‘Saw Balbir Singh cry like a child after defeat to Pakistan’

While he admired many things about Balbir Singh—his polite ways with the players, his man management skills and the vast knowledge of the game—Ashok Kumar will never forget the day he saw the three-time Olympic gold medallist cry like a child.
Undated file photo of three-time Olympic gold medalist hockey veteran Balbir Singh Sr, who died on Monday, May 25, 2020, after battling multiple health issues for over two weeks.(PTI)
Undated file photo of three-time Olympic gold medalist hockey veteran Balbir Singh Sr, who died on Monday, May 25, 2020, after battling multiple health issues for over two weeks.(PTI)
Updated on May 25, 2020 08:07 PM IST
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Hindustan Times, Mumbai | By

The hockey World Cup will always remain an event to cherish for Ashok Dhyanchand. He is one of the few players who have a complete set of medals from the World Cup—gold (1975), silver (1973) and bronze (1971). During two of those campaigns (1971 and ‘75), Balbir Singh Dosanjh (Senior), who passed away in Chandigarh Monday morning after prolonged illness, was with the team as manager or coach.

While he admired many things about Balbir Singh—his polite ways with the players, his man management skills and the vast knowledge of the game—Ashok Kumar will never forget the day he saw the three-time Olympic gold medallist cry like a child. “I will never forget that day. Balbir Singhji was our manager during the 1971 World Cup in Barcelona when we won bronze. I saw him bawling like a child in his room after our loss to Pakistan in the semi-finals. He had not said any harsh words after the defeat but when I went to his room later in the evening, I saw the great man crying. He even said, ‘Why am I alive to see this day’,” Ashok Kumar said on Monday.

ALSO READ: The Balbir Singh impact: Story behind India’s 1975 World Cup win

Ashok Kumar and his mates made up for that debacle by defeating Pakistan 2-1 in the final in Kuala Lumpur four years later to bag India’s only World Cup title. Ashok Kumar scored the winner in that match. Balbir Singh (Sr) was the coach of the team and played a big role in binding the players into a cohesive unit during the pre-tournament camp in Punjab. Ashok Kumar described Balbir as a thorough gentleman, a great motivator and warm-hearted person with great knowledge of hockey.

“During the 1975 World Cup campaign, he had a unique way of motivating the team. He would always tell us that like Arjun (mythological character from Mahabharata); you have to always concentrate on the target. ‘Always keep thinking about your target, always concentrate on the eye of the fish’, he would say. He was very genial and polite but would never tolerate indiscipline but would quite politely make people understand his point. I had never seen him getting angry at anything,” said Ashok Kumar.

“A thorough team man”

Joaquim Carvalho remembers how Balbir Singh stood like a rock behind the team following the humiliating 1-7 defeat to Pakistan at the National Stadium in New Delhi. “We were all embarrassed by the defeat. Balbir Singh Sr was very sad but supported us and told us ‘You all don’t worry and keep on playing. I will take the responsibility’. He was a genuine man, he didn’t blame any players. He was a thorough team man and stood for the players when things did not go well,” said Carvalho.

ALSO READ: Balbir Singh Senior: Highlights of a stellar career in hockey

“I liked him because he always encouraged upcoming players. He was like a father figure to us. We were very close to him, specially me and Somaya. He used to call Somaya ‘No 4’ and me as ‘Joe’. As far as man-management and player management was concerned, he was excellent dealing with the players or the federation. He had vast experience. I remember once just before the Asian Games, IM Mahajan (the then IHF president) had some issues with the team. Mahajan was very powerful but Mr Balbir had his way. He was very supportive of the players,” said Carvalho.

‘Won hearts with dry wit and humour’

What stood out for former India captain Zafar Iqbal was Balbir Singh’s wit and humour. “If he would see us talking to the girls, he would tick us off in a friendly tone, asking us to ‘concentrate on our game and to not get distracted,’” said Iqbal, who was a member of last team to win an Olympic gold in 1980 (Moscow) and captain of the team that won the silver in the 1982 Asian Games. Balbir was manager of the team but Iqbal had seen him ace various roles—chief coach, manager and selector.

“One thing I will always cherish is that once after a practice session, he told me that my hits at the goal were as powerful as his. He was legend, three-time Olympic gold medallist and a great scorer. For him to say that I shot like him was a great motivation for me,” said Iqbal. He also admired how Balbir Singh maintained his fitness till the end. “I had met him at an awards ceremony just a few weeks before the lockdown started. He was his usual self, very alert, made his point very clear and was very fit despite his age.”

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  • ABOUT THE AUTHOR

    B Shrikant anchors the Mumbai sports desk. A journalist for more than two decades, he covers hockey, chess, athletics, basketball and volleyball.

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