By Debayan Sen | ESPN | INDIA |
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.
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.
Read the full story, ‘Balbir Singh Sr wins ESPN India’s Lifetime Achievement Award’ (ESPN, 20 Feb 2020), here.
(Asia Samachar, 20 Feb 2020)