One of the last acts performed by Army Chief Gen VK Singh before the day of his retirement (which happens to be today, 31st May) was launching a book by Col. Balbir Singh of the 1968 bronze medal-winning hockey team. He just had to find the time for it. The two had once played hockey together as cadets of the Indian Military Academy, and as everyone knows, bonds created on sports grounds usually last a lifetime. “When I requested the chief to launch the book he was generous enough to agree,” said Balbir, a wing half in his playing days, who remained connected with the game as coach, selector and government-appointed observer after his retirement.
Mediapersons present at the launch included quite a few from the defence and general news beat, just in case the General were to make another of his establishment-shaking moves by way of a parting kick. But he did nothing of the sort.
What he did, instead, was speak in support of hockey. IPL cricket may be the craze these days, but don’t forget the game of hockey, which has been the national game and at which the country has done so well in the past – this was the message that the general took the opportunity to give the audience. Every effort should be made to restore the old glory of Indian hockey, he went on to appeal.
It was an appropriate occasion for him to bat for hockey – it was, after all, a hockey audience he was addressing. It included some of the big names of the sport such as Ajitpal Singh, captain of the 1975 world cup-winning team, and his fellow players of that squad Aslam Sher Khan and Brig. HJS Chimni, and also Olympic gold medalists Harbinder Singh and Zafar Iqbal. When a man of Gen VK Singh’s stature chooses to speak, not even the excitement of the IPL final should stop the country from listening. Even the frenzied mobs celebrating the Kolkata Knight Riders victory should pause and ponder the Army Chief’s words.
Col. Balbir Singh’s book is titled “From Sansarpur to London.” The author belongs to the village of Sansarpur near Jalandhar Cantonment, which is famous for the international hockey stars it has produced, starting with Subedar Major Thakar Singh, a contemporary of all-time great Dhyan Chand, and Col. Gurmit Singh, participant in the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics. Which other village in the world can boast a record of having sent as many as 14 of its sons to the Olympics ?
Ajitpal Singh, a classical centre-half in his playing days, has now created further history for Sansarpur by becoming the first from that village to be honoured with the post of ‘chef de mission’ of the Indian contingent traveling to the London Olympic Games. As everyone probably knows, there were conflicting claimants for the job, but the matter was put to rest once the Indian Olympic Association named Ajitpal Singh for the post.
If this writer was asked to pick Sansarpur’s best Olympian, his choice would be the late Udham Singh. An inside forward with a deceptive feint and masterly stickwork, Udham played in four Olympics, starting with the 1952 Helsinki Games, which earned him a collection of three gold medals besides a silver.
Dropping in on him one cold winter evening at his Sansarpur home while on a professional tour of Punjab several decades ago, yours truly found that he had just finished milking his buffalo. “Don’t be surprised if I were to tell you that women here ask their sons ‘kinnay goal keetay’ (how many goals did you score today) before proceeding to serve them milk in tall metal tumblers,” Singh had told me, in a manner that suggested he was revealing the secret behind village boys’ hockey success.
While one can’t say for sure whether the clay ground of the village still attracts its boys the way it did in times gone by, it is still worth remembering the hockey-rich tradition of the tiny, oft-forgotten village of Sansarpur.