New Delhi: Balbir Singh Senior was the last remnant of Indian hockey’s golden era. The three-time Olympic gold medallist, who passed away Monday aged 95, was the only link most of us had to the time when the Indian team was virtually invincible.
I first met him on a cool autumn Sunday on the track and field ground in Chandigarh, where the local press club had organised a “family” sports event. The 28-year-old me avoided finishing last in the 400m race, but I am embarrassed to admit that the person who came in dead last was a much senior colleague from All India Radio.
I was trying to make light of my poor physical shape when this elderly Sikh gentleman beckoned me. “What do you do?” he asked. I told him I was a reporter with The Tribune.
The gentleman told me in Punjabi: “Try doing some exercises. You are too young to be so unfit.”
There was no malice in his words, nor were they spoken patronisingly. Call it my youth or inexperience, but I shot back, “as if you know a lot about running”.
The Sikh gentleman laughed, and politely challenged me to a race. And I, still smarting from my 400m “dash”, realised that instead of exhibiting false bravado, I should run a shorter race — 200m. But my humiliation would only get compounded — I was 28, and he was 70-plus, and I still lost.
That was my introduction to Balbir Singh Senior, who was attending the meet as a guest of my boss, The Tribune’s national bureau chief Prabhjot Singh, who also loved covering sports, especially hockey.
The hockey legend was graceful in victory, telling me (in Punjabi again): “If you want to grow as a journalist, look after your health. Life is all about running and nothing is achieved without that.”
I got to know later that he was among several Indian hockey greats, another being former captain Pargat Singh, who were regular visitors to Prabhjot’s room in The Tribune building.
Adviser to generations
Another place where the legendary centre-forward could be regularly sighted was Chandigarh’s Sector 42 hockey stadium, whenever a match was played there. Even in his old age, the former Olympian was a keen follower of the game that he loved.
Balbir Senior’s exploits on the hockey field in the pre-synthetic Astroturf era were almost as legendary as Major Dhyan Chand’s. And when he came to attend games, he was often sought out by players, including members of the Indian team.
One time, as we sat having hot tea and pakoras from our office canteen, I asked the legend: “Why doesn’t India win hockey medals now?”
With a wry smile, Balbir Senior, who coached — or “managed”, as it was called then — India to World Cup glory in Kuala Lumpur in 1975, said: “The game has changed but we haven’t. It is all speed and fitness now. Also, we are very eager to turn our players into stars, as a result of which they become complacent and lose focus.”
I lost touch with him after I shifted to Delhi, but ran into him once again at — where else — the Major Dhyan Chand National Stadium, where he had come to watch India play. And in a crowd of politicians and former players, only one person could be seen interacting with the team before and after the match — Balbir Singh Senior.
Rest in peace, sir. Apart from hundreds of hockey players, you taught a lazy journalist one very valuable lesson: Never dismiss anyone just because he offers free, friendly advice.