It was on Tarlochan Singh Bawa’s death in April 2008 that Balbir Singh Senior had said: “One by one the members of 1948 Olympics team are going and very soon we would have the complete team (up) there. My number is also going to come soon, as the team can’t afford to ignore the services of their most trusted forward player.”
Teammates that they were — playing for pre-Partition Punjab and India — Singh and Bawa were also inseparable from any hockey event here. Singh continued the tradition till October, 2018 when he had to spend 102 days in hospital with pneumonia and heart ailments.
Singh died here on Monday. He was 96. A former India captain, Singh was part of teams that won three Olympic gold medals (1948, 1952, 1956) and as Asian Games silver (1958). Keshav Datt is now the only surviving member of the team of ’48.
As player, manager or coach, India never missed the podium when Singh was involved. India’s only World Cup title came in 1975 when Singh was manager. In 1971, India won bronze in the World Cup when Singh was coach.
Exactly how good a centre-forward Singh was can be gauged by a piece of statistic that stands as Olympic record: he scored five goals in the 1952 final against Holland in a 6-1 win. No one has scored that many in a gold-medal match ever. On his Olympics debut in 1948 against Argentina, Singh scored six goals, another record. He was invited as a living legend for the 2012 Games in London.
A team man
But Singh never spoke of individual ability. Recalling India’s 1975 World Cup campaign, he had said: “So many people worked so hard to make it possible. The boys played with unity, for each other and there was no place for showmanship. It was the combined efforts that made winning for India possible.”
And at a Chandigarh Press Club event on August 12, 2018 — to mark 70 years of India winning their first Olympics hockey gold — Singh, after politely refusing to deliver his speech while sitting, had said: “Hockey is a team game and without my team I would be nobody.”
The comment was preceded by Singh naming teammates from the London Games and their playing positions. The ability to talk in almost graphic detail about games in Amritsar and Lahore and team members of college, state and India teams stayed with Singh till he was admitted to hospital for the last time on May 8.
Every time he described the medal ceremony of the 1948 Games — his arms rising slowly to depict India’s flag being hoisted for the first time — Singh’s eyes would moist over. “As a child I used to ask my father (Dalip Singh Dosanjh), who was a freedom fighter, what independence meant and what we would get out of it. He’d reply that independence would give us our own identity, flag and pride forever,” said Singh, in an interview to this paper in August, 2018.
“That day, when our flag was hoisted in front of thousands at Wembley stadium, I realised what independence meant. It was the proudest moment for me and for all Indians back home. When the national anthem was played and the flag was going up, I felt like I was flying.”
India, only 362 days old as a country and forced to rebuild the hockey team because a number of key players had chosen to play for Pakistan, beat Great Britain 4-0 in the final with Singh scoring twice.
At the Games, players from Pakistan, Singh wrote in his autobiography ‘The Golden Hat Trick’, who were teammates till months ago, would keep their distance. One friendship though was revived in March 2005 when Shazada Muhammad Shahrukh, who along with his brother Shazada Khurram played for Punjab with Singh, visited Mohali during an India-Pakistan cricket Test.
“It’s was pleasant surprise for me. When a journalist asked Shahrukh whether he had come to Chandigarh to watch the Test, his answer was that cricket was just an excuse; he had come to meet his friend Balbir,” said Singh after Shahrukh had visited his house.
Heeding PM Shastri’s appeal
In 1965, Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri appealed to Indians to contribute to the National Defence Fund, Singh had wanted to hand over his Olympic medals. “The country’s troubled time was bigger than my Olympic medals. That’s why I gave it to the national defence fund,” Singh said later.
On Singh’s insistence, the medals were kept in the Punjab’s chief minister’s office. A few months later, they were sent to Singh, then head of the sports department in Punjab — with a letter which said: “These medals are the country’s pride and prestige and couldn’t be sold.”
When Singh went to the 2012 Games, the gold medals were displayed in an exhibition and insured for Rs 50 lakh each.
Born in Haripur Khalsa, Punjab, on December 31, 1923, hockey was more than a sport for Singh who retired from the Punjab sports department in 1982. During the preparatory camp for the 1975 World Cup, Singh’s father died and wife Sushil was in hospital for four weeks following a brain hemorrhage. The only day Singh missed the camp was on December 29 when his father was cremated.
For a player who excelled at his craft when India ruled field hockey — Singh was the first sportsperson to be awarded the Padma Shree, in 1957, four years before the Arjuna awards were instituted — he was remarkably free of rancour about the present. It’s been 40 years since India last won the Olympic gold but Singh never questioned the players’ effort. He was also unfailingly generous with his time.
Singh set great store by the number 13. It was his shirt number at the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki. “During the acclimatization for the Olympics in Copenhagen, a girl said I am wearing an unlucky number. I told her that in north India, ‘tera’ (Number 13) is also a form of addressing God. So, for me it’s my luckiest number. In Helsinki, the van that took us to the stadium for our first match had a number plate that added up to 13. In the entire tournament (Olympics) we scored 13 goals,” he said.
If conversations ever veered to the subject of death, Singh would inevitably say, “My only wish is that whenever I go, I shouldn’t have any burden of hurting anybody’s sentiments.”
Singh is survived by daughter Sushbir Bhomia, sons Kanwalbir, Karanbir and Gurbir and grandchildren among whom is Kabir Bhomia, who put his life on hold to look after ‘nanji.’