It was an unforgettable moment of joy for Indian hockey fans in 1975 when legendary commentator Jasdev Singh said, ‘Bharat vishva hockey champion hai’ (India is champion of the world in hockey).
India went on to beat arch-rivals Pakistan to win the World Cup that day.
43 years later, a young Indian hockey team is once again hoping for a miracle and aiming to win the World Cup for the second time.
Since winning gold in 1956 Olympics, Indian hockey was on a decline. The country had not won Olympic gold and in the two previous World Cups, India who was synonymous with gold had to settle for silver and bronze medals.
While Aslam Sher Khan, Ajit Pal Singh, Surjit Singh, and Ashok Kumar got all the plaudits, there was one guy who worked behind the scenes away from all the media attention (Yes, hockey was more popular than cricket in 1975) and guided India to its only World Cup win.
That man is Balbir Singh Sr.
Hockey fans know Balbir Singh Sr. as a player who has won three Olympics gold medals for India, still holds a World Record for scoring most goals in an Olympics final, but very few know the story of how he brought the team together which helped India to win the World Cup.
Ever since Balbir Singh Sr. hung his playing boots, he wanted to get into coaching, and nearly went on to coach India’s 1964 Olympics team but as fate would have it, he was replaced by his former teammate Dharam Singh.
Come 1975 World Cup, Balbir Singh Sr. was named as Chief Coach and Manager of the Indian hockey team.
In a recent interview with a sports website, captain of 1975 World Cup team Ajit Pal Singh said, India can win the World Cup if it plays like United India.
This statement is straight out of Balbir Singh’s handbook of hockey who did the same thing in 1975.
Those who have followed Indian hockey for a long time have heard stories of alleged groups in Indian hockey team and the divide between north-south players.
As a chief coach and manager, Balbir Singh was given full authority to select the players of his choice and build the team for the World Cup. Balbir could have gone for all Punjab players (he played Punjab Police) but a person who swore his allegiance to national flag had only one thing to say – Country comes first.
Common prayer room for all
After getting players from different regions and religions, Balbir Singh’s first job was to get the team together. Just like a military leader, he formed a common prayer room for the players which had symbols from all the religions that the players practiced.
The players who were part of the camp since that day prayed together and took blessings from God before entering the field of play.
A new slogan
Indian hockey teams have always been dominated by Sikh players, and 1975 World Cup team was no different. The team had seven Sikh players and it was expected that Sikh players will once again dominate rest of the players.
Getting ready before the matches usually involved chanting of Sikh slogan’ Jo Bole So Nihaal, Sat Sri Akal’ but this was not permissible to Balbir Singh who coined a new slogan ‘Jo Bole So Hai, Bharat Mata Ki Jai’.
The new slogan struck a chord with the and before every practice and the matches the players shouted this slogan to pump themselves before the match.
While the Indian forward line is well known for their exploits in the world, it was the defense that helped India win the World Cup in 1975. Surjit Singh and Michael Kindo had formed a great partnership and were at their best in the World Cup.
Another defender Aslan Sher Khan was relegated to sidelines due to great performance between Kindo and Surjit but with few minutes to go for the final whistle and trailing 2-1 against hosts Malaysia in the semi-finals, coach Balbir turned to Aslam Sher Khan and said
‘Go in Aslam. May your God hear our prayers today.’
Just 5 minutes before the final whistle Aslam Sher Khan scored off a penalty corner and tied the score. Harcharan Singh then scored a goal in the extra time and helped India win the match.
Aslam Sher Khan used to go to a mosque for his Friday prayers and a day before the finals against Pakistan, Balbir Singh said that he will join him for the prayers in the mosque as he wanted to thank Allah for the win against Malaysia.
In the mosque, Balbir Singh was imitating Imam during the prayers, after offering prayers Imam asked Balbir what he was doing in a mosque. Balbir said:
‘Indian team plays together and prays together. He comes with me to gurudwara and I have come with him to the mosque here.’
Imam said, ‘Allah Mian Aapko Kamyabi Bakshe’ (May God grant you success) in front of Pakistan team who was also present in the mosque.
Rest they say is history.