Balbir Singh Sr: The silent jewel in Indian hockey’s golden crown
Any discussion on Indian hockey invariably steers towards the glory years of yore when the Indian men’s hockey team seemed like indefatigable winners, triumphing in six consecutive Olympics from 1928 to 1956.
While it was ‘The Wizard’ Dhyan Chand who played a starring role in the Indian national hockey team’s first three Olympic golds pre-independence, the architect of the other three was none other than Balbir Singh Dosanjh.
Balbir Singh Senior, a three-time Olympic gold medallist, still stands as one of India’s most revered hockey legends and probably the only player whose name is uttered in the same breath as Dhyan Chand’s in the Indian hockey folklore.
“It was destiny which helped me to achieve all I did during my career,” Balbir Singh Sr. had summed up his accolades in an interview with The Hindu.
Finding gold amidst the partition chaos
Born in Punjab’s Jalandhar district on December 31, 1923, Balbir Singh’s fascination with hockey took root early.
After watching India win its third Olympic gold at Berlin 1936, Balbir Singh, then just 12-years-old, decided that hockey was the sport he wanted to make his mark in.
Six years later, Balbir Singh moved to Amritsar where Harbail Singh, the Indian hockey team coach at the 1952 and 1956 Olympics, spotted him and thus began his hockey journey.
As a 20-year-old, he was ‘arrested’ by the Punjab Police, not because he was involved in illegal activities but because they wanted Balbir Singh to play for them.
“My father and uncle were revolutionaries, the police were loyal to the British. How could I have joined them?” he told The Times of India years later.
Balbir Singh witnessed first-hand the horrors of India’s partition as the state of Punjab was divided and poverty and violence engulfed its villages. Post-independence, most of his team-mates became citizens of Pakistan overnight.
He faced multiple obstacles to get to the London Olympics in 1948. The striker was not included in the original 39-man squad list as the authorities ‘forgot’ about him and made it there only on the insistence of Dickie Carr, a member of the 1932 Olympic gold medal-winning team.
Once in the reckoning, Balbir Singh made it to the final 20-man Indian hockey squad for the Olympics, but inter-team dynamics saw him banished from the playing XI in the first match. Only an injury to Ronnie Rodrigues saw him take the field against Argentina and he stepped up in style with six goals in a 9-1 win.
However, Balbir Singh was again axed in the third game and had almost entered the field for the semi-final before he was informed that he would not be playing. A few medical students took offence to this and their protest to the Indian high commissioner in London is what got him into the team for the Olympics final.
Balbir Singh scored two more goals in the final at the Wembley Stadium, against Great Britain no less, to help the Indian hockey team secure a 4-0 victory and their fourth Olympic gold. The win, and more importantly, the pride gave him an unprecedented high.
“For the first time in 1948, the tricolour was hoisted at the top of the world. As the flag was going up, I felt as if I was going up too. Then I realised, no, I am on the ground. I still remember how it felt, as if I was going up as well. I felt as if I was flying,” Balbir Singh had told ESPN.
An Olympic final record
By the time the next Olympics rolled around in 1952, Balbir Singh had become an integral part of the Indian hockey team and was named vice-captain to KD Babu for the Helsinki Olympics. He was also the flag-bearer for the Indian contingent.
“Finland is the land of the midsummer nights. The first night was terrible for us; the glare in the open window would not give us sleep. We adjusted to the odd sight of the sun shining in the night by downing our shutters and darkening our rooms with heavy curtains," Balbir Singh wrote in his memoir, The Golden Hat Trick.
A disturbed sleep cycle aside, the 1952 Olympics was where Balbir Singh was truly recognised as the heart of the Indian hockey team as he scored nine goals, including a hat-trick each in the semi-final and final.
In fact, Balbir Singh’s five goals in the 6-1 win in the final against the Netherlands broke a 44-year record for most goals in an Olympic final and it still stands almost seven decades later.
In Melbourne 1956, Balbir Singh was named captain. He was not as prolific as before -- Udham Singh took the top scorer’s honours with 15 goals - but the brave forward soldiered through a fracture in his right hand to help India win the final and secure a sixth Olympic gold.
It also completed India’s second hat-trick of Olympic gold medals in hockey and the first as an independent nation.
The love affair with hockey
Balbir Singh became the first sportsperson to receive the Padma Shri, India’s fourth-highest civilian honour, in 1957 and went on to win silver at the 1958 Asian Games, only conceding the gold to Pakistan on goal difference.
Though he did not play another Olympics, Balbir Singh’s love for hockey saw him take up coaching after retirement. He guided the Indian hockey team as the sport expanded beyond the Olympics.
He managed the Indian hockey team to bronze in the 1971 Hockey World Cup and then was at the helm for their only Hockey World Cup win to date in 1975. In between, he also came to be known as Balbir Singh Sr. after three other Balbir Singhs were part of the bronze-winning team at the 1968 Olympics.
Balbir Singh Sr. breathed his last aged 96 on 25th May 2020 but is survived by a doting family and an insatiable desire that one day Indian hockey will reclaim the lofty heights to which he once guided it.
“My wish and prayer is that India will get back to the top of the pedestal once again at the 2024 Games in Paris. I will be 100 then!” he had exclaimed.
While he may not be around anymore, fulfilling that wish would be the best possible tribute to a bonafide great of Indian hockey.