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‘Astro turf is very good for Indian hockey. It’s just an excuse that India has suffered because of it… it’s all gallery show’

Balbir Singh Senior, part of the Indian hockey team that won three Olympic gold medals, speaks about playing for the tricolour.

In this Walk the Talk with The Indian Express Editor-in-Chief Shekhar Gupta, Balbir Singh Senior, part of the Indian hockey team that won three Olympic gold medals, speaks about playing for the tricolour. Kamleshwar singh In this Walk the Talk with The Indian Express Editor-in-Chief Shekhar Gupta, Balbir Singh Senior, part of the Indian hockey team that won three Olympic gold medals, speaks about playing for the tricolour. Kamleshwar singh

In this Walk the Talk with The Indian Express Editor-in-Chief Shekhar Gupta, Balbir Singh Senior, part of the Indian hockey team that won three Olympic gold medals, speaks about playing for the tricolour, Dhyan Chand as a role model and the decline of Punjab sports.

Who is the greatest Indian sportsperson ever? I don’t want to argue and you can’t fight with Sachin Tendulkar, his reputation and his supporters, or the great Dhyan Chand, and his reputation and his supporters. But here is somebody, a bit forgotten in India, sadly, who’s been acknowledged by the International Olympic Committee… In fact, he has been listed among the 16 greatest icons in the Olympic Games in a 100 years across all disciplines. He is an Indian, his name is Mr Balbir Singh and he has won three Olympic gold medals. 

Thank you. You have given me a new life.

You have given so much joy and skill to so many Indians. And sir, three Olympic gold medals — 1948, 1952, 1956 — and an unbroken world record for the largest number of goals in a final, 1952 at Helsinki.
It’s all thanks to the tricolour. I played for my country. I played for that flag. After every win, to see the flag fluttering and to hear the national anthem — it was really something special. It is something that has to be experienced, not something to be seen or told, but to be experienced.

Three gold medals, yes, but you also have a World Cup to your name. In 1975. You were the coach and manager of the Indian team, the only team that won the World Cup. And once again, that same feeling…the flag going up and the national anthem being played.
The national anthem and the national flag instil that spirit in you. You must win for the country, for that flag.

I knew you when I was in Chandigarh, that was more than three decades ago. We were all fans of yours. But I saw you last year when India played the qualifiers against France and I could see that you were the most animated person in the audience.
I am always for the Indian team. When an Indian team goes to Vancouver, and when I am there with my sons, I always cheer for the Indian team. And when the people of Vancouver ask me, I say, ‘Balbir Singh anywhere, Indian hockey first’. Indian hockey has given me this name and fame. India has given me this name and fame. I am always for India. I will die as an Indian. It’s my will.

You are the fittest person in his 90th year.
Thank you. It’s all thanks to well-wishers like you.

I know you sleep with a hockey stick by your side. I saw it lying by your bedside.
It is always there because what I am today is because of Indian hockey, that hockey stick and our national flag. That is the symbol of our sovereignty.
Sir, you were one of the greatest centre-forwards in the history of the game, and I believe you did not start as a forward.
You called me the greatest, but well, that’s history. I am one of the ordinary players.

You started at the goal.
I started as a goalkeeper.

In Lahore?
In Moga. My father was a hostel warden there and our house was three-four yards away from the hockey ground. Sitting at the front door, I used to watch the Indian hockey team play. I started as a goal keeper, then became a full-back. Then, a cousin of mine who used to stay with us. One day he was playing a local tournament and he came with two senior full-backs and said, ‘From today, you are forward’, and I said, ‘Forward? Where should I play?’. He said ‘centre-forward’. And from then on, I have always been centre-forward. Thanks to the Indian flag, thanks to India. Always centre-forward. World says No.1, but I was one of the ordinary players at that time.

I believe there used to be a jugalbandi with your inside-right.
Yes. I used to give a pass and go forward. If he gives me back, shoot.

Inside-right is what in common parlance is known as right-in.
Yes, right-in.

Who was your favourite player in 1948?
In 1948, there was Babu who was inside-right and he was my captain in 1952. Before that, Maqbool Hashmat was another brilliant inside-right. We used to play on a gravel ground in Gwalior and Bhopal. You need to control yourself because it is very slippery and still beat the opponent. But Hashmat and I really struck an amazing combination. Once I completely bruised my knee in Gwalior, yet we won the match. The Maharaja of Gwalior used to come and see the match, and later take us kids to his palace for dinner.

Sir, can I borrow your stick and feel honoured? I can say I held the same stick as Sardar Balbir Singh. In fact, we have had so many Balbir Singhs who played for India that we had to label them. You are Balbir Singh Senior…
Then there is Balbir Services, Balbir Police, Balbir Railways.

People got confused with so many Balbirs — Balbir Singh and Balbir Singh and Balbir Singh and Balbir Singh.
In one of the Asian Games, I think there were three playing together — right-half, right-in and right-out. Balbir Singh, Balbir Singh and Balbir Singh.

Can you talk about that match in 1952 when you scored five goals, which is also a Guinness record? That record has stood since 1952. No one has scored five goals in a final and it doesn’t seem likely either.
That’s what people think, that this record will never be broken. But I really wish an Indian player breaks my record. Mazaa aa jayega.

I saw you during that match against France, you were like a teenager.
When the team wins… when I visit my sons in Vancouver, I always celebrate every time my team wins.

You have an international family, one of your daughters-in-law is Chinese, from Hong Kong, one is Singaporean and there is a Ukranian. But you are completely Indian.
Lal topi Roosi, par dil hai Hindustani. It has always been like that. This heart is Indian.

Tell us about that final in which you scored five goals. How was that? It’s such a tense situation.
The enthusiasm then was something else. The team always played with a strong spirit and enthusiasm. I used to practise a lot with a tennis ball between two narrow walls, and the speed of a tennis ball which comes at you very fast helped sharpen my reflexes. The practice helped me become very decisive and sharpen my judgment, and be accurate inside the striking circle.

But sir, if you look at players these days, when they enter the striking circle, they always look to hit the feet of their opponents in order to win a penalty corner.
They always look for an excuse to find the penalty corner. The fun is when you hit a goal. The penalty corner is an excuse to hit a goal. If you are talented and you reach the D, then you need to beat two or three defenders in the circle. Your practice levels need to be so high that you can hit the goal from anywhere you aim.

Did you believe in first-time hitting or did you believe in dribbling close to the goal?
I have always preferred shooting first time because the goalkeeper is not ready. If you dribble, then it’s difficult because you need more time and defenders cover you and it becomes difficult. But players dribble too much these days and they always pass on to someone else. They then look out for an opening and then aim for the goal.

Is astro-turf good or bad for India?
For the Indian style of hockey, for dribblers, astro turf is very good. Earlier, the grounds used to be so uneven that you needed to have really good ball control. Where do you learn ball control? In Europe, they had heavier grounds which were slippery. In India, with gravel fields, ball control comes automatically the more you play on these grounds. We had an advantage there that we played on gravel grounds. Now there are indoor grounds.

These days, the grounds are perfect.
In our times, stopping the ball was a problem with all that uneven bounce. There was even a chance of getting hit on the face, you need to dodge them, but now these grounds are great.

Injuries have also lessened.
Significantly. And the game too has become more fair.

Has whistling lessened in the game?
In our times, referees whistled a lot more. It was stricter. It is now more an open and uninterrupted game. It has become
very fast.

Obstructions too have almost vanished. There is no no offside, no turning.
All of that has vanished. Even if your foot hits the midfield, they declare an advantage.

But is it a good thing for hockey?
It is good. People come to see a free flowing game of hockey, and for an interesting game. If there is constant whistling and stoppages, then it is not very good.

People say that this has worked badly for India, that sub-continental hockey has suffered. Do you buy that?
I don’t believe that. If you have the talent and if the ground is good, then you should be able to hit only in the circle. In the midfield, you can turn wherever you want.

So it is not true that India and Pakistan have suffered because of astro turf and new rules. It is just an excuse?
Yes, that is an excuse. For us, it has been beneficial because ball control is better, stick work is better. We have the skills and our stick work is great. You need it all in the striking circle. You need to dodge in the penalty area that is where the real work lies.

Others are just drama…
Yes, gallery show.

People compare you with Dhyan Chand.
Dhyan Chand was my role model.

Your autobiography Golden Hat Trick also mentions it.
Yes. I have written about it in my autobiography as well.

When it was published, I was a cub reporter.
Dhyan Chand was 20 years older to me. I always used to touch his feet and revere him. He was man of such high integrity — gentle and kind. I learnt a lot from him. His integrity, his work ethic… As a forward, I copied his tricks on the field. I used to copy him and tried to do better than him. When I used to play as a goal keeper, he used to play centre-forward and I always hoped to be like him.

The centre-forward is the key.
Yes, the spearhead. You receive the ball always. If you have the skill, you can score a lot of goals.

The pivot then is the centre-half.
Yes, indeed. I really respect Dhyan Chand a lot.

I have heard that Dhyan Chand’s hockey stick was once broken to see if there was a magnet in it to make the ball stick.
People started saying the same thing about my hockey stick.

Break it and see?
They did it to mine too. But these are all made-up stories. They make up these stories to hurt people…People used to say such things about (Dhyan Chand). I said that is all wrong. Dhyan Chand was a good man and that is why people respect him, and not because he had some magic trick.

Now there are stories about your Olympic teammate Milkha Singh. You went to Melbourne together.
Yes, there are a lot of stories. You can create stories for a movie, but like they say, truth is great, but far greater is truthfulness.

You remember those stories?
I do remember. I won’t speak anything about him. It is not good on my part.

Please tell us something, any one incident.
Once we were in a train together. There was a board stating the capacity of coach. He immediately woke up his wife and said, “Nimmi, wake up, we have now gone past Delhi and we are now at ‘Capacity’!”

He will not mind it, he is very happy to laugh.
He was my colleague. He used to spend his time playing golf. I went to the department of sports and, at times, I feel that my life could have been better had I been with the police. When I had left the police, my uncle told me, ‘You have made a big mistake. You are like that Jat who lost his head and sold his buffalo to buy a mare. Now instead of having milk to drink and ghee to eat, all you can do is shovel horse dung. Why leave the police job and spend your time playing hockey?’. He felt my life could have become better had I stayed on with the police. When I left the police, they were angry. There was Ian Fletcher, the seniormost ICS officer. Nobody had the guts to talk to him. But I used to go, unafraid. That is why I was held in high esteem…

Punjab has produced great Olympians like yourself, Milkha Singh and, I would say, the equally talented Randhawa.
Yes, Gurbachan Singh Randhawa. He came at No. 5. His feat was great because he was very technical.

But what happened to Punjab after that? Where has all that talent gone?
Drugs have destroyed careers. In olden times, it was common to feed opium to the children of those against whom you wish to seek revenge.

Like the English did to the Chinese.

Yes, make them addicts.

Do you think that is the main cause for Punjab’s decline in sports?
This is the single biggest reason for Punjab’s decline in sports. This is one of the most important issues, and if the drug scourge is controlled, there can be a resurgence of sports in Punjab.
Transcribed by L Ramakrishnan
To be continued

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