As is always the case with the Indian hockey squad, the 1975 World Cup team too comprised players of different beliefs and religions. To unite everyone and instil a sense of purpose among the players, Balbir Singh Sr., as team manager, made a rule that the entire team must go together to the gurudwara, temple or mosque in Kuala Lumpur. We had to follow the instruction and it eventually helped us a lot. We had strong bonding and that helped us win the title.
Balbir Singh was always a motivating factor, be it for players of our generation, the current crop, or the younger generation.
If Dhyan Chand was a pillar of strength for Indian hockey in the pre-Independence era, Balbir Sr. was the face of it in the era after 1947.
I was one-year-old when Balbir Singh won his first Olympic gold. It was a historic moment. India defeated Britain on home turf and the tri-colour of the newly independent nation was hoisted in a country that had ruled it for two centuries. By the time he won his third successive Olympic gold and became a legendary figure in Indian hockey, I had started playing the game.
I belong to the hockey Olympians’ village of Sansarpur in Jalandhar, and the game came naturally to me. I got a chance to play hockey with his teammate Udham Singh, who was from my village. I used to hear a lot about Balbir Singh from our seniors in the village.
My first interaction with him was during the 1966 Asian Games camp held in Jalandhar. It was brief; I was a new comer and he was a legend. So, I couldn’t stretch the conversation.
In my career, he accompanied the team as manager thrice—1970 Asian Games, 1971 World Cup and 1975 World Cup. On all three occasions we returned with medals, but the most special was the 1975 World Cup and those memories are still alive with us.
He was a thorough gentleman. I rarely saw him lose his temper while coaching or during any of the foreign outings as manager. Always smiling, his pleasant nature and humility are things one must learn from him.
By the 1975 World Cup, I was among the senior players and had a close association with him during the camp and the tournament. Our camp was held at the Panjab University, Chandigarh. We were staying in the girls hostel, and at times the boys used to interact with the girls. But because Balbir sir was a strict disciplinarian and the players had high regard for him, everyone knew their limit.
He was so committed to the game that during the camp his father expired and his wife was admitted in hospital, but he never took a break.
In Kuala Lumpur during the tournament, every day he used to have a meeting with the seniors—me, Govinda and Ashok Kumar. He would take our inputs and only then decide on the composition of the playing eleven before every match.
We lost the group game against Argentina and the team felt very low. He came to us and said ‘forget about today’s game, you still have a chance to qualify for the semi-finals. You need to take the game against West Germany as a fresh start’. His words motivated us and we not only won the match and qualified for the semi-finals, but we went on to win the title.
Balbir Singh’s demeanor in public could be deceptive though. Our coach Gurcharan Singh Bodhi once took me aside and said: “He is very calm with you guys and says koi bat nahi (doesn’t matter); but I have to face his anger in the room if things have gone wrong on the field.” It showed he was careful not to hurt anyone in public.
I have met him a number of times after leaving the sport. Every time he has treated me as his younger brother. He had no ego or air despite his achievements.
The last time I met him was on February 22 in Chandigarh at a litfest. He invited me to his place for a cup of tea. I couldn’t go, and the tea will remain pending.
(The writer was skipper of the 1975 World Cup-winning team)
(As told to Saurabh Duggal)