LEGENDS The centre-forward is rated next best to Dhyan Chand

If Dhyan Chand is identified as the genius of Indian hockey in the pre-war era, not many will hesitate to agree that such a description fits to a nicety to Balbir Singh (Sr.) in the post-independent phase.

As the centre forward in three successive gold medal-winning Olympic Games (1948, 52, 56), Balbir, born on October 10, 1924, is rated as the next best to the wizard, the inimitable Dhyan Chand. Balbir Singh takes the credit for carving a vibrant Punjabi ethos to hockey. His career is replete with achievements at every step.

As a student of DS School in Moga (Jalandhar District), Khalsa College, in the inter-university and the series of National championships, Balbir Singh’s skills flowed in abundance. His adeptness once inside the circle, accuracy in finish and the power behind the whiplash drives gave goal-keepers anxious moments.

The Olympics baptism for Balbir came in 1948 in London. Although not the first choice, he demonstrated the class, netting eight of the 13 goals India scored. He played only in two matches.

From then on, his ascendency found no stopping through two more Olympiads, in 1952 at Helsinki — he scored nine of the 13 goals — and in 1956 at Melbourne, where he was the captain.

In the eight matches played at the three Olympic Games, he has netted 22 goals.

Balbir holds the unique honour of being the flag-bearer to the Indian contingent in two successive Olympics in 1952 and 1956.

He also led the Indian team in the inaugural hockey competition of the Asian Games in Tokyo where India gained only the silver surrendering the gold to Pakistan. After active playing days in the late fifties, Balbir Singh has served the game in various ways — as coach, manager, selector and administrator. He was manager when India won the World Cup for the first time and the only time so far in Kuala Lumpur in 1975.

The most depressing moment of his life came when the Indian team he managed lost the gold medal match to Pakistan in the 1982 Asian Games in Delhi.

As the Chief of the Directorate of Sports in Punjab, he was the author of many welfare schemes for sportsmen in general and hockey internationals from Punjab in particular.

Balbir was honoured with Padma Shri in 1957. His autobiography, My Hockey Days, throws light on the many facets of the life and times of this remarkable Olympian.  

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