In the final part of this Walk the Talk on NDTV 24X7, veteran hockey player Balbir Singh Senior tells The Indian Express Editor-in-Chief Shekhar Gupta about the 1975 World Cup that he won as coach, welcomes the Hockey India League and laments the decline of hockey as a popular sport.
Your strength is that you don’t complain, you are very positive. You don’t complain about astro-turf and modern rules. In fact, you won India a World Cup on astro-turf in 1975, in the age of modern hockey. Tell us about that.
The preparatory camp for the World Cup had been set up on Panjab University campus, where we were given every facility. I was the chief coach and manager then. However, within the first few days of the camp, my father passed away. I took a day’s leave for the cremation and completed his last rites only after winning the World Cup.
It is believed that India has not seen a team like the one you assembled in 1975. I mean, we haven’t had full-backs like Surjit Singh and Michael Kindo. They were so cool headed. And then there was Ajit Pal Singh as the centre-half. He was the captain too. And at the front line-up you had Shivaji Pawar, V J Phillips, H J S Chimni…
Since I was the chief coach, the director of the camp, if I wanted, I could have assembled a team of only Punjabis. But the country comes first.
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And I believe you told all your players to think of the team as an Army regiment.
I had even set up a common prayer. Also coined a new slogan: Jo bole so hai, Bharat mata ki jai. The new slogan was important because I wanted to ensure that the team had a pan-India presence to it. The kids (players) also liked it. And we put up a united front. That was the time my wife was unwell, she was in coma… Because I had stayed with teams before, I knew that the boys used to sneak out at night. So, to control that situation, I asked the hotel management to allot us a separate wing. I would place my chair at the entrance and guard the wing to ensure no one went out at night.
During the World Cup, the defenders — Surjit and Michael — were the team’s strong points. They were like a fortress. Always cool and composed and with perfect recovery of the ball. And yet, in the final match, you brought in Aslam Sher Khan and he scored a penalty.
We brought in Aslam because I was slightly worried that with the Pakistanis abusing players, there was a chance that Kindo may get scared. Also, if I hadn’t let Aslam play, it would have seemed the decision was taken because he is a Muslim.
In fact, this was the same thing that happened with Inam-ur- Rehman, one of our finest forwards.
Yes, exactly. I wanted him to play. Before the match, I went with Aslam to the Royal Mosque in Kuala Lumpur where he offered namaz. Once the namaz was over, the qazi came to us and said, ‘You are a Sikh, and yet you are in a mosque.’ I told him that I am a follower of Guru Nanak, and according to him, there is only one god who is everywhere. So the qazi blessed us with success. When we turned around, the Pakistan team had lined up to offer their prayers. After we won, some of my friends in the (Pakistan) team joked that we won because we had prayed to god before them. After the win, my wife was discharged from hospital. When she came home, I handed her the trophy and she was very proud.
Tell us something more about that team.
Ajit Pal was the captain and he performed very well.
Yes, in fact, he married India’s greatest woman basketball player, Kiran Grewal.
Virender (Singh) was the right-half of Railways. Phillips was right-out and Ashok Kumar, Dhyan Chand’s son, was at the centre. I had asked Ashok not to carry the ball at all. I told him that if he dribbled, I would throw him out and Dada’s (Dhyan Chand) reputation would be tarnished. I asked him to dodge and pass. And he even scored a goal.
He had scored from a rather tough angle.
Yes, it was a very good goal. It is important to keep the players pumped up and enthusiastic. Also, before leaving for the World Cup, Mrs Gandhi had asked if I would be able to take care of the team. She wanted to ensure that I wouldn’t get involved in (hockey) politics and control the team. I assured her that I would (take care of the team).
It is the same old story with Indian hockey. The Indian Hockey Federation and Hockey India still run the sport. How do you feel about that?
It is rather unfortunate that there are two groups. I always request them to come together as one. It will be good for the country and for the team. I request them to come together and help each other.
The state of hockey is very poor. This is Chandigarh, so you still see a few children taking interest. When we were children studying in Punjab, it was necessary to carry hockey sticks to school, irrespective of whether we knew how to play. And now, Delhi University has removed the game from its sports quota. How do you feel about that?
It is very unfortunate. Once, I had gone to Amritsar from Chandigarh to receive someone at the border. And there was not a single person or child who had a hockey stick in his hand. Everyone was playing cricket. I want our country to do well in cricket, it is everyone’s favourite game. But when we lose in hockey, it hurts me.
Sachin Tendulkar was awarded Bharat Ratna. Did you ever feel that you or Dhyan Chand deserved it too? I mean there are not that many people who have won three Olympic gold medals.
What can I say? Our job was to play well. We did that and won the medals. The rest is up to god.
In the modern-day game, drag-flicks are being used increasingly to score goals. What is your take on that?
In my time, there was no drag-flicking. However, I used to stop the ball myself and shoot in the same motion for long corners. I was known for the technique.
But these days, in the drag-flick, the ball rises high and also moves at a great speed. Don’t you think it is unfair?
The goal keeper is protected, wears a helmet. But if the ball hits any other player, there could be serious injuries.
The ball moves at over 200 km per hour.
Yes, very dangerous.
This is almost one-and-a-half times as Mitchell Johnson bowling at his fastest. And with no helmets…
Yes, either everybody wears protective gear or they devise a technique for drag-flicks. Players should learn how to dodge the goalie and score.
When you watch matches these days, do you get scared — that somebody does a drag flick, the ball hits a player and proves fatal? It’s more dangerous than a cricket ball…
Yes, it’s like a bullet.
Do you think the Hockey India League is good for Indian hockey?
The Indian League is good for the players. The more practice they get, the better it is. They are getting to play a lot of matches, getting to play with international players.
And they are being paid. At least they won’t have to clean stables to make money.
I have come up with a reliable hockey scheme. You should have a look at it. I have tried to contact the minister of sports (for the scheme), but he hasn’t given me an appointment yet. He could be a royal, I am an ordinary man with an idea for the game.
No one is more royal than you are. You have three Olympic gold medals and a world record to your name. The world record has lasted 61 years.
Balbirs come, Balbirs go, India stays forever.
You are three years older than Mr L K Advani and fitter than him. And you are always so positive. How do you manage that?
It is all thanks to my well-wishers. When people wish me well, it makes me stronger and keeps me going. You interviewed me today and spoke well of me. This will add five years to my life.
So then we must interview you again on your 100th birthday. Hopefully, by then, India will have won another medal.
Well, it is necessary for India to win a medal now. When I had gone to London, people there praised me and my team a lot. They asked me if India would win a medal. As much as I wanted it to win the gold, I knew the team was not in a state to do so. I had prayed for the team to finish at least fifth or sixth. I would have been very happy. But they finished twelfth. Also, the foreign coaches are very good. I am not against them.
But you think they are overqualified?
I feel our players are not at that level where they can benefit from foreign coaches, not up to that standard. (Foreign coaches) are overqualified for us.
I know exactly what you are talking about. I had interviewed Ric Charlesworth on this show. He left a frustrated man. The players too were frustrated with him.
Exactly. Ideally, the foreign coaches should teach the Indian coaches. Often, the players don’t understand what the foreign coaches are trying to say, because of the language barrier. If they can’t understand the language, how will they benefit from the coaching? That is why it is important that the players are coached in a language that they understand.
So our next conversation will either be when India wins a medal, or when you turn 100.
With well-wishers like you…
I am a fan.
Right now, I am at that stage in life, what we in hockey call ‘extra time’. The golden goal, the final stage, is yet to come. My opponent at the golden goal is the Almighty and I can’t stop him from scoring the golden goal.
Transcribed by Shreya Sengupta