'Playing for the country mattered most to Balbir Singh Sr'

Three-time Olympic gold medallist Balbir Singh pictured during the inauguration of the Inspire Institute of Sports in Bellary, Karnataka on August 15, 2018. Sharda Ugra

Balbir Singh Sr, who won three Olympic gold medals with the India hockey team, died in Chandigarh on Monday at the age of 95. Here's how the hockey fraternity paid tributes to the former India captain.

ASHOK KUMAR (former national player, part of 1975 World Cup-winning team)

Growing up in Jhansi surrounded by my father major Dhyan Chand saab's legacy, hockey and our Olympic history in the sport filled my boyhood years. At one of the commemorative spots in the town for my father, alongside medals and citations there were pictures of India's Olympic captains between 1928 and 1956 -- Lal Shah Bokhari, Jaipal Singh Munda, Dhyan Chand saab, KD Singh 'Babu', Kishan Lal 'Dada' and Balbir Singh Sr.

For some reason, back then it was Balbir Sr's image that lodged itself in my head. The first time I met him was at the national camp for the Bangkok Asian Games in 1970. He was the team manager. I recall an instance vividly even to this day, perhaps with a pinch of regret. It was the day of the final. We were supposed to play Pakistan. Myself, BP Govinda and MP Ganesh were teammates and buddies who were roughly around the same age. On the morning of the final we were lazing in the hotel pool when Balbir Sr walked up to the deck with a look of surprise on his face. "Aaj shaam ko aap teeno final mein ho aur subah yahan khel rahe ho (You guys are in the final this evening and you're playing about here)?" he said and walked away. When we heard we had been picked to play the final, we froze.

At lunch a few hours later, Balbir Sr announced the names of the playing members for the final and sure enough, we were in it. A couple of senior players protested against our inclusion, arguing that we were too inexperienced to take on a mighty team like Pakistan. But Balbir Sr stood firm by his decision of picking us. We lost that match 1-0 and to this day I feel maybe we let him down despite the complete faith he showed in rank newcomers.

In 1971 he was again manager for the World Cup side made up of largely new faces. We played Pakistan in the semi-finals of the tournament and, despite an early lead, lost 2-1. That night Balbir Sr sobbed like a child.

Four years later we were again housed together at the university campus in Chandigarh for the 1975 World Cup. There was a girls' hostel overlooking the ground, right opposite the building we were camped in. We practised our hearts out in the evening sessions, knowing fully well that we were being watched by the girls from their balconies and windows. The young boisterous lads that we were then, soon enough there were attempts to sneak out of the building and establish contact with the girls who'd watched us play. The matron of the girls' hostel complained of our nocturnal activities to Balbir Sr and for the remaining 20 days of the month-long camp, every night he'd pull his chair to the main door of our building and stay put there, keeping vigil.

Though he was a soft-spoken guy who treated even juniors with a lot of respect, Balbir Sr was a stickler for discipline. He just had so much love for the sport and just couldn't stand losing. He almost treated it like a personal failure. For him, nothing mattered more than playing for the country. He'd do anything to see our flag flying high.

V BASKARAN (former national captain, led India to 1980 Olympic gold)

I grew close to Balbir Singh Sr during the time I was part of the national camp in Chandigarh for the 1975 World Cup. He was the team manager and India went on to win that year. During my tenure as junior team coach in the mid-1980s, he would visit the camp in Chandigarh regularly and I'd go over to his house often. He was soft-spoken, gentle, loved by all and I can't remember anyone ever speaking ill of him. What attracted me most then was whenever we attended functions, he'd always wear all his three Olympic gold medals around his neck. Just the sense of pride and accomplishment he carried was inspiring. He was always impeccably dressed and his red turban and red tie soon became part of his identity.

His stick control was remarkable and his stick grip gave away the fact that he was a really strong forward-line player. In those days, one could tell a lot about a player by the way he held the stick. At the 1956 Melbourne Olympics, which was Balbir's final Games appearance, I've heard accounts of how spectators were in awe of this slight-built Indian who dribbled the ball beautifully and moved so well on the field.

What was unfortunate though was for the kind of player he was and the achievements to his name, Balbir never received his due in office or stature. He has streets named after him outside India, but in his own country his contributions slipped under the radar. Despite the 1975 World Cup win under his helm, he was nowhere in the scheme of things for the 1976 Montreal Olympics. It made me wonder after three Olympic gold medals what more must a man do to find his place in the sport. Pakistan had a strong team back then and he was part of the side that beat them on all three occasions (1948, 1952 and 1956) to bring home the Olympic gold each time.

We travelled together to Pakistan for a felicitation via the Wagah border sometime in 1987-88 and we always shared a warm relationship. Until last year, I'd call him every month to inquire about his health, and would speak to his grandson Kabir. I know a couple of doctors at the Chandigarh hospital so I would ask them how he was doing once a while, when he had grown unwell. I met him at a function in New Delhi in March this year where he was honoured with the 'Lifetime achievement' award. I went up to him and sat beside him before the event started. He smiled and nodded when he was saw me but I was told he couldn't hear well anymore. I touched his feet, sought his blessings and we wordlessly parted. It was the last time we met. He was in a wheelchair but I remember him walking up to the stage before taking his seat. Even as a 95 year-old, he didn't want to be seen as weak.

(As told to Susan Ninan)