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Balbir Singh: The Legend with a heart of gold

Balbir Singh Senior spent a major part of his life in Chandigarh post retirement

Written by Nitin Sharma | Chandigarh |
Updated: May 26, 2020 11:09:22 am
Balbir Singh: The Legend with a heart of gold Balbir Singh on the field in Chandigarh. (Express archive)

From winning three consecutive All India University titles in the 1940’s for the then Punjab University in Lahore to becoming one of India’s most successful Olympians, Balbir Singh Senior spent a major part of his life in Chandigarh post his retirement as a player. Apart from working in the Punjab Sports department, the hockey legend also organised the training camp for the 1975 World Cup winning Indian hockey team at Panjab University, Chandigarh. Here’s a look at Senior’s Chandigarh connection and excerpts from his autobiography “The Golden Hat-trick”.

Leaving Punjab Police and joining Punjab Sports department

Senior, who had joined Punjab Police in 1945 as ASI, quit the Punjab Police department in 1961 after guiding their hockey team to six national titles. Singh joined the Punjab Sports department at Chandigarh as deputy director sports and retired from the department as director sports on December 31, 1982, the same day as his birthday. Singh had also worked with 1958 Commonwealth Games gold medallist Milkha Singh and his wife and former Indian volleyball captain Nirmal Kaur in the Sports department.

Read | ‘Hockey meri te is desh di jaan hai’

“Both me and Balbir Singh Senior had joined as deputy director of sports as the then Punjab CM Pratap Singh Kairon wanted us to work for the betterment of sports in Punjab. Later, when the Indian team came with the 1975 World Cup Trophy, we organised several welcome functions for them. My wife too worked in the Sports department. Both of us have fond memories of working along with Balbir Singh Senior and he remains to be the best hockey player in the world after Dhyan Chand. We worked together for over 25 years. He was very close to me. His loss is the biggest loss for players as well the nation,” said Milkha Singh.

1975 World Cup training camp at PU and guiding India to the title win

It was during a trip to the USA with his wife Sushil Kaur that Balbir Singh Senior was called to India by the then Punjab CM Giani Zail Singh to take the responsibility of being the chief coach and manager of the Indian team for the 1975 World Cup. Senior along with coach Gurcharan Singh Bodhi took charge of the camp at Panjab University grounds and with the then Punjab Sports Minister Umrao Singh ensuring all facilities for players and coaches, the camp started. Three days after the camp started, Balbir lost his father Sardar Dalip Singh on December 27, followed by his wife Sushil suffering brain hemorrhage. “At that time, my father BL Gupta, a former secretary general of Indian Hockey Federation was the director, department of physical education, PU and five grounds were prepared for the Indian team out of which they trained on two grounds. Balbir Singh Senior had got the words “Regaining world supremacy is our goal,” written in red on the entrance of the camp. Three days after the camp started, his father died and it was the only day during the two-month-old camp that he missed the training. At night, he would go to his wife, admitted at PGIMER, and would then meet players at their hostel. It was his dedication to his players which saw his team winning the World Cup,” shared SL Gupta, son of former secretary general of IHF BL Gupta.

Getting PU Khel Ratna award and chair named after Balbir Singh Senior

In March 2016, Balbir Singh Senior was conferred with the Panjab University Khel Ratna award during the 65th convocation ceremony of Panjab University. Senior, who studied at Khalsa College in Amritsar before partition and represented the then Punjab University, guided the university to three All India University titles in 1943, 1944 and 1945, respectively. In 2016, Panjab University also set up the Balbir Singh Senior chair at the Department of Sports and Physical Education. “When he was given the Khel Ratna award during the convocation, he made sure that he told the students about his playing days and his legacy. When we decided to get the shooting range at PU inaugurated by him, not even a single shooter protested about it being done by a hockey player. Such was his legacy and achievements that he surpassed all the players in India,” said Parminder Singh Ahluwalia, director sports, Panjab University.

When Virat Kohli, Ms Dhoni met Balbir Singh Senior at PCA Stadium

In 2016, a day before the India-Australia quarter-final of the ICC T-20 World Cup at PCA Stadium in Mohali, Balbir Singh Senior had come to the stadium to watch the practice of the Indian team including Virat Kohli and MS Dhoni. All the members of the team met the hockey legend and later sat with him at the players enclosure in the stadium. “I had studied in the same school in Moga as Balbir Singh Senior did. I had known him during my days of senior vice-president of Indian Hockey Federation and when he came to meet the Indian team, the players including Virat Kohli and MS Dhoni were glad to meet the legend. They sat down with him and took his blessings. As a sportsperson, Senior admired all the players and had come to watch them train. His humility made him different from all the players who have played for India,” recalled Brigadier GS Sandhu, former CEO, PCA.

Tale of a broken tooth and a failure

Not many know that Balbir Singh Senior broke a tooth while playing a match in a tournament in the Ram Lal Cup at Lucknow in 1944, playing for the Khalsa College, Amritsar, under coach Harbail Singh. Senior suffered a broken tooth while tackling from left against an opposition defender. Senior played the rest of the match with sugar in his mouth to lessen the pain and bleeding. Singh did not get the broken tooth repaired till 1960, after his retirement from the game. Earlier in 1939, Senior had joined the intermediate College in Moga for his FA exams and had won his first trophy for best player. Senior failed in the annual exams that year and even ran away from his home fearing backlash from his father. Later, he would join Lahore’s Sikh National College on a hockey scholarship.

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