Ultimate grand old man of Indian hockey

Balbir Singh Dosanjh’s passing away should trigger introspection on the wonder that was India.

Aslam Sher Khan, who, along with Ashok Kumar (son of the legendary hockey magician Dhyan Chand), was the hero of the 1975 World Cup finals in Kuala Lumpur, enabling the only Indian victory in this niche tournament, paid tribute to his mentor and coach, Balbir Singh Dosanjh (better known as Balbir Singh Senior) by recalling the semi-finals and finals of the tournament: “During the semis we were trailing hosts Malaysia by a solitary goal.

Seven minutes before final whistle, manager Balbir Sir called me to take a penalty shot. I scored the equalizer. India stormed into the final to play against Pakistan. On the day of the match, it being a Friday, I was getting ready to go to mosque to offer prayers. Balbir Sir walked into my room and said, ‘Aslam, I am also going with you for Friday prayers.

I like to see if Allah listens to the prayers of a Sikh.’ When we arrived at the mosque the entire Pakistani team were there to offer namaz. On seeing Balbir Sir, the famous Pakistan player Rashid Junior said to me, ‘Aslam, today a devout Sikh has come to pray—Allah will answer the prayers of such a humble man who believes in God in whatever shape, form or regard can be.’ We prayed at the mosque and later I accompanied Balbir Sir to pray at Gurdwara Sahib. Our prayers were answered. India won the coveted World Cup.

The belief of Balbir Sir in Oneness of God had paid off.” As captain of the Indian team two decades earlier, Balbir Senior had improvised the Sikh clarion call, “Jo bole so Nihal, Sat Sri Akal” to “Jo bole, so hai, Bharat Mata ki jai”— the teams in Helsinki (1952) and Melbourne (1956) lifted the gold with this battle cry. Son of a freedom fighter from Moga, Balbir Senior was instrumental in India’s win in the hockey final of 1948 Olympic Games in London.

India defeated Britain 4-0 and for the first time, the Indian Tricolour was hoisted at the winning podium—since the 1928 Amsterdam games India had been winning gold, but being a colony of Britain the Union Jack was hoisted in the previous games. Recalling the pride, he felt when Jana Gana Mana rang out and the Tricolour went up in London on 12 August 1948, three days before India’s first anniversary of Independence, Balbir Senior told the media later, “As the Tricolour flew up, I felt I was also flying up”. India had defeated Germany in the presence of Adolf Hitler in the finals of the 1936 Berlin games.

The win in London against the former colonial masters was an iconic moment, perhaps matched by the pride Indians had clasped in 1911 when in the finals of the football IFA shield native Mohun Bagan had trounced English East Yorkshire Regiment. The 1983 Cricket World Cup triumph at London was to follow decades later. India today is ranked fourth in world standings by Federatio Internationale de Hockey (IHF), behind Belgium, Australia and Netherlands, as the team awaits the Olympics at Tokyo which has been put off due to Covid-19.

India’s record of eight gold, one silver and two bronze medals in Olympics hockey remains unsurpassed. After floundering since 1968 thanks to proactive sponsorship and handholding by the Odisha government of Navin Patnaik, Indian hockey has started looking up. When Olympics were last held in Tokyo, in 1964, India had defeated Pakistan to avenge the loss at Rome in 1960 when India’s unbeaten run was halted. In 1968 and 1972, India finished with bronze.

The 1975 World Cup win restored pride. In 1980 Moscow Olympics, boycotted by Western nations due to the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, India regained gold but the absence of major teams made it a truncated triumph. Things went downhill thereafter. In 2007, FIH ranked India twelfth. India failed to qualify for the 2008 Beijing Olympics—the only time the tournament was held sans India since 1928. Politics has been the bane of Indian hockey.

Even in 1948 internal rivalry put Balbir Sr on the side benches in the semifinals in spite of him having earned the epithet of “goal machine”. Prominent Indians resident in London created brouhaha: The then High Commissioner, V.K. Krishna Menon stepped in and Balbir Sr got his moment of glory in the finals where he pumped in two of the four goals against Britain.

On the eve of 1960 Rome Olympics final, an observer of the Indian Olympic Committee, M.N. Kapur (legendary Principal of Delhi’s Modern School) had a cup of tea with his former Government College Lahore buddy, Ali Sher Dara, who was manager of the Pakistan hockey team. Kapur used to lament in later years that Dara had told him, “Mahinder, we will beat you and take the gold tomorrow”. Later, when Kapur asked Dara how he was so sanguine, his former college hockey teammate told him, “Politics has eaten into your selections, we knew where to find the chink in your armour as we had closely followed your selections”.

Pakistan hockey team’s unruly behaviour after they lost to West Germany in 1972 Munich finals led to the entire team of eleven being suspended for life. Pakistan has not been able to emerge as a hockey power since. With the current India team having bounced back to be among top four of world rankings, the best tribute to the ultimate grand old man of Indian hockey, Balbir Sr, would be to empower the present to team to go for the gold in Tokyo, whenever the games are held.