like Nehru Hockey in New Delhi will vouch for his simplicity and how he made you feel so comfortable. He breathed hockey and it was so easy to get him talking. He would have met three different journalists in one afternoon and each had his own story to write.
If there is one word which defined Balbir Singh Sr. and his relation with hockey, it is passion. Here was the young man who started as a defender and then changed his whole game. It was by chance, in one tournament he had to play as a forward in 1939 in Punjab and from then, it was a huge role reversal.
Those were the days when Punjab was the cradle of Indian hockey. Slowly and surely, Balbir Singh Sr. became a solid forward and then took up the vital role of centre forward, which was so crucial when hockey was played on grass.
As records will tell you, he scored goals with aplomb and felt good about it. He would always gush, “My biggest achievement was playing for an independent India and I am lucky to have seen the tricolour go up thrice.”
If anyone mentions the name of Balbir Singh Sr., the first image which will first come to the mind is that of a smart Sardar, ramrod straight and dressed smartly. His red turban was spotless, his moustache twirled up so proudly, and his patent blue shirt, red tie and blazer defined his grand presence.
Till very recently, Balbir Singh Sr. was travelling often from Chandigarh to Delhi. His presence could not be missed and his concern for Indian hockey was genuine. Even in those days when he would live half a year in Canada, his heart was always in India.
For someone who wanted to see Indian hockey always do well, Balbir Singh Sr. did not shy away from coaching responsibility. He had his skirmishes with the Indian Hockey Federation as well, but still stuck his neck out. When Pakistan thrashed India in the 1982 Asian Games final, there was a furore at home, where Balbir Singh Sr. was the coach. But then, before that, the only time India won the World Cup in 1975, he was the manager.
If, today, players like Dhanraj Pillay, Dilip Tirkey and current captains Manpreet Singh and Rani Rampal are able to share their feelings about Balbir Singh Sr., it is because he never let the generation gap come in between.
Yes, his presence will be missed. But then, Balbir Singh Sr. leaves behind a treasure trove of memories which can lift you up. Again.