Having played four Olympics, Avtar Singh is a legendary figure in Kenyan hockey. However, his heart bleeds when he talks about the present state of the sport in India — the land of his roots.
Though he has lived all his life in Kenya, following his parents' migration to the African country in search of jobs, Avtar has some very good friends among the greats of Indian hockey. Ask him about the golden age when India used to rule the roost, he would speak on the topic with amazing enthusiasm.
“We (India) used to have strong teams then. Our players were very strong, they played the game out of passion and not for money. They used to train a lot on their own. They were super fit and skillful,” Avtar, whose passion for the sport and love for India has brought him to watch the hockey World Cup here, tells The Hindu in an interview.
“Prithipal used to wield a stick weighing 28 ounce,” he cites an example and asks, “Can you think of any player doing that? “It is not the same any more.”
Avtar, who represented Kenya in the 1960, 1964, 1968 and 1972 Olympics and coached the team in the 1984 Games, thinks the present Indian team lacks in strength. “We are physically weaker than teams like Australia, New Zealand or any European team. But technically they cannot beat us. We should give 200 per cent on fitness to match them,” the 70-year-old said.
Avtar gives a few more tips for the revival of Indian hockey. “We have a lot of potential and there is no dearth of sponsorship. But we need to manage the sport properly, there should be a proper structure. We should organise more leagues. Like olden days, there should be three or four teams of equal standard. The former players can come together and help attain these objectives,” the man with the experience of 167 international matches said.
He talks about the heyday of Kenyan hockey with equal pride. “Those days the National team was packed with Asians. First time, Kenya played the Olympics in 1956 after qualifying as the African champion. In the inaugural World Cup in 1971, we finished fourth after losing to India. Later, the second generation players migrated to England and Canada and Africans came into the team. However, with time we lost our strength. Now, there is no proper management and no sponsorship to back the sport,” said Avtar, a former full back and a penalty corner specialist.
Penalty corner conversions
Avtar was so famous for his penalty corner conversions that there used to be a popular saying in Kenya “When Avtar takes a PC, then it flies to Machakos (a place about 40 km away from Nairobi).” That was his popularity,” said Dil Bahra, the man who has done extensive research on Sikh Olympian hockey players.
With that kind of passion and attachment to the sport, it was only natural that Avtar got married on a hockey tour. “My wife is from India. In 1969, we were travelling around India for some preparatory games. The proposal came up all of a sudden and I got married,” Avtar fondly remembers.
He is still in touch with his old friends and prominent hockey stars of the Indian team such as Balbir Singh (Sr.), Balbir Singh, Harcharan Singh, Ajitpal Singh, Pargat Singh, Haripal Kaushik and Harbinder Singh. “We keep meeting often as I visit India two-three times a year,” said Avtar about his endless affair with India.