Balbir Singh Senior’s rise from being a hockey player to earning the tag of legend started from the tragedy of partition when more than half of the Punjab’s national championship winning squad decided to shift their base to Pakistan. In the very first national held post-partition in 1948 (in Bombay) defending champions Punjab lost.
No player from the state was considered initially in the list of 39 probable for the 1948 London Olympics, Later, after intervention of Dickie Carr, who was part of the 1932 Olympic gold medal-winning team, Balbir Singh was picked. Eventually, he became part of the India squad that won the nation’s first Olympic gold as an independent country in London. He went on to win gold at the 1952 Olympics as well as the 1956 Games.
Despite partition that saw the subcontinent getting divided into two nations on religious lines and inviting large scale violence which killed millions, Balbir Singh remained a legend across the border too.
Remembering the Indian hockey legend, Pakistan’s triple Olympic medallist Motiullah Khan, who had played against Balbir Singh in the 1956 Olympics, said: “He was a great player and a great human being. Even in Pakistan he is considered a legend. Apart from hockey, our common connection was that we both belong to Punjab. So, whenever we used to meet, we had a special bonding and used to talk in Punjabi.”
Motiullah, who is settled in Bahawalpur in Punjab province, won two silver and gold for the Pakistan in the Olympics.
Till the time of partition, Motiullah used to play football and it was only in 1949, he started playing hockey.
“My first meeting with Balbir Singh was during the 1955 Bombay Gold Cup. I was playing for Afghan Hockey Club and we lost to Balbir’s side in the semi-final by 1-0. It was Balbir who snatched the win from us,” recalled the 83-year-old Motiullah, who took a help of his son Muteeb Ullah Khan to communicate, as he is hard of hearing.
“Our next meeting was at the 1956 Melbourne Olympics. As we had many players from Punjab’s province in the squad, Balbir Singh often used to come to our camp at the Olympic village. Though on the hockey field, both the sides were toughest rivals, outside we were friends. We lost the final to India 1-0. I still remember the game because of Balbir Singh and Leslie Claudius, they were great and we all hold them in high regards,” adds Motiullah, who was part of the Pakistan team at the 1960 Olympics that won its maiden gold. He won silver in the 1964 Olympics.
“We took revenge from Balbir’s side in the 1958 Asian Games, when we won the final. A week back I came across the news that Balbir Singh Senior was admitted in hospital. I told my son to enquire about him and he posted couple of message on his Facebook page, but somehow I couldn’t get to his family. His demise is a great loss to the hockey world,” says Motiullah.
Another triple Olympic medallist from Pakistan Abdul Rasheed Junior, who has complete set of Olympic medals, feels that demise of Balbir Singh is a great loss to the hockey of sub-continent.
“He is a legend and my elder brother Abdul Hameed ‘Hameedi’ had played with him during the 1948, 52 and 56 Olympics. I got a chance to interact with Balbir Singh when he was the manager of the Indian team in the 1971 World Cup. He was a thorough gentleman and the players from our generation, from both sides (Pakistan and India), held him in a high regard,” says Rasheed Junior, who is settled in Islamabad. He won gold in 1968 Olympics, silver in 1972 and bronze in 1976.