The years of three consecutive Olympic gold medals in hockey (1928, 1932, 1936) under the Union Jack gave way to Independent India‘s first triumph at the Games; and it was the men’s hockey team that continued its reign, this time under the captaincy of Kishan Lal and inspired by the chief architect of India’s victory in the final, Balbir Singh Sr.
Besides Balbir Sr and captain Kishan Lal, the 1948 squad had the likes of India’s other hockey legends like Kunwar Digvijay Singh Babu, Keshav Dutt and Leslie Claudius. From among the 20 members of that squad, only Dutt is alive today.
Earlier this year, on May 25, Balbir Sr passed away at the age of 96 after a chronic pulmonary illness. But the legacy left behind by his three Olympic gold medals (1948, 1952, 1956) and his team will never die.
“The Tiranga rose up slowly. With our National Anthem being played, my freedom-fighter father’s words ‘Our Flag, Our Country’ came flooding back. I finally understood what he meant. I felt rising off the ground alongside the fluttering Tiranga,” the legend had said about the 1948 gold in a conversation with Timesofindia.com in 2018.
Balbir Sr, a centre-forward, scored two goals in the final against Great Britain, while Tarlochan Singh and Pat Jansen hit the other two, as India beat Great Britain 4-0 in what was also the first meeting between the two sides at the Olympics. This was India’s fourth consecutive Olympic gold (1928, 1932, 1936, 1948).
(Balbir Singh Sr after scoring his second goal in the 1948 Olympics final)
India began their 1948 Olympics campaign with a thumping 8-0 win against Austria and followed it up by thrashing Argentina 9-1, in which Balbir Singh Sr scored six goals. In their last group fixture, the Indian team was tested by Spain before winning the game 2-0.
In the semis, India eked out a fighting 2-1 win against Holland.
The final at the Wembley Stadium in London was a special occasion. Payback time couldn’t have had a better background for India: The Olympic Games in London, men’s hockey final against the former rulers, on British soil, Independent India’s first Olympic medal there for the taking.
It all happened in that order.
Balbir Singh Sr, in his autobiography ‘The Golden Hat-Trick – My Hockey Days’, describes the moment when the umpire blew the full-time whistle at Wembley signalling India’s win.
“After the victory, VK Krishan Menon, free India’s first High Commissioner in London, who witnessed the match, came running to congratulate us,” he wrote.
This was Balbir Singh Sr’s first Olympic gold medal.
(Balbir Singh Sr, sitting, during one of his last public appearances at the 2019 Times of India Sports Awards)
Incredibly, Balbir Singh Sr, who was in red hot form having finished as the top scorer for Punjab in the 1946 and 1947 National championships, was initially not picked in the squad. Former hockey legend Richard Carr, who played for India in their gold medal-winning 1932 Olympic campaign in Los Angeles, rallied for Balbir Singh’s inclusion and he was finally picked.
But despite his six goals against Argentina, Balbir Singh Sr was dropped in the next match against Spain and also did not play in the semi-final against the Netherlands.
A protest by Indian students in London, who took their grouse to the then Indian High Commissioner VK Krishna Menon, forced the team management to include Balbir Singh Sr for the final against Great Britain. And the rest, as they say, is history.
On this historic day, Balbir Singh Sr’s friend Dr. Rajendra Kalra shared some of the words the legend had spoken about the historic day during one of their conversations.
“He said, ‘I was so lucky. The final was against our former rulers, and it was a matter of pleasure and honour that we beat them on their own soil,” recalled Dr Kalra, who was also the team doctor during India’s victorious 1975 World Cup campaign, while talking to Timesofindia.com. Balbir Singh Sr was the manager of the team at that time.
(1948 Olympic gold-medal winners meeting Governor General C. Rajagopalachari)
“Balbir said ‘Doctor saab, it was a surreal feeling when they declared the gold goes to India, the Indian flag was hoisted and the National Anthem played. There couldn’t be a bigger honour. The success that day tasted the best. I felt like I was on the top of the world’,” Dr Kalra added.
In a post on Balbir Singh Sr’s official Facebook page, his daughter, Sushbir Bhomia, mentioned that during his last few years, her father also developed a sense of disappointment as to how the young generation tends to forget the first biggest day in sports for India after independence.
“In India we have a practice to celebrate many national days, countless birthdays and even remember a few people on the day they said adieu to this world, but it’s strange as nobody remembers ‘The greatest day of Sports for Independent India’!” Sushbir quoted her father in the post.
However, former India coach Harendra Singh believes it’s the duty of everyone associated with hockey to tell the young generation about such historic moments.
“Until we take initiatives like going to schools and colleges and telling the students about our legacy and history, it won’t happen. It’s our duty,” said Harendra, a former India player and coach of India’s 2016 Junior Men’s World Cup-winning team.
On that note, it would perhaps be best to conclude with how the country’s collective euphoria for the 1948 victory has been described in Balbir Singh Sr’s autobiography.
“Bombay literally rolled out its biggest red carpet. It was natural, since the maximum number of players in the team were from that city…We were swept off our feet and it was here that I realised what the victory meant to our nation, starved as it was of world class accomplishments. Hockey was the only sport that gave the country a ray of golden hope, something to cheer for and celebrate.”
India Squad, 1948 London Olympics: Kishan Lal (c), Ranganathan Francis, Leo Pinto, Walter D’Souza, Tarlochan Singh Bawa, Akhtar Hussain, Randhir Singh Gentle, Kunwar Digvijay Singh Babu, Keshav Dutt, Amir Kumar, Maxie Vaz, Leslie Claudius, Balbir Singh, Patrick Jansen, Latifur Rehman, Lawrie Fernandes, Gerald Glacken, Reginald Rodrigues, Grahanandan Singh, Jaswant Singh Rajput