Indian hockey legend Balbir Singh Sr died on Monday aged 96. Widely regarded as one of the greatest players of all-time, the centre forward was a key part of the Indian team that won a hat-trick of Olympic gold medals in 1948, 1952 and 1956.
Well respected in the hockey community off the field as well, Balbir Singh, later in his career became a manager and an administrator as well. Even from the sidelines, his influence was immense as India lifted their first and only World Cup till date in 1975 with Balbir as manager.
Former India captain and coach Zafar Iqbal worked closely with Balbir Singh as a player and they remained friends for four decades. Iqbal remembers Balbir Singh the hockey icon, person, manager and a long-time friend.
My first meeting with Balbir saheb was in 1980.
After the 1976 Olympics [where India failed to win a medal], new faces were introduced. I was one of them. We were entering into a new era in Indian hockey.
For the next eight years, many coaches came and went. Balbir Singh was very close to me and vice versa. I think he must have thought: ‘Zafar is not that different than me’.
All our interactions were good. Our conversations were quite open; during coaching, he’d always give you tips on how one’s gameplay can be better but was always soft-spoken and a thorough gentleman. Not once did he interfere in team affairs despite being a superstar.
There is absolutely no doubt that he was a player par excellence. I have always maintained that he is the Dhyan Chand of independent India. Yes, there are players who have played more than Balbir saheb such as Leslie Claudius and Udham Singh. What set Balbir apart from the rest was that he was such a prolific scorer.
I don’t like comparisons across eras but the 1948 team was up against some stiff opposition. The 1952 Helsinki Games batch was the most flamboyant of all Indian teams. It was competitive again but we won by such massive margins. That alone is enough for people to assess how good India was.
In the 1956 Olympics [in Melbourne], he scored against Pakistan while captaining the team.
Balbir saheb’s popularity lay in being a good ambassador for the country.
I’d never forget how he motivated me. He’d once told me ‘Zafar, you remind me of how I used to hit the ball.’ I was inspired by that because I was a sharp shooter who would hit the ball from the D. Not just me, he was an influential figure to a lot of the young Indian players at the time. Of course, none of us stood a chance of replicating what he did during his playing days.
He had a sense of humour too. I vividly remember him teasing me after I’d spoken to some girls while defending the World Championships in Melbourne. Somebody else might have told me off. That showed what a balanced man he was.
I have not once seen him aggressive or boasting about all his achievements.
He has come home so many times for dinner. Just before the lockdown, we’d met during a function organised by the Times of India. He was given a Lifetime Achievement award there. We had clicked a photo together too. The reason why he lived this long, I’d say, was because he always exuded positive energy and maintained a good lifestyle. In all these years, I have noticed that he watches what he eats.
Always sharply dressed ... red pagdi, red tie. After our final against Spain in the 1980 Olympics, Balbir saheb said it was one of the most exciting games of hockey he’d seen in a long time. I still have the paper clipping of that quote from all those years ago about his statement.
We didn’t even know that the Spaniards were the European Champions and had a team packed with stalwarts. We went into the final thinking: ‘Chalo, dekh lenge saalon ko’ [Lets see what they’ve got].
Barring [Former captain] Bhaskaran, we lacked experience. I was new to the Indian setup myself.[MM] Somaya, Gurmail [Singh], Allan [Schofield], Ravinder Pal [Singh] and Mohammad Shahid were quite raw. I will always remember the words of appreciation our young side got from Balbir saheb after the game.
In 1982, he had become the manager-cum-coach. In an interesting turn of events, we had Balbir Sr and Jr in our camp. We won the bronze medal in the Champions Trophy in Holland. We lost to Pakistan in the final of the Asian Games.
Despite the defeats, we never heard a single harsh statement from him. We were as good as anyone in the world (that time) and should have won more.
As a manager, he always placed a lot of trust in his players. He never gave a demonstration on whether a player should do this or that. We, infact, took over from his teams and replicated the same 5-3-2-1, a very Asian setup.
In the years gone by, I have heard complaints from an annoyed teammate about a star player not passing the ball to them. As a coach and a captain, I always favoured unity of the team over everything else, and that too is something that was passed onto me by Balbir saheb.
As told to Scroll.in’s R Vishal