Balbir Singh Dosanjh: The golden hattrick

DelhiUpdated: May 25, 2020, 04:47 PM IST
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This excerpt, from the book 'My Olympic Journey', is reproduced here with the kind permission of the publishers - Penguin Random House. The book is authored by Digvijay Singh Deo (Sports Editor, WION) and Amit Bose. Balbir Singh Dosanjh was one of the 50 Olympians featured in this book published in 2016.

All my life, I have been honoured by people for my accomplishments as a hockey player. I completed a golden hat-trick at the Olympic Games and was blessed to have captained a victorious team at the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne as well. I have received my fair share of adulation, but my biggest achievement was playing for an independent India. It was a great honour to bring pride to a sovereign country. In the earlier Games, the three gold medals had been won for British India and the Union Jack. I am glad that I was responsible in a small way for seeing that the tri-colour went up at the Olympics not once, but three times.

Hockey was a very popular game before Independence and the hat-trick of gold medals at the 1928, 1932 and 1936 Olympics contributed massively to its popularity. I too played the sport from a young age, but started out as a defender. I saw a newsreel from the 1936 Berlin Olympics and was greatly inspired to see Dhyan Chand scoring goals and the spectators applauding him. Watching that short film inspired me to follow in his footsteps, and I too dreamt of scoring goals. But for that to happen, I had to transition from the position of a full back to that of a centre forward. Whether it was destiny or luck, the transition from full back to centre forward happened soon. 

Balbir singh Sr

Around 1939, my cousin organized a private tournament called Basant Memorial. When two senior players turned up and wanted to play in my position as full-backs, I had to switch to a forward position. The transition was seamless and I scored multiple goals in every match. That was the end of my defending days. In later years, I would be known for terrorizing rival defences.

Also Read: Rich tributes pour in as hockey legend Balbir Singh Sr passes away

My father was a school teacher, and he wanted me to follow in his footsteps. Teachers were not paid well in those days of the British Raj, and he could not afford to send me to Lahore for higher studies. I enrolled in the Dayanand Mathura Das College in Moga, and studies took a back seat, with hockey taking over my waking hours. Hence, it came as no surprise when I failed my FA exams. Ultimately, it turned out to be a blessing in disguise, as had I continued I would have ended up as a teacher in some primary school in Moga and contributed to the family income. Once again, hockey came to my rescue. One of my father’s friends was a lecturer at the Sikh National College in Lahore, and he had seen me play in Moga while on leave. He offered to take me to Lahore so that I could complete my degree and play for the college team. My father immediately agreed as the fees as well as the boarding costs would be borne by the college.

I made an instant mark and the team was promoted to the first division from the B-League. Sardar Harbail Singh of Amritsar’s Khalsa College saw me play during that tournament, and he approached my father, appealing to him to shift me from Lahore to Amritsar. My father initially refused, but later relented when he came to know that my heart was set on the move, as Khalsa College had a very formidable hockey team. It turned out to be one of the most astute decisions of my life as Harbail Sir, my mentor, polished my game and made me a much better player. He gave me personalized coaching for hours on target practice and drilled in me the importance of being present inside the striking circle at the opportune moment. 

Balbir Singh Sr orchestrated India’s three gold medal-winning campaigns at the Olympics

I went on to finish my BA degree at Khalsa College and then enrolled in the MA course in English for a further two years as the college wanted me to continue playing for them. I was selected as the university captain, and under my leadership, we were all-India university champions for three years in a row from 1943 to 1945. My performance caught the eye of Sir John Bennet, inspector general of Punjab Police, and he ordered his subordinates to make sure I joined the police force to bolster the hockey team. However, I was not keen. My father had been jailed during the struggle for Independence. The police force in those days was part of the state that was locking up freedom fighters like my father. I ran away to Delhi to escape the clutches of the Punjab Police and joined the Central Public Works Department. I started playing for their hockey team, and as luck would have it, we started winning tournaments and my name appeared in newspapers as the main goal scorer! Sir John happened to read those reports and was extremely annoyed that I had slipped away. He dispatched a police party to Delhi and I was found, handcuffed and brought back in that state to Jalandhar Cantonment where a recruitment board was in progress. I was made to join Punjab Police as an assistant sub-inspector completely against my will.

I was initially posted in Ludhiana and was later transferred to Ferozepur Cantonment. It is there that I met my idol, Dhyan Chand. He was a captain in the Indian Army, and because of his reputation, had not been sent to fight the World War which had just ended. I often got the chance to play against him in friendly matches that were arranged twice a month between the Army team, which he captained, and the Civil team, of which I was captain.  We always won as we were much younger. Although Dhyan Chand’s best days were long gone, we could see why he had made a name for himself across the world. I was greatly impressed by his personality. He wasn’t at all arrogant and was, in fact, very gentle with everyone. Those are the very qualities I have tried to imbibe in my life, facilitated by spending after hours and hours with the great man. It was an absolute honour playing against this man who was known as the ‘Wizard’, and after our matches we used to sit together and share jokes. In his days, the standard of European Hockey was weak, but it does not take away from the fact that he was an extremely gifted player who scored lots of goals, thus becoming synonymous with Indian Hockey.

I believed my performances for the Punjab team at the National Championship merited a call-up to the national squad for the 1948 Olympics. Inexplicably, that call never came despite my being the best centre forward in the country. Forty-eight players were invited to the camp, and only after the intervention of Richard John Carr, member of the 1932 Olympic gold-medal-winning team, was I asked to join two weeks after it began. Throughout the camp I was asked to play as an inside left even though everyone knew I was a centre forward. I was never one to question the wisdom of the coaches and became part of the twenty players selected for the 1948 Olympic Games in London, the first since 1936.

There was a surprise waiting for me at Heathrow airport when I landed. Sir John was there to receive me. He had read about my inclusion in the Indian team and had come down especially to meet me. I was touched by this gesture. As he introduced me to his fellow officers and narrated the story of my induction into Punjab Police, he gave me a very important tip. ‘Remember, Balbir, in India the grounds are hard and the ball travels very fast. In England, our grounds are very slow, soggy and wet, and the ball stops before it comes to you. So do not wait for it, and run for the ball.’ It would turn out to be the advice that saw us win the gold.

In the three preceding Olympic Games, India had marched under the Union Jack. At London in 1948, the Indian team marched under the tri-colour as a sovereign country at Wembley Stadium. It was a moment for the ages, coming as it did immediately after Independence. There we were, the reigning Olympic champions, walking out in the land of our former masters. Great Britain had fielded a hockey team at the Olympics after nearly three decades. They had not competed against the teams Dhyan Chand had played for, as a defeat would have been very embarrassing.

The atmosphere in London at the Village was friendly. All the athletes were very courteous and the dining hall was where we all assembled during meal times to interact with each other. I must mention the efforts made by the British people to ensure the Games were a huge success. The rationing put in place during World War II was still in effect, but there was no shortage of food at the dining hall and not once did we hear or come across any sort of protests. We could see the damages London had suffered due to the bombing by the German planes, and it was an extremely brave decision on their part to offer to host the Olympics. It is that character of the people of Britain that made that Olympics a huge success. There were frequent invitations from British families to visit their homes, and despite the rationing they used to offer us meals. I was touched by their hospitality and warmth. It was difficult to believe that the same people had ruled us till a year ago and at times committed atrocities on us.

The warmth lessened my internal pain to a certain degree. For reasons still unknown, I continued to be treated unfairly by the team management. I played the opening match of the hockey tournament against Argentina and scored six goals in a nine-goal rout. That was the only match I ended up playing till the final! I was benched for the match against Austria, and in the final group game against Spain, I warmed up and entered the field to bully-off as centre forward. My captain Kishen Lal called me back and informed me I would not be playing as Nandy Singh would lead the line instead. Nandy was an inside right and had never played centre forward before! Having topped our group, we were drawn to play Netherlands and the same drama repeated itself. I got on to the field but was asked to go back by the captain. I was seething at this public humiliation and could have created a fuss, but as a sportsperson, I decided to follow my captain’s orders and returned to the bench. It was only after intervention from India’s high commissioner to Great Britain, Krishna Menon, that I was selected to play in the final against Great Britain.

Wembley was packed for the much-awaited clash between former rulers and subjects. Queen Elizabeth, who was Princess Elizabeth then, was in attendance as well. Chants of ‘C’mon GB’ echoed round the stadium, but I remained unfazed and scored in the seventh minute. That gave the handful of Indian supporters confidence, and they started imitating the locals and chanting, ‘C’mon India’. They were shy and naturally outnumbered by spectators who had come to see a British win. The local fans started to get quieter after I scored the second goal in the fifteenth minute. The tide turned then, and I was surprised to hear the same crowd now chant, ‘C’mon Balbir, score another goal.’ It reinforced my belief that they were a very sporting nation and they praised an opponent if they deemed it worthy. We went into the break 2–0 up but in the second half, I was asked to play in the midfield as centre half and was thus denied the opportunity to complete my hat-trick. Tarlochan Singh and Patrick Jensen also scored a goal each, and we won convincingly at 4–0. It was a huge win as not only did it reaffirm our superiority in the sport, but also showed we could survive at the top level despite the exodus of many talented players to Pakistan, which lost the bronze medal match to the Netherlands in a replay.

Victory had never been sweeter. To stand in the middle of Wembley, see the tri-colour rise and hear the national anthem play was an out-of-the-world experience. Looking at the flag, I felt I was rising along with it, flying in the air. It may sound dramatic, but in 1948, it was all too real and a rare feeling.

The realisation of what we had achieved hit us when we returned home. We had flown to London but returned on a ship. It was a twenty-six-day journey, and we reached Bombay during low tide. From the decks we could see the reception party waiting for us onshore with Indian fags. When we finally disembarked, it was on the shoulders of the crowd. The entire city was in a celebratory mood, and we enjoyed the adulation. I was more worried about my luggage though. I had bought a perambulator for my daughter who was born the same year and did not want it to get damaged!

We travelled to Delhi by train, and at every station there was a crowd waiting for us with garlands. We would get off, be felicitated and then get back on the train, and the entire drama would repeat itself at the next station. In Delhi, we were felicitated by the Governor-General, C. Rajagopalachari. 

 Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru was a keen follower of sports, and he used to drop in to watch our practice sessions at the National Stadium ahead of the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki. ‘Go on and win, and do not lose,’ was his advice to us. And we ensured we did not let him down. We went through our entire pre-Olympic tour of Europe unbeaten and won all our matches. The confidence was high, and I was certain that this time there would be no one calling me back to sit on the bench; I had established myself firmly as part of the team.

We played only three matches in the Helisnki Olympics. I scored a goal in our first game against Austria which we won 4–0. In the semi-final, I scored a hat-trick as we beat Britain 3–1. In the final, we thrashed Netherlands 6–1, which had emerged as a strong team in the preceding years. I scored five goals, and it is till date a world record for the most goals scored by an individual in an Olympic final. Unfortunately, no one called me a wizard!

We were not the only ones celebrating in Helsinki. It was a momentous occasion when K. D. Jadhav won India’s first individual medal, a bronze in wrestling. He was a very friendly man and used to come to watch our matches as well. Perhaps his great achievement was overshadowed by our win, but over time, his legend has grown, with India only winning a second individual Olympic medal forty-four years later in Atlanta!

Celebrating our fifth successive gold had to wait. Our coach Harbail Singh was a stickler for discipline and had a strict code of conduct in place. There were rules and regulations that barred us from drinking. A few players had started to venture out during our camp in Holland but the coach told us to cut it out, promising to get us back to Holland if we won the gold. He was true to his word when we did, and we had the freedom to celebrate our win on the condition that we didn’t do anything that would bring a bad name to the country. Anyone who crossed the line would never play for India again. Needless to say, we were careful not to get carried away.

I had been chosen to carry the national flag at the opening ceremony in Helsinki despite being vice-captain to K.D. Singh ‘Babu’. Four years later, I received the ultimate honour when I was selected to captain the team and lead India out during the march-past. My father was very proud when my name was announced as captain and he wrote me a very affectionate letter: ‘Balbir, you have been selected as the captain. Have good relation with your team, respect every player and do not boss over them but act as a friend and teammate. Ask your friends to keep the tri-colour flying and remember to always play as a team.’

Armed with that inspirational letter, I set off for my third Olympics. Australia had no hockey grounds, and we played at the magnificent Melbourne Cricket Ground instead. Our first match was against Afghanistan and I scored five goals in that 14–0 win. Unfortunately, I was injured during that match, fracturing my right index finger when I was hit by a ball. I was in immense pain and the Games were as good as over for me. My hand was put in a plaster, and I was advised not to advertise it as it would give our opponents immense satisfaction to see the Indian captain injured. We sailed through the group stages with ease but were tested by Germany in the semi-finals, eventually coming away with a 1–0 win. In the final, we faced Pakistan in what would be the start of a great rivalry at the Olympics. I was not fit to play but was told that my presence was crucial to the team as Pakistan would assign two defenders to mark me, ensuring space for the other forwards to score. It was not in my interest to play but I did so because my team needed me. We won 1-0.

I completed a hat-trick of golds at those Games. It was also independent India’s third consecutive gold medal. Another abiding memory of that special campaign was the dinner with Prince Phillip, the Duke of Edinburgh. His wife had seen us win the gold in 1948 as Princess Elizabeth, and in Melbourne, he was the husband of the Queen. He was the chief guest at one of the functions, and six hockey captains had the opportunity to meet him. During that lunch party, while we were waiting at the dessert counter, I realized he was standing just behind me, and I stepped aside to ensure the correct protocol was maintained. He refused and was courteous enough to allow me to go first, saying that at the Olympics, protocol demanded the sportsperson came first!

I could have made history by winning a fourth consecutive gold, but it was not to be. K.D. Singh ‘Babu’, my captain in 1952, was the chief coach. My form and fitness was very good, and there were reports in the newspapers that I was the frontrunner to lead the team again. The selection trials were to be held in Bombay, and Kishen Lal, Dhyan Chand and ‘Babu’ were the three who comprised the board. As I got ready to enter the ground for the match, I was asked to join them on the terrace. I was informed that I would not be playing as I had been included in the selection committee! I was very upset but it was not in my nature to question authority or to create a scene.

Unfortunately, the team under Leslie Claudius lost the gold-medal match to Pakistan, bringing our great run to an end. I was at a function in rural Punjab, overseeing the security arrangements for Chief Minister Partap Singh Kairon when he announced that it was sad that India had lost. Pointing at me, he said it was unfortunate that the man who could have made a difference was standing in a police uniform at the rally.

Four years later, there was another bitter pill to swallow. The camp for the Olympics was held in Jalandhar, and I was initially selected as the chief coach. I trained the team along with Gurcharan Singh for six weeks, and even received my official blazer with my name on it as chief coach. Sadly, on the last day of the camp the Hockey Federation announced the team and appointed a person who had nothing to do with it as chief coach! A trained team was hijacked, and I was left behind.

Those were very difficult moments, but thankfully, I had the support at home to march on regardless of the setbacks that life threw at me. I owe a lot of my success to the contribution of three ladies in my life: my mother, my wife and my daughter. I got my strength from them. My wife was the rock who encouraged me to play and win. She would always be there to receive me when I returned victorious. She oversaw the construction of our bungalow after my retirement from the game. We named it Olympia. Over the years, many people dropped by to see me, including visiting foreign teams. They used to ask my wife if they could see the most special memento in my possession among all the trophies and medals I had won.  My wife would bring out a huge bundle of white threads that naturally aroused their curiosity. It was the garlands that adoring fans had showered on me all through my playing days. The flowers had dried and fallen off and only the threads remained.  

Thank you, India, and thank you, the national flag. Thank you to my father who taught me to honour the country and the flag. I sincerely hope India regains the gold in hockey soon—it is a dream that I always hope and pray for.