Imagine the pinnacle of a hockey player's career. You would probably be thinking of an Olympic final.
Now imagine featuring in three successive finals, and being a part of three campaigns where your team wins everything. Not just that, you set your team on the way in the first of the finals with two goals and captain your team in the third.
Sandwiched in the middle is a virtuoso performance, where you score five of the six goals your team scores, shattering a 44-year-old record for most goals by an individual in an Olympic hockey final. Imagine the record still stands, nearly three-quarters of a century on.
Imagine being Balbir Singh Sr, the recipient of ESPN India's third lifetime achievement award.
Balbir wasn't just an extraordinary centre-forward who performed at his peak during the best years of India's Olympic movement. He also provides an excellent link between the early years of India's hockey supremacy in the days of Dhyan Chand and the later generations that were to find the Olympics -- and newer tournaments like the World Cup and the Champions Trophy -- increasingly difficult to dominate.
Balbir's first tryst with the Olympics, and how it almost never came to be due to what was explained as a clerical error, is beautifully captured in this 2017 ESPN India story by Jonathan Selvaraj. With a new team emerging from the emotions of a gut-wrenching Partition, there were internal dynamics within the squad at play, as a 23-year-old Balbir missed out on a lot of game time. Balbir still emerged with a hat-trick against Argentina -- he took his place in the team at the last moment due to an illness to Reggie Rodrigues on the morning of the match -- and two goals in the final against Great Britain.
I feel humbled. All the teams I was fortunate to be part of, be it Independent India's Olympics 'GOLDEN HAT-TRICK' -(London 1948,Helsinki 1952 & Melbourne 1956 as Captain) or the World Cup Champions (Kuala Lumpur -1975) consisted of Brilliant Players and together we played & won.
- Balbir Singh Sr. (@BalbirSenior) February 20, 2020
It was four years later, when Balbir was also India's flag-bearer at the opening ceremony, that he shone at his fiercest. Appointed vice-captain to the charismatic KD Singh 'Babu', Balbir would score nine of the 13 goals that India got on their way to a fifth consecutive gold. This included a hat-trick against Great Britain in the semi-finals and the five goals against Netherlands in the final, which India took 6-1. It was a third hat-trick across just two Olympics for Balbir, who had established himself as a star of the big stage despite this having been a difficult campaign for the Indians to get adjusted to. For one, there was a new format, which made all the top four seeds from London enter at the knockout stage, making each match a must-win. Further, there was the weather and the odd timings of sunrise and sunset.
In his memoirs The Golden Hat Trick, Balbir would say, "Finland is the land of the midsummer nights. The first night was terrible for us; the glare in the open window would not give us sleep. We adjusted to the odd sight of the sun shining in the night by downing our shutters and darkening our rooms with heavy curtains."
That 'hat-trick' of golds came in Melbourne four years later, when India's domination finally began to be challenged. After a group-stage sweep, where they scored 36 goals against Afghanistan, the U.S. and Singapore, India had to work hard to beat the Germans 1-0 in the last four, before setting up a final against Pakistan. It took a late goal from Randhir Singh Gentle to settle the match in India's favour. In inside-left Udham Singh, India had a new prolific scorer -- his 15 goals in a single Olympic campaign setting a new benchmark for players.
Balbir wouldn't feature in another Olympics, but was part of the Indian team when hockey was introduced at the Asian Games in Tokyo in 1958. In a round-robin system, both India and Pakistan finished with identical points after playing out a goalless draw in their last game, but Pakistan won the gold on a superior goal difference, having scored 19 goals to India's 16 (neither side conceded any goal).
The cloak of invincibility was to disappear in the coming years, though Balbir would return as manager when India won their only World Cup in 1975. At 95, Balbir continues to be a big supporter of Indian hockey, taking time out to attend matches when health permits. In 2014, he playfully chided his grandson for holding him when he was walking to make a post-match presentation at a global event where this writer was part of the broadcast team.
For his services to hockey, Balbir was given the Padma Shri in 1957, making him the first recipient of India's fourth-highest civilian honour from sport. That, in itself, was an acknowledgement of how he made a young nation believe and take pride in their feats on the sporting fields.