Two stalwarts will follow the Indian hockey team's progress at the World Cup with a lot of passion. Balbir Singh Sr., triple gold medallist at the Olympics and chief coach of the 1975 World Cup-winning team, will watch from the stands at the Dhyan Chand National Stadium. And Sachin Tendulkar from his home in Mumbai.
“All our good wishes are with them and the whole nation is behind them to help them achieve laurels for our country. I know they have worked very hard and we have confidence in their abilities,” said Tendulkar in a warm message conveyed through The Hindu.
Balbir Sr. is in Delhi at the invitation of the Organising Committee. “I would have come even otherwise,” said the veteran. His voice quivers but not his faith in Indian hockey. “I expect this team to pull off a miracle.”
History conveys a grim reminder to the team that success results from hardship. “You have to suffer and learn to take things in your stride if you want to achieve your dreams. We did it in 1975 when the players encountered difficult times,” recalled Balbir Sr.
His memory is vivid as he digs into the past, re-living the coaching camp and the journey to the title, pausing a few times to recoup. He is 86, but possesses the enthusiasm of a teenager when he talks of hockey.
His eyes sparkle when he describes Aslam Sher Khan's equaliser against Malaysia in the semifinals and Ashok Kumar's goal that sank Pakistan in the final.
“We reminded ourselves at every step that we had to become the champion team. We backed ourselves even though the task was gigantic. The team's average age was 24 and the strategy was simple. We had to attack.”
Balbir Sr. wants this team to remember that only when they attack will the opposition wilt. “You have to play to your strength and I think India's strength is aggression upfront.
“Those were tough times for Indian hockey. The International Hockey Federation (FIH) had disaffiliated the Indian Hockey Federation and there was uncertainty regarding the team's participation in the World Cup. Shades of uncertainty and discontent were experienced this time too as the team's preparation was rattled by some off-field activities.
“I want the players to forget what happened. The country looks up to them and prays for their success. I have trust in their skills and overall prowess. I am sure they know their job. It is a matter of backing yourself,” said the all-time great.
Balbir Sr. would like the team members to remember the most important aspect of modern hockey — preserving your energy for the counterattacks and off-the-ball running. “It is all about creating space and finding the man least hustled. Speed has always been an important factor in the game. The degree has increased now. It is a lovely game and I am sure it will be one grand competition.”
Hockey returns to the venue that staged some events in the inaugural Asian Games in 1951. It also saw Pakistan savage India 7-1 in the 1982 Asian Games final.
Balbir Sr. was the coach of that team too. Can this determined bunch of players under Rajpal Singh's guidance help Balbir Sr. forget that dark day of Indian hockey? The team would do well to draw inspiration from his presence in the stands, not to forget the prayers of the icon in a Mumbai home.