NEW DELHI: He didn’t always need a hockey stick to pull it off for India, that was the kind of magic Balbir Singh Sr could weave and which steered a “demoralised” national team to its first and only World Cup gold back in 1975.
All Balbir Singh had to do was offer a pep talk over breakfast while managing the Ajit Pal Singh-led side, which also featured Ashok Kumar, son of Major Dhyan Chand, the original hockey wizard with whom Balbir Singh was compared throughout his career. And why not, they were both three-time Olympic gold-medallists but belonged to different eras.
Factbox: Balbir Singh Sr
Back to the World Cup of 1975, it wasn’t quite going India’s way. A 1-2 loss to Argentina in the league stages had almost crushed the team’s chances, but that is when “man manager” Singh, who died at the age of 95 in Mohali after prolonged illness on Monday, stepped in.
“We were heartbroken but that is when Balbir Singh Sr took us out for breakfast along with coach Gurcharan Singh Bodhi and individually motivated every player,” Ajit Pal recalled.
“He told us simply to forget yesterday’s match and concentrate on West Germany. He told us we have the skills to beat Germany by two goals and simply focus on our objective,” he added.
Balbir Singh Sr: Pay your tribute to the legend
Ajit Pal said the death of Balbir Singh was like the loss of a father figure for him.
“His dedication towards hockey and his man-management skills were incomparable,” Ajit Pal said. “If Dada Dhyan Chand was a pillar of Indian hockey before independence, Balbir Singh Sr was the other pillar in the post-independence era,” he asserted.
Going back to what seemed like a tough match, Ajit Pal said the side duly responded to Balbir Singh’s pep talk.
India defeated West Germany 3-1 to qualify for the semifinals, where they beat hosts Malaysia 3-2 in extra time to set up a final date with arch-rivals Pakistan.
In Pics: Glorious journey of hockey legend Balbir Singh Sr
When Balbir Singh gave independent India its first Olympic gold medal
On August 12, 1948, India thrashed Great Britain 4-0 to win their first Olympic gold as an independent country. In this photo Balbir Singh Sr can be seen receiving congratulatory messages from VK Krishna Menon, High Commissioner for India.
Twin strike to help India win its first Olympic gold
In the final against Great Britain, Balbir Singh Sr scored two crucial goals. In this photo the India legend can be seen celebrating with team mates after his second goal in the final. He was in fact dropped for the quarters and semis and India struggled without him. He was brought back into the team following an uproar.
Always in the spotlight
After the heroics of the 1948 Olympics, Balbir Singh Sr. and co. became overnight stars. Along with skipper Kishan Lal, Balbir Sr was the talk of the town thanks to his performance in the finals. In this picture the whole team along with Balbir Singh can be seen meeting India’s last Governor General C. Rajagopalachari.
When Balbir Singh led independent India to a third consecutive Olympic gold
Even with the additional duties of captaining the side, Balbir Singh played tremendously well to help independent India bag a third straight Olympic gold in Melbourne after London (1948) and Helsinki (1952 – when he was vice captain). This was also the sixth consecutive gold medal for India overall (pre and post independence) in hockey at the Olympics. In this photo Balbir Singh Sr can be seen along with his men, receiving the medal on the podium.
Guinness World Record holder Balbir Singh Sr
In the 1952 Olympic final against Holland, India thrashed the opposition 6-1, with Balbir Singh Sr scoring a whopping five goals. The number of goals scored by the maestro became a Guinness World Record for most number of goals scored by an individual player in an Olympics men’s hockey final. That record still stands.
Padma award for Balbir Singh Sr
After leading independent India to its third consecutive gold at the Olympics, Balbir Singh was a household name. In this picture taken in 1957, then President of India Dr. Rajendra Prasad can be seen conferring the Padma Shri to the legend of Indian hockey.
Respecting and paying tribute to other legends
In this photo taken on February 6,2009 in Chandigarh, Balbir Singh Sr can be seen posing with the stick of Indian hockey legend Major Dhyan Chand, who represented India in three Olympics (1928, 1936 and 1936 – winning gold in all three).
Balbir Singh ‘The coach and mentor’ of Indian hockey team
Balbir Singh Sr also served as the manager of the Indian team for the 1975 Men’s Hockey World Cup, which India won and coached the Indian team at the 1971 Men’s Hockey World Cup, where India won the bronze medal. In this photo Balbir Singh Sr can be seen being honoured by former sports minister Sarbananda Sonowal.
Life Time Achievement Award for Balbir Singh
In March 2015, Balbir Singh Senior was conferred with the Major Dhyan Chand Lifetime Achievement Award during the Hockey India Awards. Along with the award Balbir Singh Sr also was given a cheque of Rs 30 lakh.
India in his heart – always
In 2019, Balbir Singh senior was hospitalized for 108 days. Even then he had India in his heart. In this picture, Balbir Singh Sr can be seen looking at the Indian flag, hanging from his window in his hospital room in Chandigarh.
Biggest fan of Indian hockey
A die hard fan of the sport and especially of the Indian hockey team, Balbir Singh Sr also followed the exploits of the Indian team regularly. This photo of his was taken during India’s FIH Pro League 2020 encounter against the Netherlands where India registered a win.
Always a family man
Even in his final days, Balbir Singh Sr continued to be a family man, spending time with his family including the younger lot.
Icon of the Century
In one of his rare public appearances, Balbir Singh Sr graced the occasion of the 2019 Times of India Sports Awards in New Delhi where he was honoured as the Icon of the Century. Indian cricket legend Bishan Singh Bedi presented him the award in a glittering ceremony.
Love and appreciation for the younger lot
In this photo the legendary Balbir Singh Sr can be seen sharing the frame with all the winners of Times of India Sport Awards (TOISA 2019).
The best of Balbir Singh Sr in a single frame
Balbir Singh Sr won many awards throughout his life, but his most prized possessions must have been the three golds that he won with his team in the 1948 London, 1952 Helsinki and 1956 Melbourne Olympics. This photo shows the three Olympic medals he won together in one frame.
In the summit clash, India defeated Pakistan 2-1 to claim their maiden World Cup title.
The winning goal for India came from the stick of Ashok Kumar.
Kumar recalled how devastated Singh was when India lost to Pakistan in the semifinals of the inaugural World Cup in 1971. The win against the arch-rivals four years later was redemption for the legend.
The legend of Balbir Singh Sr
Balbir Singh was the coach of the Indian team that settled for a bronze in the 1971 World Cup.
“He was the brightest star of Indian hockey, a player whom we all looked up to. I still remember how badly he cried in his hotel room after we lost to Pakistan in the semifinals of the 1971 World Cup,” Kumar said.
Kumar refused to draw comparisons between Singh and his father, stating both were stalwarts of their eras.
“It is not right to compare the two. Both are jewels of Indian hockey and their legacy will continue,” he said.
TOISA 2019: Balbir Singh Sr named Icon of the Century