When Balbir Singh Senior played his first Olympics in 1948 in London, Ajit Pal Singh was barely a year old. Twenty years later when Ajit Pal, now 73, was in his first camp for the 1968 Mexico Olympics, he met Dhyan Chand in Patiala. When India won its lone hockey World Cup in 1975 in Kuala Lumpur, Ajit Pal was captain and three-time Olympic gold winner Balbir the manager. In the first World Cup in 1971, the Ajit Pal-Balbir combination finished with the bronze medal. In this exclusive interview with Soumitra Bose, Ajit Pal Singh shares his memories of the two legends—Dhyan Chand and Balbir Singh Senior.
What are your first memories of Dhyan Chand and Balbir Senior?
Both were extremely nice gentlemen. They were our idols. Dada Dhyan Chand met us in Patiala in 1968. I touched his feet. He seemed to be a straightforward, honest man. His two lines were a huge dose of inspiration. Balbir was my manager. Have fond memories of him.
How would you compare Dhyan Chand and Balbir Singh?
Both were pillars of Indian hockey and the best player of their times. If Dhyan Chand was the man before 1947, Balbir was the hero for independent India. Their records were more or less identical; both were great goal-scorers. What they have achieved in terms of goals scored is impossible to replicate in modern times.
Given the sheer number of goals scored in the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s, do you think players like them had it all too easy?
Without taking away any credit from them, competitive hockey at the Olympic level started only in the mid-’50s. Pakistan as an independent nation added a lot of competitive edge and there were the Dutch. The 1952 Olympics saw teams challenging each other for the first time. Real competitive hockey started from 1956 Olympics in Melbourne. Scorelines were thinner, as teams learnt to defend well. India beat United Germany 1-0 in the semis and defeated Pakistan by 1-0 to win their sixth straight Olympic gold.
Balbir was your manager in two World Cups—1971 and 1975.
He was very successful as a manager. Since he was an accomplished player, he was a shrewd reader of the game. In 1975, we had lost a group match to Argentina 1-2. Our morale was down but Balbir gave us a pep talk. We beat West Germany 3-1 in the next game to qualify for the semis. Malaysia was giving us a tough time in the semis. With seven minutes to go, we were down 1-2. Balbir and coach Gurcharan Singh Bodhi decided to insert Aslam Sher Khan. It turned out to be a masterstroke. Aslam got the equaliser and Harcharan Singh got the last-gasp winner. We looked up to Balbir for inspiration; not once did he disappoint us.
There is a feeling Balbir Singh didn’t get the accolades he deserved.
Why Balbir, even Dhyan Chand did not get them. Yes, we have a stadium named after Dhyan Chand and the national sports day is dedicated to him but is that enough for the genius he was? Dhyan Chand at least got the Padma Bhushan, but all that Balbir got was a Padma Shri and a sports director’s post in the Punjab government. Pity, the government didn’t recognise them well.