When India ruled world hockey

Balbir Singh Sr and others such as him helped build the confidence of the newly independent nation by winning 4 gold and 1 silver in five Olympics

When India ruled world hockey

Hand of God: Balbir Singh Sr, who passed away recently, led India to gold in the 1956 Olympics, playing in the final against Pakistan despite a fracture in his hand.

Indervir Grewal

The world of Indian hockey is a world of legends. Starved of success and glory for decades, the Indian hockey fan cannot help looking back into the past to get that feeling of pride and joy. In Balbir Singh Senior, India lost one of its biggest sports legends. But even in death, Balbir Senior reminded the country of Indian hockey’s proudest era.

The recent retelling of Balbir Senior’s hat-trick of Olympics gold medals took the Indian fan back to that time when the country was unbeatable in hockey.

Eight-time Olympics gold medallists, India last won the title in 1980. Seven of the gold medals came from 1928 to 1964, including six in a row.

A star rises

If it was Dhyan Chand who was the epitome of India’s dominance before Independence, Balbir Senior became the face of Independent India’s initial successes at the world stage. In the 1948 London Olympics, Balbir Senior scored two goals in the final against Great Britain to help India win its first gold as an independent nation.

At the 1952 Helsinki Olympics, Balbir Senior was probably at his peak. He scored three goals in India’s 3-1 semifinal win over Great Britain, before scoring a record five goals against the Netherlands in the 6-1 win in the final. He still holds the record for most goals by an individual in an Olympics final.

In the 1956 Olympics, Team India created history with our tournament score of 38-0 in all the matches we played, without conceding a single goal against us! — Balbir Singh Sr

Four years later in Melbourne, Balbir Senior captained India to a “golden hat-trick”. It was not India’s first hat-trick of titles. India had won three straight titles from 1928 to 1936. And for his role in India’s first Olympics success, Dhyan Chand is considered the father of Indian hockey.

But with the 1956 triumph, Balbir Senior secured his legacy as independent India’s original golden boy. His goal-scoring statistics still leave everyone in awe. If it was Dhyan Chand’s wizardry — it is said that such was his control over the ball that the opponents suspected that he had a magnet in his stick — that captured the nation’s imagination, Balbir Senior became famous for his goal-scoring ability. It is said when Balbir Senior got the ball in the striking circle, there was only one outcome.

The many greats

However, Balbir Senior was not the only star of his time. KD Singh ‘Babu’ was considered as the next Dhyan Chand. It is said KD Singh could dribble past whole defences and make the most accurate of passes, all while being in full stride. KD Singh, who won gold at the 1948 and 1952 Olympics, is as great a legend as Balbir Senior.

Balbir Singh Sr scored seven goals in three Olympics finals.

These players belonged to an era that seems so distant now that it is not possible to imagine them just as players. Whenever there is talk about India’s former greats, it is accompanied by a sense of idolisation.

Very few, if any, are alive who would have seen Dhyan Chand or Balbir Senior or KD Singh play at their peak. Fewer would remember what they saw. What is remembered is their statistics. All three of them were multiple Olympics medal winners and also prolific goal-scorers. That was one of the reasons why they stood out from the rest.

But it is not that they were the only multiple medallists. Udham Singh (gold in 1952, 1956, 1964 and silver in 1960) and Leslie Claudius (gold in 1948-56 and silver in 1960) were four-time Olympics medallists. They are the only two Indian players to win four Olympics medals.

Udham Singh (left)

In fact, Udham Singh was also considered a great goal-scorer. Claudius, captain in 1960, was one of the best mid-fielders. It is said that he considered himself to be a utility player, a jack of all trades. Incidentally, the same is said of Udham Singh. Then there was Randhir Singh Gentle who also won the triple in 1948, 1952 and 1956. Gentle even captained the team when Balbir Senior was absent due to an injury during the 1956 Games. But he will be remembered most as the scorer of the winning goal against Pakistan in the 1956 final. Among others who won two gold after Independence were Keshav Dutt (1948, 1952) Haripal Kaushik (1956, 1964) Grahanandan Singh (1948, 1952).

None of these players, though, could capture the imagination of the Indian fan as Dhyan Chand or Balbir Senior or KD Singh did. But even if many of the names have been forgotten over time, most of these great names played their part in inspiring generations of hockey players.

Gamechangers

The modern game of hockey was brought to India by the British. Initially hockey became popular in major cities such as Bombay, Calcutta, Madras and Lahore, and around Army cantonments. “It was a very popular game in the British army because of its team-building characteristics,” said Colonel (retd.) Balbir Singh, part of the team that won bronze at the 1968 Olympics.

Leslie Claudius

“Initially, the army played a big role in spreading the game to the villages. Hockey also became a way to recruit people into the army,” added Col Balbir, one of the many Balbirs who followed Balbir Senior into the Indian team.

When India won their first Olympics gold medal in 1928, the sport caught the nation’s fancy. Two more gold medals in a row gave the people a reason to feel proud and great. The hat-trick made Dhyan Chand a household name. But it was probably the next three consecutive gold medals that helped ingrain the game into the country’s DNA.

Nation’s pride

The time after Independence and Partition was filled with uncertainty. But when the Indian team won three gold medals from 1948 to 1956, it became a symbol of Independent India’s bright future. “As our National Anthem was being played and the Tricolour was going up, I felt that I too was flying with the flag,” Balbir Senior had later recalled of the 1948 victory.

Haripal Kaushik

By the time India won their seventh gold medal in 1964, hockey was “running in the blood” of the nation. And India had new idols like Charanjit Singh and Prithipal Singh, who both won gold in 1964. Prithipal, who also won silver in 1960 and bronze in 1968, became the most popular face of the new lot. Prithipal was known as the ‘king of the short corner’, and it is said that such was the power in his shot that facing him in a penalty corner situation was like facing death.

To the current generation of players and fans, though, Dhyan Chand, Balbir Senior, KD Singh, Leslie Claudius or Udham Singh are probably just names that represent great achievements and unbelievable records. Hockey has travelled so far that it would be impossible for the current generation to even relate to the game or the achievements of the golden era. However, the role those hockey greats played in the journey of game in India — building up the confidence of a nation that had just emerged from the shackles of colonialism — can never be forgotten.

Prithipal Singh

Hall of Fame

Udham Singh and Leslie Claudius share the record for most medals in hockey in the Olympics — 3 gold and 1 silver each. Balbir Singh Sr, R Francis and Randhir Singh Gentle won 3 gold each, a feat Dhyan Chand and Richard Allen had achieved before Independence. Haripal Kaushik, Keshav Dutt and KD Singh were among players who won 2 gold each. Prithipal Singh won 3 medals, one of each hue

Learning from the legends

“Hockey was so popular in some states that it felt like the sport ran in people’s blood,” said RS Bal, who played for the Indian Navy for almost 10 years in the 1960s and 1970s.

“As children we did not get to see the India players, but we heard and read about the gold medals and about the greats such as Balbir Senior, Leslie Claudius, Prithipal Singh. Even though we never saw them play, they were inspirational to so many of us,” added Bal, who grew up in a small village in Amritsar district.

Balbir Singh Sr with Dhyan Chand (left)

Then there were those who got to meet their idols. Ajit Pal Singh, captain of the 1975 World Cup-winning team, remembers watching Udham Singh train at the village grounds in Sansarpur. “To watch an Olympics gold medallist train was a big source of inspiration,” said Ajit Pal Singh.

And for people like Ajit Pal Singh and Col Balbir, observing the greats was the primary source of learning. “There was no specialised coaching, no academies,” Col Balbir said. “Everyone came to play in the village grounds. The retired players used to teach us. We used to learn by watching the senior players train, and usually there was an India player visiting on leave,” he added.

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