Goal-scoring machine par excellence, Balbir Singh Senior's legacy is secure in pantheon of India's hockey greats
History will look at Balbir generously, as an Indian hockey star revered and venerated almost as much as Dhyan Chand. Both won three Olympic golds. Both set extremely high standards.
In the period between 1928 and 1956, all of 28 years, the rest of the hockey world chased shadows on grass. India played exquisite hockey - inhabiting a rarefied atmosphere of finesse, skill, deftness, and guile. It was a world where wrists rolled, the shoulder dipped in one direction, the body the other way; the ball a gurgling sphere of leather, in love with the curve of the Indian stick as it caressed, nipped, pushed and flicked it past the opponents, the fans looking on in delight and amazement. Against the rough, hard, hit-and-run of the Europeans, the Indians were magical, a team of wizards who could conjure tricks where none existed.
Balbir Singh Dosanjh (senior) was ruthless, slotting in goals like swatting flies. He was the ‘master of the D’, the ‘killer in the striking circle’, a glittering star in the pantheon of stars that Indian hockey threw up between '28 and '56 – that hot streak of six consecutive Olympic Gold medals.
His passing away ends an amazing period in Indian hockey that not just defined the sport but also provided a template of how modern strikers were perceived. Yet, the most challenging question remains – where does Balbir Singh Senior’s stature place him in the pantheon of Indian hockey stars? It is an easy yet an extremely difficult answer. Not because as the cliché goes - ‘every era is different, with styles of play defining each and every star’. But there is the need to separate history from hysteria.
Legendary Dhyan Chand is an obvious comparison but so are players such as Roop Singh, Feroze Khan (who later immigrated to Pakistan), Gurmit Singh Kular, Udham Singh, and Leslie Claudius. Slightly later into the 1960s came Prithipal Singh, Harbinder Singh, Ajit Pal Singh and then in the early and later 1980s, names like Mohammed Shahid and Dhanraj Pillay.
To narrow down the choices and understand Balbir’s place in Indian hockey history, it would be better to list a top five dream team choice – Dhyan Chand, Roop Singh, Balbir Singh Sr, Udham Singh and Leslie Claudius. Effectively, we have three forwards, Dhyan Chand, Roop Singh and Balbir Singh. Udham Singh did play inside right and left but he (we will come to that later) could play in any position and did, except for the goalkeeper. Leslie Claudius played half back but was extremely effective even as right and left-back.
Dhyan Chand and his brother Roop Singh redefined the meaning of goal-scoring. Roop was an all-out striker, playing wings effectively also. Dhyan was more of a playmaker, the all-rounder in the side who had the control of a dictator. He was languid, with breezy runs, as he sauntered through the midfield, the stop and pass ensuring that players like Roop, Feroze and Gurmit Kular got the goals. Dhyan was himself a poacher, scoring 14 goals in 1928 Olympics. A newspaper wrote: “This is not a game of hockey, but magic. Dhyan Chand is in fact the magician of hockey.”
As field hockey gained prominence at the Olympics, so did Dhyan Chand and by the time the 1936 Olympics ended, the legend had been created. His colossal, towering talent was almost mythical, created on pure skill. His run on a grass field and the sudden dip of either shoulder as he swayed back and forth threw most opponents off as they failed to understand which way the stick moved. The ball danced like a puppet on a string.
India’s clamour for glory and dignity in pre-independence years came off Dhyan Chand’s stick. His goals served as enormous cannon-ball shots in the already dying fabric of British imperialism. Imagine, if the Olympics had been held in 1940 and 1944. It is not too difficult to think of Dhyan Chand with at least four Olympic Golds. Or even five!
Balbir Singh’s run began at the 1948 London Olympics. The expectations were high. India, newly independent, wanted to continue their golden run. The splitting of the sub-continent gave birth to two teams – Great Britain and Pakistan. It also served as the reincarnation of Balbir Singh from a full back to a centre-forward, to be more precise, a striker.
Once in Kolkata, I had the opportunity to have lunch with Leslie Claudius at his apartment and one of the questions, I asked was how good was Balbir? It is a testament to Leslie’s greatness, a player who has won four Olympic medals, three gold and one silver, to speak about his former captain with so much respect and awe. He said, “The striking circle was his. All he needed was the ball. His skill was playing with the stick close to the body, every inch of space utilised, the strike towards the goal could come from any angle.” And how would you describe yourself, I continued, as he laughed and said, “Oh, I was a utility player.”
Technically, many players of his era and a few who came after him have said, Leslie was one of the best. Sharp, an excellent trapper, he could change the flow of the game and by the time he played his third Olympic, Balbir’s third and last, Leslie was proficient in reading the opponent.
Balbir played in two matches in London, scoring eight goals with six in one game against Argentina, a double hat-trick. By the next Olympics, he was without doubt the most lethal striker in world hockey. In the semi-final against Great Britain, he scored thrice against what was the best defensive team at the Games. On that day, his speed and control over the ball inside a striking circle that had become rough and worn out, was outstanding. In the final, India thrashed The Netherlands 6-1, five of them scored by Balbir. Out of 13 goals at the Games, Balbir had scored nine.
Balbir was captain at the 1956 Melbourne Olympics. After scoring five goals in the match against Afghanistan, Balbir broke one of his fingers and only came back to play in the semi-final and final.
India won the semi-final against Germany 1-0, thanks to a Udham Singh goal and then beat Pakistan 1-0 in the final off a Randhir Singh Gentle penalty corner drive. The Indian Express wrote after the final: “There was no need for Balbir Singh to have played with a bandaged finger and with the aid of three pain-killing injections. Hardayal Singh in excellent form and fighting fit was languishing on the side-lines.”
The late R Sriman, former sports editor of The Times of India, once on a flight to Berlin for the 1995 Champions Trophy explained Balbir’s legacy to me. Sriman also covered the 1956 Melbourne Olympics. I could never know if he was the journalist who wrote the reports in The Indian Express as the byline was always ‘By a Special Representative.’ However, he did say that despite Balbir not playing to potential because of a broken finger, his striking ability was second to none.
I do remember bits and pieces of that conversation, apart from an insightful brief into why Indian hockey could not keep up with the Europeans. Sriman praised Balbir’s positioning in the striking circle, calling it his strength, and also said that Balbir and Udham formed a potent partnership. The closest one came to see a modern-day Balbir Singh was Spain’s Pol Amat - excellent skills with a sudden burst of speed and a cracker of a shot.
It remains unclear if Balbir Sr playing himself ahead of fitter colleagues created resentment in the Indian Hockey Federation that kept him out of the reckoning for the 1960 Olympic team. Like Dhyan Chand who missed two Olympic Games because of the War, Balbir might have picked up a fourth gold in 1960 at Rome or prevented India losing their first Olympic final against Pakistan. Leslie Claudius was the captain of the 1960 team.
It was Balbir’s partnership with Udham Singh, probably the most underrated Indian hockey Olympian of all time, that set the tone and rhythm. Udham was the quintessential utility man – flanks, inside positions, at the halves and even in defence, he played in all spots. Balbir had, on a number of occasions, acknowledged the wonderful on-field chemistry he had with Udham.
It is quite remarkable that despite scoring the winner in two consecutive Olympic semi-finals ('56 and '60), Udham has never been considered a star. At the 1956 Olympics, Udham scored 14 goals. Yet, he is a footnote. I remember going with Olympian Col Balbir Singh to visit Udham’s residence in Jalandhar, a few years after his death. The house was being freshly painted and many of his trophies and medals were piled in a corner. Among them were the 1952 and '56 Olympic gold medals! It is only when family members were told that these are Olympic gold medals that they were dusted and kept in a cupboard.
Balbir’s legacy, apart from the three Olympic gold medals, becomes richer because of his successful stint as Indian coach and manager. Not many top players get into coaching, a high-pressure job that can take a huge toll, emotionally.
Balbir’s moment of glory outside of the Olympics was in lifting the 1975 World Cup as team manager. Probably the worst moment must have been when Pakistan defeated India 7-1 in the 1982 Asian Games in Delhi, an Indian side he managed. After that humiliating defeat, where the Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi walked off at the break when Pakistan led 4-1, a lesser coach/manager would have given up, gone into his own rabbit-hole, trying to come to terms with what was ‘a bloodbath at the National Stadium.’ But Balbir brought the group back and within a few weeks travelled to Australia for the Esanda tournament where they beat Pakistan 2-1 and went into the final. Balbir dug deep and found reserves of strength that even the team never knew existed.
History will look at Balbir generously, as an Indian hockey star revered and venerated almost as much as Dhyan Chand. Both won three Olympic golds. Both set extremely high standards. In terms of play, since both had a decade separating them, comparing them would be futile and unnecessary.
In the last two decades of his life, Balbir’s inner circle may have pushed the PR machinery a bit too much to solidify his legacy. Yet, his life is a study, a lesson, for any Indian athlete or hockey star on the role discipline and training play in making you the best in the world. Balbir chose a striker’s role and excelled; scoring five goals in a 6-1 Olympic final is no fluke. Dhyan Chand or Balbir Singh Senior, both inspired the next generation of players through the decades. That is nothing short of greatness.
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