The impact that three-time Olympic gold medal-winning hockey legend Balbir Singh Senior had on Indian hockey will be hard to match. Sometimes, he did so, without even lifting a hockey stick. Balbir Singh was the manager of the Indian hockey team that defeated Pakistan 2-1 in a thrilling contest to win their maiden World Cup trophy in 1975. It remains India’s only success in the global tournament till date. Remembering the hockey legend, who passed away at the age of 96 on Monday morning, the captain of the World Cup-winning India hockey team Ajit Pal Singh spoke about the influence Balbir Singh had on the team.
Speaking in an exclusive telephonic interview with Hindustan Times, Ajit Pal expressed his condolences over the demise of Balbir Singh and defined him as a perfect gentleman.
“It’s really sad news that we have lost such a great pillar of India hockey. Balbir Singh was a great player, a great administrator, and a great manager. We were fortunate that he was with us during the 1975 World Cup, and we could win the trophy. He was perfect in every aspect of life – a fine, well-balanced gentleman,” he said.
He further opened up on the dynamics he shared with the manager during the 1975 World Cup tournament in Malaysia. “Our team in 1975 had the perfect combination, with everything in the right place. When the team clicks – manager, players, coach, captain – then only success could happen. The 1975 World Cup win was a team effort,” he said.
“My relationship with Balbir Ji was very cordial, off-the-field and on-the-field. He was a senior player, and was like a father figure. We looked up to him, for his advice. It was a perfect combination,” he added.
In the tournament, India suffered a shocking 2-1 defeat in the group stage match against a weak Argentina team. The loss meant that India had to beat West Germany in their next game to qualify for the semifinals. Ajit Pal recalls how Balbir Singh motivated the entire team during the breakfast.
“Argentina’s team was not a very good one. One fluke chance they got, and they scored. We tried to get numerous chances but we just could not find the equalizer. It was very disappointing for our players. The team was really demoralised and depressed,” he recalled.
“Next morning, Balbir Ji called us for a meeting. At the meeting, he said ‘listen, boys, whatever happened yesterday, just forget about it. Now today, and tomorrow, we have these two days to prepare for Germany. Today, we have to concentrate, we have to eat well, rest well, and have the team discussion. You guys are capable, god’s willing. Losing to Argentina doesn’t mean you cannot beat Germany,” Ajit Pal further said.
India went on to defeat West Germany 3-1 comfortably to book a ticket to the semifinal where they defeated Malaysia 3-2 to reach the final against Pakistan. “Balbir Ji, being the senior hockey player, he had all the nitty-gritty on how to motivate, and to figure out the need of the hour, what is being spoken to the boys. He was a very polished man, and that was because he himself was a great player,” Ajit Pal said.
The former India hockey star further recalled the final against Pakistan which was a high-paced, tense affair. Pakistan got off to a good start, scoring an early goal. India bounced back strongly in the second half and went on to defeat the arch-rivals 2-1 to lift the trophy.
“The team was brilliant and him (Balbir Singh) sitting there on the side of the ground, it really motivated all of us. It was very fortunate, that I was the captain and we won the trophy,” Ajit Pal said.
“Balbir Singh Ji wanted the team to move along together. It was a really memorable experience in 1975, and we came out with flying colours. We celebrated the World Cup win all over India, and it was a really good time for hockey,” he signed off.