history of Indian hockey will be rendered insignificant without due honour to
the greatest exponent of the game - Dhyan Chand. Even before he was selected for
India's first Olympic team in 1928, the 24-year old soldier had attained an exalted
status in the world of hockey. India's maiden overseas tour of New Zealand in
1926 left no doubt about his superlative skills and scoring prowess. As a larger
proportion of the goals scored by India in the 3-month tour flowed from Dhyan
Chand's hockey stick, which seemed to have some unexplained magical dexterity,
he turned a hero who deserved every adulation that followed. Yet it was Jaipal
Singh, who was studying in Oxford University at the time, and who did not seem
to have played the game back home in India till then, who was given the honour
of leading India in the 1928 Olympics. That he walked out of the team midway through
the tournament before the crucial semi-final is a different story.
Four years later, despite being rated as the world's greatest ever stick wielder, the authorities preferred a greenhorn, Lal Shah Bokhari, to lead India at the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics. This Punjab forward who had failed to even impress the selectors during the Amsterdam games (he was only a standby then) did manage to lead India to a second Olympic gold, but subsequently faded into oblivion.
So established was Dhyan Chand's credentials in those days that the Indian Hockey Federation selected him for the Los Angeles Olympics on the strength of his reputation, without seeking selection trials. The only player to be selected without trials, this was an honour that would have gladdened the heart of any other player. But the sporting spirit in this great player did not relish this. He observed, "Even though I was assured that I would be included in the team without undergoing trials, I had a feeling that it was not altogether fair. I felt it was an unenviable sort of preference shown to me when many of my friends who accompanied me to the 1928 Olympics were fighting badly for a place and had to prove their mettle in the Inter-provincial tournament."
But the question that should be asked at this juncture is why, despite such acclaim, was Dhyan Chand denied captaincy? Why was a one-time standby player pitchforked for the job in spite of the availability of such superior talent? The answer is simple - status. He was only a soldier hailing from a humble background. Dhyan Chand said about the moment he learned of his selection for the New Zealand tour in 1926, "I ran like a hare to reach my barracks and communicated the good news to my fellow soldiers." His immediate concern was whether he had good clothing and equipment to undertake the tour. Eventually, he clothed as inexpensively as possible. His main personal outfit was his military uniform! So it was status that stood between him and captaincy. Yet, Dhyan Chand has neither antipathy towards anyone, nor the least of ill feelings on this score. In fact, rather than beating his own drum, we see him analysing the pros and cons of Lal Shah Bokhari and Eric Penniger for the slot of captaincy (one of who ultimately claimed the post for himself) in his autobiography. Rather he considered his limited academic qualification and his humble rank in the army as his handicaps. Surprisingly, every time captaincy was denied to him, in spite of his contribution and his capability to lead the team to glory, this great player seemed to aspire for the post even less. On the other hand, his performance seemed to improve rather than be negatively affected by the attitude of the authorities. On the most irrelevant of grounds, Dhyan Chand's skills seemed to take a leap for the better than be dejected by rejection and neglect.
However, so spectacular were his field exploits that the crown of captaincy could not be denied to him for long and he earned the exalted status in the Western Asiatic games in 1934. But in the very next assignment, he had to bow out in favour of a prince! He did not utter a word and took things in his stride. Needless to say the entire history of Indian sports has not seen one so gifted yet so modest.
Such instances might have broken the heart of many other mortals, but for this genius these were perks that mattered little. What was of utmost importance to him was the game, the rest made no difference. It was precisely for this reason that when he was asked to step aside to accommodate a ruling elite, who was truly struggling in form, in the seat of captaincy just before the 1936 Olympics, he did so without a word of protest. After all safeguarding the interests of hockey and the country can be done in more ways then one and Dhyan Chand proved it better than anyone else could. Goal his thoughtfully chronicled treatises further enlightens this trait. Nowhere in his reminiscences has he commented negatively on any player, selector or administrator.
The Berlin Olympic gold winning Hockey Team. Dhyan Chand is seen standing second from left in the middle row
In contrast, his Berlin
Olympics teammate M.N. Masud, in his autobiography titled World Hockey Champions:
1936 used his work to air a tirade against the Indian Hockey Federation and also
as a tool to spill venom against Dhyan Chand. This was rather in the style in
which later-day hockey stars like Aslam Sher Khan in his autobiography Hell with
Hockey-1978 and M.K. Kaushik The Golden Boot - 2000 wrote about their experiences
in the hockey scenario. M. N. Masud criticised Dhyan Chand severely for replacing
him with another player. Yet Dhyan Chand, who wrote his memoirs many years later,
did not retort tit-for-tat despite having every justification to do so. Instead
he almost praised him for expressing his views boldly! He further said, "He
has been critical of many things, but whether I agree with all he says is beside
the point. I have always respected his integrity and opinion." This is Dhyan
Chand - modest, dignified, composed - both on and off the field.
When he was selected for Olympic captaincy in 1936, Dhyan Chand was thrilled beyond measure. He said, "My selection for the first Olympic team in 1928 did not give any thrill because it was expected, but selection as captain for India was least expected by me." His elevation marked an important milestone for the Indian sporting fraternity when excellence overcome all social differentiation and talent was awarded its due regard. As would a practical man, he accepted the challenge life posed this time, and faced it head-on by sheer display of skill on the field and patience off it.
He did not allow any trivia to become a stumbling block in his pursuit of excellence. He treated both adulation and pinpricks equally and never once did he go overboard or react sharply. Neither adulation led to complacency in this great player nor did he allow adversities to affect his game. For him the only way to accept a word of praise was to put in more effort to sustain it and the best response to criticism was to accept it. That is why, in his entire career, he could not ever be provoked while he was on the field.
During the 1936 Olympic final against Germany, after India had already established an unassailable 6-0 lead, the rival goalkeeper injured Dhyan Chand badly and he had to leave the field to receive first aid as he had broken his teeth. When he returned to the field after receiving
first aid, he asked his friends not to play aggressively and instead taught them a lesson in ball possession. The mature approach made the game less physical, more spectacular and artistic. This gesture which came amidst 25,000 spectators baying for India's blood - what with Hitler's racial undertones reaching feverish pitch - set a high standard of sportsmanship difficult to surpass. For this same match, while the record book showed six goals against Dhyan Chand's name, yet he claimed credit for only three of them. He in fact argued that he scored only three goals - such was his honesty and greatness.
Such instances motivated his team members to give that extra bit of effort. Not for nothing did the great Pakistani player Ali Iqditar Shah Dara praised him as the "one who employed the minimum of perspiration and the maximum of inspiration."
a robust tackier caused him an injury intentionally, but Dhyan Chand,
as always, did not react. Instead, he said to the player who was amazed
by Dhyan Chand's calmness even after what he had done and came to express his repentance, "But for that incident, I would not have scored those three extra goals." In another case in early 1925, in the final of the Punjab Infantry Tournament in Jhelum, his team was trailing by two goals with only four minutes to go when his commanding officer looked at him as he was sitting among the spectators and shouted, "Come on Dhyan, we are down, do something about it." He entered the field and scored three goals in four minutes to snatch a dramatic victory. There is no complete record of his superlative feats for they were too many and everyone who came in contact with the great player had their own exciting anecdote to narrate.
His brother Roop Singh recalls one glowing instance when at a match in Munich, after a particularly heavy lunch, the team missed chance after another to score a goal. Then in a flash, Dhyan Chand decided that not a pass would he henceforth give to any of his colleagues. In that rare selfish mood, he scored six goals, all on his own! He was as ruthless as a captain as otherwise sober. Roop Singh narrates an incident when he was on the receiving end of his brother's outburst when, upon noticing his shot hit a spectator, he directed him to leave the game. "They don't come here to get hit," he said. Mindless power game was one thing he abhorred. Once when Dhyan Chand observed Roop Singh playing in both the flanks he asked the other player, Shiv Narain, to sit down since Roop was playing at his position also! Roop got the message. A selfish player is a menace to the team.
will not bring the best out of the team, Dhyan Chand wrote in a coaching manual.
In trying to involve the entire team in the spirit of the game he spared none,
not even his brother.
There was another incident when during a match one of the players, Dhyan Chand, passed the ball to K.D. Singh. Dhyan Chand then turned his back and walked away. When Singh later asked the reason for his strange behaviour he replied, "If you could not get a goal from that pass, you do not deserve to be on my team." Singh, like many other players who played under this great exponent of the game received his lesson well and subsequently rose to become the Olympic captain of the Indian team.
Many ascribed Dhyan Chand's exploits to the illustrious company he was fortunate to have on the field but a thorough study of his role on the field as a player and a motivator makes one
feel that it was rather his personality that made his team members as illustrious as they were. As another Olympian Keshav Dutt said, "His real talent lay above his shoulders. His was easily the hockey brain of the century. He would know from his own game sense how the defence was forming, and where the gaps were. In other words, he was the only imponderable player, everybody else fell in predictable patterns around him."
It was his uncanny capacity to grasp the opponent's strategies that saved the day for the Indian team in the 1936 Olympic finals, when a failing team, unable to break Germany's dodged defence went on to win the game at 8-1. It was his mesmerising comprehension that made him ask a player (Roop Singh) to be ready for a particular pass that might come any moment near the 25-yard line. It took only a couple of minutes for him to find that valuable gap and he promptly passed the ball to the spot. Thus, India used the opportunity to score, with two or three minutes left for half time.
Unique human virtues and the extraordinary grasp of the game made him an all-time great who easily justified all the sobriquets that came his way - juggler, magician, wizard, genius, human eel and so on.
Dhyan Chand, a born genius as he was, innovated tricks to score on the spur of the moment, rather than follow copybook patterns. He did not possess the deadly speed of his equally illustrious brother Roop Singh nor were his shots packed with as much power as that of his contemporary Frank Wells. He only had an uncanny knack of spotting a gap before it was there and scoring through deception, often through low, gentle pushes. Always unpredictable inside the circle, he placed the balls inside the net in lightening action that would leave even the best of goalkeepers bewildered. Defenders were often awe-struck by the repertoire of shots that he would unleash in a split second, each varying in style and technique. It is exactly for this reason that his colleagues consider him responsible for elevating the simple act of scoring into an art of perfection through deception. Once a seasoned rugby follower said after watching Dhyan Chand in motion during one of his New Zealand tours, "After watching his play, which involves such perfectly graceful and coherent movement, the game of rugby looks like many cows let loose on the field."
He was not as proficient in ball possession as the later daystar Rajagopal or the master dribbler Perumal were. He was only incomparable in ball control and immaculate in timing of ball distribution. His peers attribute his crouching style to his mastery over ball control. Watching him play is not only a connoisseur's delight but also a lesson in itself. 91-year old Olympic umpire Gian Singh, who coached national teams of at least five different countries says that in the era before the games were taught in institutes and cocooned in camera, he picked up the rudiments of coaching by umpiring matches Dhyan played!
A journalist observed, "Dhyan Chand is slightly built, but is tremendously active and has the born leader's ability to figure out a situation long before it eventuates. He has the eye of a hawk and the speed of a greyhound. He showed how to go clean through a mass of opponents in their circle, not by hitting like one possessed but by weaving the ball through and guarding it by turning his stick from side to side." His spectacular skills, honed through hours of hard work led to the establishment of records that remained unsurpassed by his generation of players.
Dhyan Chand made scoring of goals against some of the most powerful teams seem like the easiest task in the world. 133 out of 338 in the 1932 pre-Olympic tour, 59 out of 175 in the 1936 Pre-Olympics, 19 out of 35 in Los Angeles Olympics and 11 out of 38 in the 1936 Berlin Olympics are a few among his phenomenal goals tally. In 1935, in a tour that included New Zealand, Sri Lanka and Australia, he scored 201 goals, figuring in 43 out of 48 matches. In the 1947 East Africa tour - he was 42-years old then - he scored 61 goals in 22 matches. Even age could not diminish his penchant for goals. He had taken up the tour as the host nation had made a special request to the Indian Hockey Federation and said, "No Dhyan Chand, no team please."
The statistics might be awe-inspiring but equally significant, apart from the number of goals he scored, is his majestic and artistic style on the field. As Gian Singh observed, he could
score from any angle. His shots were as gentle as possible, scored mostly through low, guile pushes and emanating from a thoughtful manipulation of the right opportunity. In the 1936 Olympics, in which television cameras were used for the first time, his goal-scoring sequences were caught in slow motion and the Germans were astonished at the ease with which he dodged past one defender after another to position himself in the right spot to execute those jabs and flicks.
Swami Jagan Nath was the manager of many tours including the Berlin Olympics tour. He was also a player, organiser, umpire and a coach in the reputed National Institute of Sports, Patiala, India, along with Dhyan Chand. He had said about Dhyan Chand, "It is a pleasure to watch a man like Dhyan Chand performing fine eel-like movements, as quick and graceful as those of a leopard, and cleverly but wittingly dodging past his opponents."
Such was his hold over the game that even in his fifties, he could send the ball past the best of goalkeepers. He would drop the ball by hand and drive it at half volley into the corner of the net. Even goalkeepers of the calibre of Shankar Laxman, triple Olympian, could do nothing to stop him. "You score goals like runs in cricket," the legendary cricketer Sir Don Bradman had said to Dhyan Chand. So impressed was he by his style after watching him play at Adelaide in 1935.
In Vienna a symbolic statue of the great player - with four arms and four sticks, as if declaring to the world that it was next to impossible for a mere mortal to stand up against Dhyan Chand - was built. As his invincible talent impressed more and more people many myths about his extraordinary talents began to be circulated. The Japanese suspected that his stick was made of glue; in fact Hitler even wanted to purchase his stick; an European player even broke his stick to see if there was any magnate inside; Hitler invited him to join his army... and so on. These stories are hard to prove but are fine indicators of his image. What an amazing rise it was for the 'Other Ranks' soldier in the army!
Dhyan's hockey started quite early. Shaping a branch of a date palm tree into a 'stick' and old rags into a ball, he played the game since he was in primary school. At the age of 16, following the family tradition of taking up the defence of the country as profession, he joined the Army. It turned out to be a boon for him. Hockey was popular in the cantonments in those days and his senior and Guru Bole Tiwari polished his skills to a sparkle. On his part, the young Dhyan Chand was almost obsessed with the game. He worked hard and within four years of playing in the Army, found a place in the first-ever Indian contingent to cross the shores - the Army team that went to New Zealand in 1926. With deft stick work and astonishing artistry, he spearheaded the attack on that tour and scored nearly 100 goals.
In its maiden venture in the Olympics in 1928, which materialised after many logistic hurdles, India won all the matches hands down. In the final on May 26, India defeated Holland 3-0. Dhyan Chand scored twice. Four years later at Los Angeles, India did retain the gold but could not satisfy its desire for a more combative atmosphere on the field, as there was no worthy opponent. New entrants United States of America and Japan hardly offered any resistance. India made 24-1 against USA and 11-0 against Japan. Dhyan Chand scored four goals against Japan and eight against USA. The defeat of USA by 24 goals is by far the heaviest defeat recorded in the history of hockey.
The Berlin campaign in 1936 offered the best in terms of the strength of rivals. But here too India won every match. In the final against host Germany Dhyan Chand displayed his best form and the Indian side enthralled all admirers of the game. While on the track Jesse Owens exploded the many myths of Aryan superiority, which the Nazi forces had carefully propounded, on the hockey field Dhyan Chand created magic. As the match progressed it seemed in creasingly difficult for India to score goals. In fact, not a single goal had been scored till quite some time after the match started. Frustrated, Dhyan Chand threw aside his playing boots, as if he was playing in the village greens, and within a split second sent the ball flying to Roop Singh - the deadlock was broken. In the second session, India scored seven more goals, the legendary player had a hand in almost every one of them. So enamoured were the Germans by his stylish game that the events that followed the historic victory became folklore in India. Of these, the one that involves Hitler himself needs mention. Rifaquat Ali, then a junior officer in the National Institute of Sports, Patiala, where Dhyan Chand worked as chief coach observed, "Hitler was so enamoured by the craftsmanship of the Indian ace that he invited the entire Indian team to dinner and offered the hockey wizard the title of Field Marshal if he migrated to Germany. He turned down the offer."
It is hard to substantiate these stories though, more so in the light of Dhyan Chand's Goal in which he has avoided all adulatory details. But one thing is certain - that Dhyan Chand never would have opted to coach teams from other countries. Another event quoted here also vindicated his stand. Dada, as he was known to his dear ones, always put aside personal gains against the needs of pure patriotism. Veteran journalist Sushil Jain, who toured with him several times, recalled with emotion, "Once he flatly refused an offer for coaching a German team. Knowing well his poor financial status, I persisted that he accept that lucrative assignment, but he shut my mouth saying, 'if I coach them and if they beat us, where will I hide my face.'" Such were his principles on matters concerning the country. However, his country did not avail of his coaching skills the way it should have.
This is not to say the nation was not grateful or less enthusiastic about honouring the great sportsman. The government of India issued a commemorative postage stamp in his name and gave him one of the country's top civil awards, Padma Bhushan, in 1956. Till date he is the only Padma Bhusan winner in hockey. Moreover, his birthday has been declared as the National Sports day. Lifetime awards for sports - 'Arjuna' and 'Dronocharya' - are presented on this day. The Army decorated him with the Kings Commission and promoted him to the rank of Major in 1943. The Sports Authority of India erected a grand statue in 1995 at the entrance of the historic National Stadium, where the inaugural Asian Games were held in 1951. It is the only statue of any player in India.
The significance of the success achieved by Dhyan Chand cannot be properly understood without a measure of the times he lived in when sports was strictly an amateur activity. It was principally a pastime of the elite -the ruling English, affluent princes and the influential Anglo-Indians. Bulk of India's first three Olympic teams consisted of members from these creamy sections of the society. Dhyan Chand was an ordinary Indian, merely a serving soldier. Neither did the game improve his living standards nor enhance creature comforts. Yet he took up the game and evolved it into the finest display of sporting skill. His was a striking representation of native Indian talent in the team. It was his sparkling game that ensured roaring victory for the country in innumerable tournaments. If a single sport personality gave the country credibility as a sporting nation, it was none other than this common man. But for him all of
India's victories would have lost much of the sheen with the dawn of independence and there would have been many claiming the credit for those sporting achievements. Its Dhyan Chand and his matchless feats that not only earned the golds but also enabled the country to sustain them.
Such was his charisma that his very name inspired players. The influence started right at home - Roop Singh, his brother and Ashok Kumar, his illustrious son played the game.
Dhyan Chand's illustrious son Ashok Kumar (left) in action
Kumar played in the World Cup four times and the Olympics twice. By scoring the
winning goal in the 1975 World Cup final, he entered the hearts of millions. Dhyan
Chand's grand daughter Neha Singh too played the World Cup in 1998.
Dhyan Chand is now more than a name. He is a synonym for excellence. Balbir Singh, who had a big hand in India winning the next three Olympics (1948-1956), was fondly designated as the 'modern-day Dhyan Chand'. Goal-machine Habib-ur-Rehman (1952 and 1956 Olympics) was dubbed as the 'Dhyan Chand of Pakistan'. Not for nothing did the Indian Olympic Association name him the 'Player of the Century'.
Dhyan Chand ibn conversation with Mrs. Indira Gandhi, the Prime Minister (partly hidden)
Dhyan Chand breathed his last on 3rd December 1979 at Delhi. The mortal remains of the immortal hero were buried at the Jhansi Heroes' ground in Jhansi, a historic town in Uttar Pradesh, with full military honours.
Dhyan Chand's family members in front of his statue.
THE STAR EXTRAORDINAIRE
It was time for India's tryst with destiny. In 1947, the nation was in turmoil. Freedom from 200 years of British rule did not come without its share of trauma and tragedy. The country was partitioned on religious lines and the Islamic Republic of Pakistan was created in the northern and eastern parts of the coun-try. A large-scale migration of population took place from across the new border. The partition was a painful affair, solemnised amidst unprecedented violence, mayhem and distrust. Every hockey player of that era had his own tale of woe to narrate.
in his mid 20s.
Lahore, the nerve centre
of the sub-continent's hockey, the city that gave seven of the 18-member Indian
team for the Berlin Olympics, had become a part of Pakistan. Many hockey giants
living in Lahore had to migrate to India and vice-versa. Many players of the game
from Central India choose to settle in Pakistan. That included Y.M. Yousuf, who
later became an Afghan citizen. The question that naturally arose was whether
India would be able to maintain its suzerainty without these great players.
Another related development pertains to the Anglo-Indians. Though they comprised a minus-cule of the population in a country of about 350 million, they constituted the very core of Indian hockey in the pre-World War era. Nine out of sixteen stars of India's first Olympic team to Amsterdam in 1928, belonged to this community. With the new political developments, a substantial chunk of them had an opportunity to seek greener pastures. They left India in droves and settled in England, Australia, Canada, New Zealand and elsewhere. Great lovers and practitioners of the game that they were, the magnitude of loss to Indian hockey was enormous.
Balbir Singh with Keshav Dutt
It was under the backdrop of such depletion of talent and a scenario in which the wounds of partition were far from erased from the collective consciousness of the country, that India started its campaign in the 1948 London Olympics. There was enormous pressure to keep the country's image intact, an image so painstakingly acquired amidst a cesspool of adversities in the 20s and maintained right until then. Further the powerful British team, who till then refrained from playing Olympics hockey, was back in the fray. The challenge India faced was formidable.
It is under this historical backdrop that Balbir Singh played an outstanding role in lifting India to lofty heights. Not many would have expected the 24-year old centre-forward to inherit the legacy of Dhyan Chand at the London Olympics so easily and elegantly.
Balbir Singh with G.S. Bodhi, coach, 1975 World Cup that India won.
early trapping of the man who was to decide the outcome of two more Olympics was
evident in the first match he played at London. Although he was not in the first
eleven of the opening game against Argen-tina, when a player named Regie fell
ill this Punjab player was fielded in a match against Argentina. The newcomer
turned the match single-handed! Ripping apart the defence, he scored six goals
and steamrolled the Latin Americans to a 9-1 defeat. Thus, he achieved a rare
feat of scoring a goal on debut, and making a hat- trick. For a man who later
at-tained a hat-trick of Olympic golds, the goal spree proved to be the harbinger
of things to come. However, he had to wade through many uncertain phases before
carving a niche for himself in the world-class hockey.
The first chance to establish his power over the game and prove himself came in the next match itself. He was asked to get ready for an encounter against Spain. But just when he was entering the ground, he was asked to stay back and the manager Pankaj Gupta replaced him with Nandy Singh. Like his role model Dhyan Chand who used to look over every humili-ation inflicted on him in the interest of sports, he did not utter a single word against the decision that robbed him of a chance to prove his calibre. The same fate befell him during the semi-final against Holland. He was among the first eleven and had also entered the ground. But just as he was about to bully-off, captain Kishan Lal asked him to make way for Glacken. What made the managers P.C. Chatterjee and Pankaj Gupta to force the captain to replace Balbir Singh, that too much against his will, is still a mystery.
Yet, perfect gentleman as he was, Balbir Singh walked back to the dressing room quietly. When he was again put among the first eleven for the final, he nurtured doubts about him being allowed to play. But thankfully nothing of the sort occurred in the next match. Grabbing the opportunity with both hands, he proved his superior talent by responding in the only way a champion sportsman would. He let his stick do the talking. Latching on to passes from captain Kishan Lal and inside-forward Kanwar Digvijay Singh 'Babu', he pumped both the goals India scored before half-time. This paved the way for what can be described as a historic Indian victory over the masters, with four goals scored in its favour while conceding none.
Hockey is a team game yet so skilful were players like him that they made it seem like a one-man show. Such were his skills and predominance that India managed only single-goal-margin victories in the matches in which he had not played. Independent India's first Olympic gold settled all pre-tournament speculations at rest. Partition or no, talent drain or no, India was as invincible as ever. The victory gave India an identity, a pride and a springboard for many more victories to follow.
Balbir Singh received immense praise but none of it would affect him or make him vain. Instead, it motivated him to scale lofty heights. The chance to do so came during the next Olympics. At Helsinki in 1952, glory beckoned Balbir Singh. His continued his goal-spree in the National Championships, leading India to an all-win visit to Afghanistan truly put him on the spotlight. Unlike the London edition, not much socio-political significance could be attached to India's campaign for Helsinki as it had already proved its potential in 1948. Yet, prestige was at stake and India had to defend the title. For a country that had no prospects in any other discipline, hockey alone had to meet the aspirations of the millions of its sports lovers. A heavy responsibility to shoulder indeed.
A strange format posed a problem of a different kind for the leading teams at Helsinki. India, like the other three semi-finalists, was directly seeded in the quarterfinal. That meant that they were given a chance to play only three matches, all knockout punches, all precarious with no time left for recovery or remedy. Hence, enormous pressure was on the forwards to score goals to avoid stumbling at any stage.
As the flag-bearer of the Indian contingent at the opening ceremony, Balbir Singh knew this.
He was cut for such a role, but he was also worked up as some cynics doubted his form,
since his team had lost both the All India Police Games and the National Championship that year. The first match against Austria, which India won laboriously at 4-0, did not give any indication of things to come. He could send the ball home only once. A heavy dose of
dressing down by the team management seemed to have pumped ounces of adrenaline in him as was evident from his subsequent performances.
In the semi-final against the masters Great Britain, Balbir Singh came on his own. All three goals India scored came from his ex-traordinary ball sense, artis-tic but limited dribble and first-touch scoring shots. A second hat-trick in only his fourth Olympic cap and five goals against two-time goldmedallist Britain in only two matches proved the stuff of which the champion was made.
This alerted the finalist Holland. Always a defence exponent, they put two defenders to contain the marauding Balbir Singh. Incensed Balbir Singh replied in style. He made mincemeat of the de-fence, with excellent support from wingers Rajagopal and Raghubir Lal. He alone scored five goals. Riding on his form, India romped home to a memorable 6-1 victory, India's fifth straight Olympic gold. This included a hat trick, and a victory in three of the five matches played - a record which remains unbroken till date.
It is his expertise inside the circle that had many comparing him with the legendary Dhyan Chand. "Ball with Balbir Singh in the circle, and the defence is paralysed," exclaimed his peer Keshav Dutt. Never would Punjab Hockey Association field a team without him. Hardly would he get any respite from matches. Come what may - occasional fitness hassles, bouts of fever or domestic compulsions, Balbir Singh had to be a part of the team. Officials would visit his house and force him to play. He obliged them every time and that too with nearly fantastic results.
The victorious Indian world cup team (1975) in fun hockey with film stars.
the Xllth Olympiad at Melbourne, Balbir Singh fractured his hand. After scoring
five goals against Afghanistan in the opening match, a rasping drive from the
right back hit his fingers when he boldly tried to intercept it. He was ruled
out of other matches. This rattled the Indian management. Balbir Singh himself
rued his fate. If it was some mischief in 1948 that left him out for two matches,
eight years later it was bad luck that kept him from playing in all the matches.
He remained a mere spectator in the matches against United States of America and
Singapore. Meanwhile, his injury was kept a closely-guarded secret. He was asked
to keep his injured hand always covered. This also had a reason. He was the main
scorer in those days. In fact, only two years earlier, during a tour to Malaysia,
he had gathered as many as 83 of the 121 goals scored in 16 matches; a year later
in the New Zealand-Australia tour, his bag was full with 141 of the team's 203
goals in 38 matches. Hence, the opposition had made it a part of their strategy
to depute two defenders to contain him. If the news of his injury would have spread,
the opponents would have gained much more confidence than they did with Udham
Singh occupying the top scorer's spot. Such was his stature that even when injured,
he had a significant role to play - of imparting a psychological boost to his
What was expected did happen in the semi-final against Germany. Balbir Singh, bolstered by doses of painkillers, attracted two defenders. As a result Udham got a lot of free space to push his goals through. Subsequently, it was his lone goal that made India the winner. In the final too, the Pakistanis - it was the first ever meet between the two gifted neighbours - had two defenders hounding on him which eased the pressure on other forwards. One shudders to imagine the fate of rival teams had Balbir Singh been fit to score. But it was not to be. In this match a penalty corner conversion by Randhir Singh Gentle led India to its sixth straight gold. Balbir Singh recollected later, "For me, on one hand was the agony of pain, on the other the ecstasy of winning glory, of triumph. The latter outweighed my pain. It now mattered little even if I lost both my limbs."
His post-Olympic career too was colourful. He changed his employment from Punjab Police to accept the leadership of the Sports Department of the Punjab government. He innovated and implemented many realistic schemes that laid the foundation for the state to emerge as the strongest sporting province of India. Many brief stints as national coach, selector and manager marked this spell. Worthy of mention is that under his managerial capacity, India won its only world Cup title in 1975. After this success, the elated Balbir Singh penned his autobiography The Golden Hat trick: My Hockey Days. When the Government of India instituted the first civilian award, 'Padamshree' in 1957, he deservedly was the first one to receive it. Balbir Singh now lives with his son in Canada.
Victorious 1956 Olympic Hockey Team
SINGH - COACH TO THE CORE
unique aspects distinguish the life and career of Balkrishan Singh from that of
the five hockey legends portrayed so far. Unlike these luminaries, who continued
to be on the payrolls of their employers after they had hung their boots, Balkrishan
chose to serve the game in a different but professional and purposeful way even
as many years of hockey were left in him. The times they lived in and played the
game were different and the demands of their lives were not common. Yet, comparisons
between them yield interesting insights into the lives of these personalities.
Dhyanchand became the first chief coach of the National Institute of Sports (NIS), Patiala, India, only after his retirement from the Indian Army; After three Olympics, Balbir Singh discharged his service in Punjab Police before shifting to another department in the same State; Leslie Claudius too continued in Customs long after he had retired from professional hockey; the career graph of Shankar Laxman too was no different; Md. Shahid continues working in the Indian Railways. No doubt all these players dabbled in spells of national duty as selector, manager and even coach, but for them the mainstay remained their service, which was not always related to hockey. The career graph of Balkrishan was, however, different in so far as he resigned from the Indian Railways even as he was in peak form and preferred to join NIS as 2 coach where he served for three decades. That gave the distinguishing aura to his highly successful career as a hockey player.
From a historical perspective, this continuity placed him in the unique position of being a player who had been in touch with all the five legends outlined in this book - Dhyan Chand was his mentor in NIS for six years; he played alongside Claudius, Laxman and Balbir Singh; and he coached Shahid for two of the three Olympics played by him. Therefore, in studying his career one can traverse through the vicissitude of Independent India's hockey history.
It is true that unlike the other five hockey personalities, each of whom had figured in three Olympics, he played Olympics only twice - in 1956 and 1960. But he compensated this in more than one way by becoming the only one from the elite group to coach Indian teams for four Olympics. Even Dhyan Chand did not coach any Olympic team.
Indian Girls won their maiden Asian games Gold in 1982 when Balkrishan was the coach AND he gets the toast for that feat (below)
was born in March 1933. His career could not but have been such an illustrious
one as he was born in a sport-loving family and grew up in a sports-conscious
city, Patiala. His father, Brigadier Dalip Singh, in the true traditions of the
Indian Army, excelled in sports and was one of the greatest track and field athletes
of his times. He participated in the 1924 Paris Olympics even before Indian hockey
entered this global arena. He was seen in action in the next Olympics too - a
remarkable achievement for someone who did not face the rigours of coaching as
it existed in many other countries during the period. He secured eighth position
with a jump of 21 feet 2 inches.
Balkrishan's schooling was accomplished at his hometown Patiala after which he joined the famous F.C College, Lahore, for graduation. His father being an alumnus of the great institution put him in the right track when he advised his young son, "I command respect in the college through sports. You must keep my name by way of excelling in sports". He took the words to his heart and like his father became a grand double Olympian, albeit in a different sport, but not before proving his expertise in athletics.
When he was still under 16, he broke the Punjab University record in hop, stop and jump in 1949, and became the inter-university champion in 1950. He also broke the University high-jump record. At the same time, he represented the university in hockey from 1950 to 1954. In 1954, he got the first call to join the national team. He obtained the country's colours in the International Hockey Festival at Warsaw, Poland. Around the same time, he joined the top-notch Indian Railways. That gave him enormous scope to take part and prove his worth through various tournaments.
Even amidst tough competition against such established
defenders of fame as Shanta Ram, Murthy and Swaroop Singh, young Balkrishan could
secure a berth for himself in the 1956 Olympics team. His sparkling play in the
Aga Khan Cup a year earlier paved the way for Olympic entry. At Melbourne, he
played all matches except the final, giving way to Bakshish Singh. The sight of
the tall, robust player who was a picture of confidence evoked awe in the rival
forwards in all the matches he played. So enamoured were the Australians by his
majes-tic and flawless tactics that he almost emerged a cult figure in later years.
Two years later, in the third Asian Games, his game was in full flow. By then he had led the Railways to the victor's podium twice, in 1957 and 1958, beating formidable Bombay in its own backyards on both occasions. His ambition of playing against Pakistan, which eluded India at Melbourne, was fulfilled here. He played the best match of his life against Pakistan. He and Bakshish Singh foiled every free-flowing attack of Pakistan forwards in the final. The match ended in a goal-less draw though Pakistan was declared winner on the basis of goal average.
With one more victory for his captaincy in the National Championship, this time over Services at Hyderabad, he became an automatic choice for the 1960 Rome Olympics. Here again, Pakistan became the champion. The two defeats shook the soul of young Balkrishan, rever-berations of which he could feel even after 40 years had rolled by. For India this was a time of introspection. A manifestation of this was the emerging awareness for scientific training and the setting up of NIS. Along with hockey stars of the day, Dharem Singh, Charanjit Singh and Charles Stephen, Balkrishan underwent one-year training in coaching in the NIS. Inspired by the personality of the chief coach Dhyan Chand, the first-batch incumbent topped the course with 93 percent marks.
He returned to Railways and led his institution to another title at Hyderabad, beating the defending champion, Services. Then came the call of his life, an offer to join the NIS faculty. It was a full-time job. He had to decide between competitive hockey and the new offer. He preferred the latter. The momentous decision was taken in a split second as he had by then developed a liking for strategy, tactics and all the mind-games that goes along with coaching. With that his seven-year affliction with international hockey came to end. Another glorious chapter that would endure for 31 years had commenced.
With Dhyan Chand at the helm, sky was the only limit for this inquisitive youngster to enlarge the horizons of his hockey knowledge. So impressed was Dhyan Chand by his abilities that, a year before he retired he wrote in his confidential report, "I have full faith in Balkrishan's ability. He is the finest young coach in the country today." That was more than adequate foi the authorities to elevate him to the post that Dhyan Chand adored till then. In the same year 1967, the Australian government extended an invitation to him to offer expert counselling ir the country. He gladly accepted the challenge and spent four and half months in Australia During his stay, he visited every provincial capital for about a fortnight, and imparted all the knowledge he had to schoolboys and girls as also to aspiring trainers. He truly acted as the ambassador of India during that tour held under the aegis of a cultural exchange programme
The trip was sponsored by Rothmans Sports Foundation and he was paid a honorarium of US$ 400 per week, besides all other expenses paid - a huge sum for a coach in amateur sports. More than the financial aspect, what gladdened the heart of the 34-year old Balkrishai was when the then Prime Minister of Australia, Mr. Malcolm Fraser, himself an hockey enthusiast and umpire, chose to praise him. In his subsequent visit to India, he thanked his counterpart Morarji Desai, in an official banquet, for sparing the services of experts like Balkrishan to improve hockey in the country. Balkrishan also took an All India Universities team to Australia in 1971. The team included such stars as Surjit Singh, Baldev Singh, Ajit Singh,HJS Chimni, P.E.Kalaiah and V.Baskaran. During this visit the team played eight matches with different Australian teams. They won all the matches, scoring 65 goals and conceding just six. The year 1977 saw him visiting the same country once more.
Balkrishan Singh (second left) as a part of Northern Railways team that won the inter-railways championship.
This Adelaide tour was sponsored
by a Federation Government grant and his coaching spells in schoolswas supported
by Savings Bank of S.A. and Coca-Cola. In all these tours, there was nodenying
the impact of his charisma - a blend of style, intellect and a forcible personality.
It was due to the services rendered by experts like Balkrishan that the bond between the two countries grew from strength to strength. India was regularly invited for the Esanda tourna-ments held in Australia in the 80s and for the double-leg 4-Nations in the 90s. Women teams under Richard Charlesworth also visited India many times.
His frequent visits to this continent and other parts of the world enriched his domain of knowl-edge on a global scale. He wrote about Australia's Charlesworth, a legendary hero in 80s, "Not many would be aware of the fact that in all the leading competitions in which Charlesworth played as an inside right, the Aussies lost. My conviction is that had he played as an inside left in the Fifth World Cup (Bombay), Australia may well have won the trophy. Similarly, in the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics and in the third PIA Champions Trophy at Karachi, Australia could have performed better if he was in the inside left saddle. I do not know if Aggis (the Aussie coach) will acquiesce with me or not, but the 'hockey doctor' hopefully will agree to my assessment." In the sixth World Cup staged at London, Charlesworth switched over to inside left position and Australia won the World Cup trophy!
India too availed of his services. Even as he was under 35, he coached the 1968 Mexico Olympic team where India won a bronze medal but it did not enthuse anybody, as the country was the defending champion then. Balkrishan could not stop wondering why in this tourna-ment all the five goals that the great Prithipal Singh scored against New Zealand through penalty corners were disallowed.
Incidents of such nature, cataclysmic changes in the rules of the game, their haphazard interpretation by umpires and the frequency with which they were changed by the interna-tional governing body, Federation de Internationale Hockey was scrupulously studied by Balkrishan. Once he wrote, "One of my students doing his master's course in hockey wrote a thesis on penalty corner and by the time he completed the job, the rule was changed, rendering his valuable work invalid." He wondered when games like football, which has captured the imagination of people all over the world has made only one change in rule in forty years, why were so many changes brought about in this game. Based on analytical studies and research, he proposed abolition of penalty corners and striking circle in order to make the game simple. Not many agreed with him, but it exemplified his authority on the subject.
It does not mean that he was dogmatic and against any change in rules. He welcomed the abolition of penalty bully and introduction of artificial playing surfaces. He was the first Indian coach to adopt the 4-4-2-1 style of field formation, which, according to him, was more suitable for synthetic grounds. His brainchild 'total hockey', which was often criticised by the purists for its defensive aspects, has become the guiding paradigm of present-day coaches. The way he metamorphosed the unique Indian traits in the concept of total hockey earned him many laurels in the 80s and proved his caliber, dynamism and readiness to adapt to the changing scenario. Being a strong protagonist of individual style and brilliance, without which Indian hockey would not have attained the type of fame it did, he could bring out the best in the likes of Md. Shahid, Merwyn Fernandes and others. He once said, "Holland without Floris Bovelander and Pakistan without Shahbaz Ahmed would mean an army without a general." He believed that Individual efforts are conscious practices and are far ahead of mechanical practices which coaches dole out during coaching sessions.
The synergy between tactical acumen and individual talent that he so effectively in-grained in the concept of 'total hockey' proved fruitful for India in many of its pres-tigious campaigns. The significant role he played in developing Indian hockey can best be understood on studying the cir-cumstances under which he was invited to train various Indian teams. Every time he was invited for national coaching, those were invariably distrust calls.
India's challenge in the 1980 Moscow Olympics was entrusted to him after the country faced two lows - the first in the preceding 1976 Olympics in which, for the first time, India had failed to win any medal, slipping to a record low in ranking at seventh. The second was in the 1978 World Cup in which, despite being the defending champion, India could not move beyond the fifth rank. Balkrishan developed a young team that won the gold at Moscow. But he was not sought in theWorld Cup that followed in a year and was recalled for the next Olympics only after India fared poorly in the Bombay World Cup and in the Delhi Asian Games. He used the spell to put together a girls' team in the Asian Games and they won the title on their maiden entry. Till today, even after five editions, that remains the only Asian gold for the Indian girls' team.
As coach of the Asian XI Balkrishan receives the Pakistanis' warmth
the short span of a year, the men's team that he had so painstakingly developed
made it to the semi-finals at the Los Angeles Ol-ympics till a new system of considering
goal aggregate to decide pool rankings led India down. India ended the campaign at fifth rank (beating Holland 5-2 in the last match). Yet he was axed. His turn came in 1991 as India dished out another dismal fare, this time at the Lahore World Cup.
In the run up to the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, his team set up a tremendous record. It won all matches in annexing the title of the Sultan Azlan Cup (1991) at Kuala Lumpur. That set the stage for sponsors to pour in. In the Europe tour that followed, the team had a sponsor in Chhatisgarh Distillers who awarded hefty sums for the 'Man of the Match' of all 15 tests India played. 12 wins and two draws out of the 15 matches in that tour created a great expectation, but the players' greed and indiscipline spoilt the whole show at Barcelona - a sad end to an illustrious career. But his efforts in giving India a meaningful coaching perspective cannot be denied.
Had he ever been given a four-year tenure, the history of Indian hockey would not have been as discouraging as it was in the 70s and 80s. In the 1972 World Cup his team did not lose a single match, and lost the title only due to the penalty shoot-out. Yet a new coach was found for the 1975 World Cup. Why was he not in the scene even after the Moscow Olympics gold is another question that would never be answered to satisfaction. If a master theoretician in the mould of Balkrishan was not hailed at par with contemporary greats such as Horst Wein, Paul Lissek, David Whitekar, Roelent Oltmans, Richard Aggis, the fault lies with the system in which he had to work and not on the want of anything in his persona.
Balkrishan coached various Indian teams within a period of about a decade in six different spells. Never was a single assignment allowed to last for more than two years. Yet, he did not lack behind in putting all possible effort in imparting the best training. During the period India won 29 matches, drew nine and lost seven in the Olympics, World Cup, Champions Trophy and the Asian Games. That four of the seven losses came in the Barcelona Olympics alone is the only dark patch in an otherwise consistent career. That his teams faced defeat against Pakistan only twice in 14 meetings further glorifies his coaching prowess. His commentaries in the book 'World Hockey'are reflections of his scholarly erudition of the game. He also had gift of the gab. His off-the-cuff remark, "umpires are like watches, they never match" is an oft-quoted phrase.
The above articles have been taken with thanks from 'The Great Indian Olympians' by Gulu Ezekial & K.Arumugam.