BALBIR AND INDIA'S GOLDEN ERA
Balbir Singh Sr was a towering member of India’s golden era in hockey post-Independence. Dhyan Chand had helped India achieve a pre-Independence hat-trick of Olympic gold, and after the 12-year break due to WW2, Singh helped make it six in a row. A timeline:
1947: Born on October 19, 1923 at Haripur, Jalandhar, he began his 11-year career with the national team as India took up the challenge afresh after Independence.
1948: London Olympics: India beat Great Britain 4-0 in the final for a historic victory over their colonial masters until a year ago, in their backyard. Balbir Singh filled Dhyan Chand’s shoes as India beat Austria 8-0, Argentina 9-1, Spain 2-0 and Holland 2-1 before triumph at the Wembley grounds, after Balbir Singh’s two first-half goals. “Those feelings of joy are difficult to explain. You have to experience it. I was so happy – on top of the world!” he said years later.
1952: Helsinki Olympics: Balbir Singh, as vice-captain, was unstoppable, scoring nine of India’s 13 goals in the tournament. He put five past Dutch goalkeeper Lau Mulder in the final. It stands as the record for most goals scored by a player in an Olympic men’s hockey final.
1968: Mexico Olympics: The warning signs rang in Mexico City as Pakistan won their second gold and Australia signalled their rise by taking silver, having beaten India in the semi-finals. India settled for bronze.
1964: Tokyo Olympics: India avenged the Rome loss by beating Pakistan 1-0 in the final, claiming their seventh hockey title. The dominance was regained.
1960: Rome Olympics: Balbir Singh retired with silver in the 1958 Tokyo Asian Games. In his absence, India’s sway in world hockey was dented for the first time when the team led by Leslie Claudius—he had gold in each of the previous three Games—lost 1-0 to Pakistan in the final.
1956: Melbourne Olympics: As captain—flag-bearer of the contingent for the second time—he helped India complete a second hat-trick of titles. He scored five goals in the opening win over Afghanistan, but was injured. He returned for the semi-final and in the final India beat Pakistan 1-0.
1971: The World Cup was launched as the second global event. India again had to settle for bronze in the inaugural edition in Barcelona as Pakistan extended their superiority by beating Spain for the title.
1972: Munich Olympics: It was the last time hockey was played on grass, and India ended with bronze. West Germany beat Pakistan as the Olympic hockey gold slipped out of the sub-continent.
1975: World Cup: Balbir Singh went as manager-cum-coach to Kuala Lumpur, where India won their only World Cup, beating Pakistan in the final, on grass. It compensated for the silver in 1973, but the hockey hegemony was gone.
1976: Montreal Olympics: With hockey moved to Astro-turf, India failed to match their powerful rivals as they ended seventh. It was the first time they failed to reach the semi-finals.
13: Singh was allotted shirt No. 13, but didn’t see it as unlucky. “During acclimatisation in was Copenhagen, a girl told me I I wearing an unlucky number. told her in North India, tera (as a pronounced in Punjabi) is also form of address to God… At Helsinki Olympics, the van that took us to the stadium for our first match had a number plate that added up to 13. We also scored 13 goals in the tournament.”
1982: Balbir Singh lit the flame at the Asian Games in New Delhi. With Pakistan having won the 1981 World Cup held in Bombay, India had a point to prove on home turf. As chief coach of the hockey team, Singh suffered a blow after the hosts were routed 7-1 by Pakistan in the final. In the next nine Olympics, they would not reach the semis, marking the slump in Indian hockey at world level.
1980: Moscow Olympics: The US-led boycott had weakened the field and India cashed in, winning their eighth and final gold by beating a rallying Spain 4-3 in the final in Moscow.
Balbir Singh during India's 1948 Games n final against hosts at Wembley.