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Thursday, July 09, 2020

Lionheart, father figure and good Samaritan

His teammates, the players he coached and old friends recall the qualities that set Balbir Singh Dosanjh apart

Written by Nitin Sharma | Chandigarh | Updated: May 27, 2020 8:23:15 am
Balbir Singh Senior, Balbir Singh Sr, Balbir Singh death, Balbir Singh passes away, Balbir Singh achievements, Balbir Singh Senior hockey, Balbir Singh goals, Balbir Singh olympics, balbir singh indo china war Balbir Singh Senior (Express Archive)

61 games, 246 goals

The amateur nature of hockey and the minimal upkeep of its stats book means it is nearly impossible to know the exact number of goals Dosanjh has scored in his entire career. But if the records maintained by hockey statistician BG Joshi are anything to go by, then the overall numbers will be staggering. Sample this: in the 61 international matches he played between 1948 and 1956 (which include the three Olympics and the overseas tours in 1954 and 1955), Dosanjh scored an eye-popping 246 goals.

In the three Olympics that he was a part of, Dosanjh played eight matches and scored 22 times, including the five goals in the final of the 1952 Games, a record that stands even today. But perhaps the most impressive stat that encapsulates the beastly nature of the Indian team of that era comes from the 1956 Olympics, where India scored 38 goals in the tournament and did not concede even once. The team, led by Dosanjh, opened the campaign with a 6-0 win over Great Britain, then defeated Afghanistan 14-0 and concluded the group stage with a 16-0 win over the USA. The semifinal and final were won by an identical 1-0 margin against Germany and Pakistan respectively.
These are just his numbers from select international tournaments. One wonders what his career record would look like!

Team man

It was his relentless pursuit of perfection that made Balbir Singh Dosanjh special. His teammates often joked that Dosanjh would take home a new ball every day after training, practice with it against the wall by himself, and in the evening, he would give them the worn-out ball to play. Hitting against the wall made his ball control exceptional, even on rough and unfriendly surfaces. That, in turn, helped him control the passes in tight spaces inside the ‘D’ and score goals.

Read | Balbirs and the Senior

But it wasn’t a one-man show. Udham Singh and KD Singh Babu would use their skills and technique to set him up with goal-scoring chances. And Dosanjh would never mess it up. “He had no match in the ‘D’,” recalls Gurdev Singh Kular, his teammate from the 1956 Olympics team. “He ran like a lion inside the ‘D’ and would evade tackles from the defenders. During the Melbourne Olympics, he told me that if I could give the ball as accurately as he wanted, he could continue playing for another five years. He acknowledged the contribution of the midfielders and that made him the best.”

Team builder

Former India captain Aslam Sher Khan feels because Dosanjh experienced the trauma of partition, he was ‘always above religion’. “He was a proud Sikh but at the same time, also respected other religions,” Khan, who was one of the key players of the team managed by Dosanjh, says.

An incident from the 1975 World Cup has stayed with Khan all his life. Khan did not get a chance to play in the league matches of the World Cup. During the semifinal against Malaysia, Dosanjh and coach Bodhi were involved in an animated discussion over whether to replace Michael Kindo with Khan.

Dosanjh wanted the substitution to take place, and Bodhi was against. Dosanjh’s argument prevailed and he held Khan’s face in his hands and said, ‘ja beta, aaj tera khuda hi bharat ko bacha sakta hai.’ Khan scored and India reached the final, where they defeated Pakistan to win their first, and so far the only, World Cup title. During the tournament, Dosanjh had also made a common prayer room for all players and had replaced the usual team chant of ‘jo bole so nihal’ (since it resonated more with players from Punjab) with ‘jo bole so hai, bharat mata ki hai’.

Selfless Samaritan

During the Indo-China war in 1962, Dosanjh went up to the then Punjab chief minister Pratap Singh Kairon and offered his three Olympic gold medals along with other medals for the national disaster fund. “He had no savings and told the chief minister that he is giving his biggest asset to the country,” recalls 79-year-old SK Gupta, one of Dosanjh’s oldest friends. “Kairon kept the medals on his insistence but later returned those medals to him.”

Years later, when Sports Authority of India requested him to share his memorabilia for a proposed sports museum, Dosanjh handed them everything except the three Olympic golds. SAI, it was revealed decades later, had misplaced all his belongings and the museum never saw the light of day.

His big-heartedness, however, won him life-long friends. In 2005, when his friend and teammate from pre-partition days, Muhammad Shahrukh (who had played for Pakistan in the 1948 Olympics) visited Chandigarh, Balbir hosted dinner for him. One year later, when he visited Lahore to watch the Indian team play there, Shahrukh travelled to Rawalpindi to return the gesture.

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Lucky 13!

India had named an 18-member squad for the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki: two goalkeepers, three defenders, five midfielders and eight forwards. Those days, shirt numbers were handed out in playing order. That meant Balbir Singh Dosanjh ended up getting the number 13. During the team’s acclimatisation trip to Copenhagen, Denmark, prior to the Games, a young girl pointed out to him that 13 is considered an unlucky number. “’Thirteen in north Indian languages is pronounced as tera, which is also a form of addressing God, ‘I told her,” Dosanjh wrote in his autobiography. “’For me, this is a lucky number. I dedicate my performances to the One Above.’” Dosanjh wasn’t sure if the girl understood his logic. But there were signs, he wrote: the number plate of the van that took them to the stadium for the first match of the Olympics added up to 13 and in the whole tournament, India scored 13 goals.

“Associated with the number 13, I have a host of memories that will linger forever in my mind,” he wrote in his book. “My house #1534, my office #562, my private car #3163 and my office car #2902, all add up individually to make 13. To round it all, I had a court case going regarding my seniority in the Sports department. The record files sent to the court were 13 in number. And I won the case. Who says number 13 is unlucky!”

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