Tuesday, October 7, 2003, Chandigarh, India


North India’s centre of sports
Donald Banerjee

Wisden’s Indian Cricketer of the Century Kapil Dev with coach D.P. Azad
Wisden’s Indian Cricketer of the Century Kapil Dev with coach D.P. Azad

THE City Beautiful has come a long way to carve out a niche for itself on the sports map of the country. Today, it can boast of having produced the country's Cricketer of the Century Kapil Dev and other Test cricketers like Chetan Sharma, Yuvraj Singh and Dinesh Mongia. It is not just cricket; take any sport. Chandigarh boys and girls have stood out. To mention a few—Chiranjeev Milkha Singh, Harmeet Kahlon and Irina Brar (golf), Abhinav Bindra (shooting), Gurdishpal Singh Sodhi, Narinder Singh Sodhi, Sukhbir Singh Gill, Sarabjit Singh and Devinder Kumar (hockey).

But the journey to the top has been long and arduous.

Going down memory lane, I remember it was in the early 70s, when young boys in white flannels used to cycle down to the Sector 16 cricket stadium to learn the basics of the game. The coach, a stockily built man, was a hard taskmaster. Even half-open shoe laces meant two extra rounds of the stadium. He was none other than Desh Prem Azad, who went on to become the country's first Dronacharya awardee.

In 1973, as I was having a chhota at my bachelor's den, there was a knock on my door. Standing outside were Azad and his two promising trainees—Kapil Dev and Yograj Singh. Describing the two as budding fast bolwers, he asked us to see them in action. The next day, we were at the nets. Azad insisted that Yograj was the faster of the two. However, the then Sports Editor, The Tribune, Samuel Banerjee, was of the opinion that Kapil Dev was a natural fast bowler. Azad put in extra hours to hone the skills of his new finds. Very soon, they were in the Haryana team. And in 1978, Kapil Dev was selected in the India team for the Pakistan tour. He struck in the very first Test match at Faisalabad. I interviewed Kapil on his return from Pakistan. The big crowd outside his Sector 16 house was a clear indication that a star had been born.

Kapil improved with every outing. India became a challenge. This culminated in the country winning the Prudential Cup under his captaincy in 1983. That was a great moment. Azad celebrated the event with all the members of the Chandigarh Sports Journalists Association (CSJA).

Yograj Singh also made it to the India team. But he was more of a showman and just could not click on his maiden tour of Australia. He changed track and became an actor in Punjabi films.

Azad spotted more talent—stockily built Ashok Malhotra and Chetan Sharma, a fast bowler.

Kapil did not forget those who spotted his talent. When Samuel Banerjee was on his deathbed in November, 1990, Kapil specially flew in to salute the man who had termed him as 'Test material' in his column "Sports Sallies."

The Central Government woke up late to recognise the contribution of Azad. Ten long years after he had produced the first two Test cricketers, Azad was conferred the title of Dronacharya, the first among cricket coaches. His first find, Kapil Dev, rose still higher and was selected the Indian Cricketer of the Century by Wisden. It was a great moment when Kapil rang him up from that function to say: "Mera Dronacharya khush hai".

The city continued to produce a number of Ranji Trophy cricketers, both for Haryana and Punjab. Two of them made it to the India team. They were Yuvraj Singh (Yograj's son) and Dinesh Mongia. And today these two are keeping the Chandigarh flag flying.

In shooting, Abhinav Bindra made it to the international scene. Manavjit Sandhu too has made a mark in this field.

Who can forget the history created in the 1960 Rome Olympics, when our Flying Sikh Milkha Singh ran the race of the century. Although not a product of Chandigarh, the Flying Sikh settled down in Chandigarh as Director of Sports, Schools, Punjab. He became a regular at the Chandigarh Golf Club. His son took to golf and moved ahead, slowly but steadily.Very soon, he was in the national golf circuit. He became a professional and his performance took him into the prestigious PGA competition in the USA. While playing in one such pro event, he even stepped on the tail of the world champion, Tiger Woods, returning better cards in two successive rounds. Harmeet Kahlon, made it big among amateurs, becoming the national amateur golf champion and winner of the Arjuna Award.

With a lot of youngsters entering the field, Chandigarh became a hot spot. Irina Brar rubbed shoulders with seniors when still a schoolgirl. She went on to become the national golf queen. Another Chandigarh girl, Parneeta Garewal, also remained a constant star in the national golf circuit. Another youngster who is creating waves at the Golf Club is 14-year-old Ajeetesh Sandhu.

The mention of badminton brings to mind the Thakur Singh sisters--Kiron and Kanwal-- who ruled Punjab badminton for eight years. Kanwal even went on to become the national women's champion, defeating the then number one Ami Ghia. She also played for India in the Uber Cup and was awarded the Arjuna Award.

In hockey, Chandigarh is the abode for hockey internationals. Tarlochan Singh Bawa and the late Dharam Singh were among the first to settle down in the city. Local Gurdishpal Singh made it to the Asian and World Cup in the '70s. In the '80s, another Chandigarh boy, Narinder Singh Sodhi, made it big. The nineties also produced good players like Sarabjit Singh, Devinder Kumar and Sukhbir Singh Gill. All three went on to play in the Olympics. Inderjit Singh Chadha made it to the junior World Cup.

Chandigarh can boast of several well-equipped stadia and has also produced one of the best sports organisers. Inderjit Singh Bindra, a former President of the BCCI, was the man behind the Reliance Cup hosted by India in 1987. The Vohra brothers have been instrumental in bringing hockey to City Beautiful. Gurmit Hockey has been attracting top teams to the city for the past 32 years.

M.G. Devasahayam, who served as the Deputy Commissioner of Chandigarh in the mid-seventies, was the man behind the Sector 10 tennis stadium. Rajan Kashyap, who became the President of the Chandigarh Lawn Tennis Association, was instrumental in bringing the India-Australia Davis Cup semi-final match to the city. Another name that comes to mind is that of B.D. Gandhi, whose contribution to school games has been tremendous.