Farewell to In­dian hockey’s golden tal­is­man

OBITUARY The three-time Olympic gold medal­list proved even his iconic pre­de­ces­sor Dhyan Chand wrong

Hindustan Times (Jalandhar) - - FRONT PAGE - Nikhilesh Bhat­tacharya letters@hin­dus­tan­times.com

SILIGURI: The death of Bal­bir Singh Se­nior does not mark the end of an era. The era in ques­tion had long dis­ap­peared in a vor­tex of fevered imag­i­na­tion and half-re­mem­bered truths. The man him­self had seen it dis­ap­pear. He had tried to alert oth­ers to the fact more than forty years ago but, like Cas­san­dra, he had gone un­heeded. That is why his death is a great loss: we never un­der­stood what we had.

If the av­er­age In­dian re­mem­bers Singh, who died at 96 on Mon­day, to­day—if we re­mem­ber him at all in the midst of the pan­demic—it will be as a tal­is­manic goal-scorer from the time when newly in­de­pen­dent In­dia won the hockey gold in three con­sec­u­tive Olympic Games. Close fol­low­ers of the game will also re­call Singh’s role in the back­ground of In­dia’s tri­umph in the 1975 Hockey WC, the last tour­na­ment be­fore in­ter­na­tional hockey re­placed grass with ar­ti­fi­cial play­ing sur­face.

The death of Bal­bir Singh Se­nior does not mark the end of an era. The era in ques­tion had long dis­ap­peared in a vor­tex of fevered imag­i­na­tion and half-re­mem­bered truths. The man him­self had seen it dis­ap­pear. He had tried to alert oth­ers to the fact more than forty years ago but, like Cas­san­dra, he had gone un­heeded. That is why his death is a great loss: we never un­der­stood what we had.

If the av­er­age In­dian re­mem­bers Singh to­day—if we re­mem­ber him at all in the midst of the pan­demic—it will be as a tal­is­manic goal-scorer from the time when newly in­de­pen­dent In­dia won the hockey gold in three con­sec­u­tive Olympic Games. The his­tor­i­cally minded will savour the neat sym­me­try of it all, for the se­quence mir­rored the Olympic ex­ploits of the hockey teams from Bri­tish In­dia in the in­ter-war years when the ur-In­dian cen­tre-for­ward, Dhyan Chand, reigned supreme. Close fol­low­ers of the game will also re­call Singh’s role in the back­ground of In­dia’s tri­umph in the 1975 Hockey World Cup, the last tour­na­ment be­fore in­ter­na­tional hockey re­placed grass with ar­ti­fi­cial play­ing sur­face. Talk of the pre Astro­turf era may prompt the mis­chievous to make jokes about how In­dia had been the one-eyed king in the land of the blind. Af­ter Par­ti­tion, the other eye went to Pak­istan who did not do too badly ei­ther, they will add. The con­fused may ex­press sur­prise that Bal­bir Singh died twice when in fact it was his younger name­sake who passed away in Fe­bru­ary.

All these dif­fer­ent points of view will miss the es­sen­tial im­port of Singh’s long and sto­ried life and what it tells us about hockey in In­dia and about In­dia it­self.

THE COLO­NIAL LEGACY

Singh and oth­ers from the first batch of In­dian hockey he­roes were prod­ucts of colonialis­m.

The way of life in a Bri­tish-ruled colony con­di­tioned them to take up a sport like hockey. Colo­nialera in­sti­tu­tions, whether sym­pa­thetic or op­posed to the Bri­tish Empire, gave them the op­por­tu­nity to nur­ture their skills.

A strong do­mes­tic struc­ture with roots go­ing back to the begin­ning of the twen­ti­eth cen­tury al­lowed them make a ca­reer out of the game. They had an ear­lier gen­er­a­tion of play­ers, some of them world beat­ers, to learn from. And they had able ad­min­is­tra­tors, from the ranks of both the rulers and the ruled, to sup­port them.

The bare bones of Singh’s life story fit the nar­ra­tive. That he started play­ing hockey in the town of Moga in East Pun­jab points to the spread of the game be­yond the big cities and tra­di­tional cen­tres, in Pun­jab in par­tic­u­lar and across Bri­tish In­dia in gen­eral. Af­ter his fail­ure in the F.A. ex­am­i­na­tions in Moga, he could carry on with his ed­u­ca­tion at Sikh Na­tional Col­lege, La­hore, and later at Khalsa Col­lege, Am­rit­sar, be­cause he was an out­stand­ing hockey player. And it was his hockey skills that got him a job in law en­force­ment.

Sir John Ben­nett, the In­spec­tor-Gen­eral of Police, Pun­jab, knew a good hockey player when he saw one. Oth­ers who shaped Singh’s ca­reer in­cluded Har­bail Singh, whom he first met when the lat­ter was coach at Khalsa Col­lege, and Dickie Carr, an An­glo-In­dian from Kharag­pur and a gold medal win­ner at the 1932 Los An­ge­les Olympics, at whose in­sis­tence Singh was called up to the 1948 tri­als in Bom­bay.

A team-man to the end of his life, Singh would not have dis­puted the fact that he was not an out­lier. Tak­ing the ex­am­ple of the 1948 In­dia squad sent to London: apart from a large con­tin­gent from Bom­bay, it in­cluded play­ers who spent a con­sid­er­able part of their for­ma­tive years in big cities like La­hore (Keshav Chan­dra Datt and Tar­lochan Singh), Delhi (Jaswant Singh Ra­jput), Ban­ga­lore (Wal­ter D’Souza) and Madras (Ran­ganathan Francis).

But there were oth­ers who had learnt their hockey in smaller cen­tres like Faisal­abad (Gra­hanan­dan Singh), Naini Tal (Pat Jansen), Bhopal (Akhtar Hus­sain and Latif-ur-Rehman), Jub­bul­pore (Gerry Glacken), Mhow (Kis­han Lal, the cap­tain) and Kharag­pur (Les­lie Claudius). Their love for the game had been var­i­ously nur­tured by An­glo-In­dian schools, col­leges, civil­ian clubs, help­ful se­niors and sym­pa­thetic ad­min­is­tra­tors. A num­ber of play­ers from that era found em­ploy­ment in govern­ment ser­vices, which had been the bul­wark of Bri­tish rule in In­dia.

These facts are not stated to un­der­mine the thrill felt by the play­ers when they got the op­por­tu­nity to rep­re­sent the tri­colour in London in 1948, about which Singh had spo­ken elo­quently. And in­de­pen­dent In­dia rightly reaped the ben­e­fits of what this fine gen­er­a­tion of hockey play­ers achieved for the coun­try. How­ever, it is equally im­por­tant to un­der­stand the legacy they had in­her­ited, a legacy that in­de­pen­dent In­dia failed to pro­tect be­yond a point.

EARLY STRUG­GLES

Of course, as In­di­ans coming to ma­tu­rity in and around 1947, Singh’s gen­er­a­tion had to ne­go­ti­ate a world marked by both con­ti­nu­ity and change, in­clud­ing the sem­i­nal events of In­de­pen­dence and Par­ti­tion, the bru­tal­ity of which Singh, as a po­lice­man in Pun­jab, saw from close quar­ters. There were other, mi­nor dis­con­ti­nu­ities that had to be dealt with. The 12-year Olympic hia­tus forced by the Sec­ond World War meant free In­dia could no longer call upon any player from Dhyan Chand’s gen­er­a­tion. A fresh chal­lenge had to be mounted with new play­ers. In­dia was for­tu­nate that hockey had con­tin­ued in the coun­try un­in­ter­rupted through the war years but mean­while the stan­dard of hockey across the world had also im­proved. And of course, there was Pak­istan.

The play­ers had their in­di­vid­ual demons to deal with too. Look­ing back at In­dia’s Olympic dom­i­na­tion in the decade af­ter in­de­pen­dence, it is tempt­ing to imag­ine that it came all too eas­ily. How­ever, be­hind ev­ery tri­umph lay sto­ries of in­di­vid­ual and col­lec­tive strug­gle. For ex­am­ple, it is rarely re­mem­bered that Claudius, who would go on to win three Olympic gold medals and one sil­ver, played only one match in London. He was con­sid­ered too small to be ef­fec­tive in the heavy grounds of Eng­land.

It was no dif­fer­ent for Singh. Tucked away in Dhyan Chand’s mem­oirs, Goal!, pub­lished in 1952, is a comment about the In­dian cen­tre-for­wards of the time. “It is a pity,” writes Dhyan Chand, “That we have no out­stand­ing cen­tre-for­ward to-day. That is my opinion. What we have to-day is a com­pany of medi­oc­ri­ties amongst whom I would in­clude Bal­bir Singh of East Pun­jab.” As a player and a coach, Singh made many crit­ics eat their words. One would like to imag­ine that Dhyan Chand would have agreed to do the same by the time Singh ended his play­ing ca­reer.

A WARN­ING THAT WENT UN­HEEDED

What al­lowed play­ers like Singh and Claudius to over­come such ob­sta­cles early in their ca­reers was the ro­bust sys­tem that pro­duced and sup­ported In­dian hockey play­ers. And this is what Singh had seen dis­ap­pear­ing be­fore his eyes. In 1977, he wrote, in col­lab­o­ra­tion with sports jour­nal­ist Sa­muel Ban­er­jee, an au­to­bi­og­ra­phy, The Golden Hat Trick: My Hockey

Days. In the fore­word, Ban­er­jee writes: “(Bal­bir Singh’s) only con­cern was whether the printed word would draw more young­sters to our dy­ing hockey tra­di­tion.” In­dia were still the World Cup hold­ers, but had missed out on an Olympic semi­fi­nal spot for the first time in Mon­treal in 1976. Singh could al­ready see the end.

He was not the first. Twenty years ear­lier, in 1957, Fa­ther Daniel Don­nelly, rec­tor at St Stanis­laus School, Bom­bay, had iden­ti­fied the main threats to In­dia’s hockey supremacy: the fail­ure of schools to fos­ter the game and fall­ing spec­ta­tor­ship at hockey matches. Don­nelly’s clear-sighted anal­y­sis had im­pli­cated, without nam­ing, govern­ment of­fi­cials, ed­u­ca­tors and hockey ad­min­is­tra­tors in In­dia’s fail­ure to pro­tect its hockey legacy. What made Singh dif­fer­ent was that he had shown, in 1975, that he had a so­lu­tion.

Of course, Singh would have been the first to point out that he had help from like-minded in­di­vid­u­als and, more im­por­tantly, he had the trust of the play­ers who ex­e­cuted his plans to per­fec­tion. If only In­dian hockey ad­min­is­tra­tors had re­posed sim­i­lar faith in the man in the decades that fol­lowed. The ad­vent of Astro­turf, and its scarcity in In­dia, would have ar­guably cre­ated a new ob­sta­cle in his path. How­ever, from what we know of Singh, on the field and off it, he would have likely found a way past it.

ANI

In­dia hockey cap­tain Bal­bir Singh Sr af­ter beat­ing Pak­istan at the 1956 Mel­bourne Olympics.

Il­lus­tra­tion: MALAY KARMAKAR

HT & AFP

Bal­bir Singh Se­nior dis­plays his three Olympic gold medals at his home in Chandi­garh. The for­mer In­dia skip­per (2nd from R) dur­ing the cap­tains’ pre­sen­ta­tion at the 1952 Helsinki Olympics.

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