Why does India’s sportsperson need to be told the stories of Balbir Singh, PK Banerjee and Chuni Goswami - The real tribute to India’s greatest sporting icons

Pk Banerjee and Chuni Goswami
Pk Banerjee and Chuni Goswami

The loss of India’s three of the greatest sporting icons, somehow got lost, while the country is battling the COVID 19 crisis.

On 20th March, PK Da.. Pradip Kumar Banerjee, one of the finest footballers the country ever produced breathed his last. Apart from his great exploits in the football field, Banerjee was admired by the masses for his fluency in English and in-depth knowledge in history, politics and society.

On 30th April 2020, India’s closest answer to Dennis Compton passed away. An English hero, Compton scored 17 test centuries and lifted FA Cup for Arsenal. Our own hero, Chuni Goswami was the captain of 1962 Asian Games gold medalist team in Jakarta- India’s best ever definitive triumph in the game ever.

After retiring from football at the young age of 27 years, he represented Bengal in 46- first-class cricket matches. The glamour boy of his times led Bengal to Ranji Trophy final in 1971-72.

On 25th May 2020, Balbir Singh Senior- a glittering star in the pantheon of stars that Indian hockey threw up in its golden era between 1928 and 1956, left this beautiful planet forever. He was the manager of the 1975 World Cup champion Indian team.

Balbir Singh Sr [PC: Tribune]
Balbir Singh Sr [PC: Tribune]

Balbir Singh Senior was more than a decade senior to both PK Banerjee and Chuni Goswami. But, all three represented Indian hockey and football team in their best times. While Balbir Singh and PK Banerjee established themselves as coaches latter on, Chuni remained soaked in glamour.

Though briefly, he did his duties as selector, manager and commentator, he never became a permanent feature in any of those roles. Some of the finest obituaries were written, on their life and their times and their achievements and contributions. But, will their inspiring stories and rich legacies are passed on to the coming generation of sportspersons? The answer is - NO.

For a moment, let us go to the India-Pakistan series in 2006. When Virender Sehwag said- he had not heard of Pankaj Roy and Vinoo Mankad, two former India captains; Mansoor Ali Khan Pataudi and Dilip Vengsarkar got the shock of their lives. Pataudi, then famously said:-‘ If Sehwag’s comment is true then are we to assume that today’s cricketers are so ill-informed and uninterested in traditions and history of the game’.

Foreign icons v Indian icons

Sachin Tendulkar and Virat Kohli are two of the biggest icons in Indian sport history
Sachin Tendulkar and Virat Kohli are two of the biggest icons in Indian sport history

Vengsarkar went a step further and said ‘It shows the growing lack of awareness and knowledge about Indian cricketing history and tradition. We knew of them since our teens. It was told to us by our coaches’. There are times when players of the character and calibre of Sehwag, unburdened by the legacy of the past go on to scale new summits.

But what if tomorrow, another generation of players emerges to ask- Sehwag, who? Or, for that matter, Sachin, who? What if the future sporting superstars of the country gets totally disconnected with their own sporting icons and relate only with the foreign icons like Roger Federer, Tiger Woods, Lionel Messi and Kevin Durrant.

Sehwag’s case should not be seen in isolation. Sehwag’s unfamiliarity with the names of Pankaj Roy and Vinoo Mankad was more the case of ignorance. But if we meticulously follow the interviews and discussions of the current Indian sports heroes- we can already feel that they are able to relate more with the foreign icons of their own game and other sports, rather than their own legends of the past. And, the reasons are obvious.

The television revolution followed by the internet wave has brought the global sporting superheroes to our homes like never before. We do have foreign coaches and support staff at different levels and they naturally prefer giving examples and anecdotes of their own players, coaches and experts. As the sports literature, mass media and the films are dominated by the developed sports nations, the entire sporting landscape has got foreign characters and heroes in the lead roles.

On one hand, it has had a positive impact in terms of making our athletes globally conscious and competitive. On the other hand, it has gradually detached our sports stars from our own sporting history and tradition. Why is Virat Kohli’s ruthless attitude compared with Aussies? Why MS Dhoni’s cool and calm demeanour under pressure, is seen by some of the writers as un-Indian?

Can’t we find these comparable traits in our sporting icons of the yesteryears? And, in the long term, no nation could fructify its true potential until its achievers and role models don’t take pride in their own predecessors.

India's fair share of strong characters

In modern history, we come across numerous instances, when sporting moments have inspired and defined the mood and character of the nation. After its unification in 1990, Germany was eager to project itself differently to the entire world. Franz Beckenbauer, in the application phase, personally visited many countries to lobby for Germany’s bid. He became the face of 2006 Football World Cup in Germany.

Millions of people either came directly to Germany to experience the games live or were witness to the amazing positive atmosphere in the country on television. Emotions around football changed Germany’s image in the world. Whereas the Germans were known as experts in order and organization, the colour and warmth with which they celebrated the world cup, changed the country’s image in the world.

The film Invictus beautifully portrays how the 1995 Rugby World Championship played the role of the catalyst in the history of South Africa. The film describes how the President of South Africa, Nelson Mandela, used the World Rugby Championship to transcend racial boundaries and unite his nation, by supporting the white South African national team, the Springboks. The country had just released from the divisive force of apartheid.

Bernhard Bert Trautmann is one of the most talked-about characters in the German and British sports literature. He played 545 times in the goal post for Manchester City in the years 1949-1964. More importantly, Trautmann is often mentioned as the best-known example of a German who fought against the Brits in World War 2 and then played his way into their hearts afterwards. In England, he is still considered as one of the best goalkeepers of all time.

Nawal El Moutawakel- the Moroccan runner won gold in the first-ever 400-meter hurdle for Women at the Los Angeles Olympics in 1984. It was the same race, where our own PT Usha, missed the Olympics medal by a fraction of seconds. Usha, in one of the interviews, told me that Moutawakel, who was a student in the USA at the time, set a milestone as-both the first Muslim woman and the first African woman to win a gold medal.

After ending her athletic career, she beautifully gave it back to society. In 1993, she started the Course Feminine de Casablance, which later on became one of the largest women’s sporting events in the world. Subsequently, she becomes a member of the International Association of Athletics Federation and International Olympics Committee. From 1997-1998, she was state secretary at the Ministry for Youth and Sports in her homeland and from 2007 onwards, she headed the same ministry.

Cathy Freeman grew up in Australia. When she was 27-year-old, she won the gold medal when her homeland hosted the Sydney 2000 Olympics. The first aboriginal woman to participate in the Olympics, she was given the honour of lighting the Olympics flame in Sydney. Freeman, as an ambassador for her people, drew the attention of both the Australians and the global public to their situation.

An interesting letter from PK Banerjee

PK Banerjee is one of the most iconic names in Indian football history
PK Banerjee is one of the most iconic names in Indian football history

India’s sports history also has got its share of such strong characters. “Sir, I am proud to be a ‘jangli’, that is the name by which we are known in my part of the country. As a ‘jangli’ as an Adivasi, I am not expected to understand the legal intricacies of the Constituent Assembly Resolution, but my common sense tells me that every one of us should march in that road to freedom and fight together.

Sir, if there is any group of Indian people that has been shabbily treated, it is my people. Yet I take you all at your word that now we are going to start a new chapter, a new chapter of independent India, where there is equality of opportunity, where no one would be neglected. You cannot teach democracy to the tribal people, you have to learn democratic ways from them. They are the most democratic people on the earth’.

These words were part of an inspirational speech, made by Jaipal Singh Munda, a part of the Constituent Assembly, during a debate on 19th December 1946. Who was Jaipal Singh Munda? Many of our sports heroes must not have even heard his name.

Born in Takra village, in Ranchi district, Jaipal Singh’s parents were tribal farmers who had embraced Christianity. While he was studying in the local village school, missionaries recognized this young prodigy. In 1910, they enrolled him at the prestigious St Paul’s School. The school’s Principal Canon Crosgrave took the boy under his wing. When Crosgrave returned to England, Jaipal Singh accompanied him.

In 1922, he was enrolled at St. John’s College, in the University of Oxford. He excelled, both in academics as well as hockey. He got selected for the ICS. He was selected as the captain of the Indian hockey team as well which was to compete in the 1928 Amsterdam Olympics. Though Jaipal Singh could not play in the finals as he had to return to London for his ICS final exam, his team went on to make history, winning an Olympic gold by beating Holland in the finals.

Though he scored the highest marks in the ICS final exams, he was asked to repeat a year as it was claimed that he has broken the probation period by participating in the Olympics. From here, passing through various roles which ranged from being a senior executive with Bumrah Shell to a teacher in Ghana and a minister in Bikaner, he was the representative of India’s tribal population in the constituent assembly.

PK Banerjee, once, in the initial phase of his career was so downcast after being insulted by a well-known club in the mid-50s that he considered ending his life. A football-crazy tangawallah recognized him crying. He gave him a free ride and the confidence that he would become a big player one day. This changed his mind.

Interestingly, after PK Da’s death, while his daughter was leafing through some of his collected letters, she found an interesting one. The letter was from a yesteryear player from South India, who had written to PK before committing suicide, he begged his forgiveness as he was ‘quitting the field’. Baba was known for his never say die attitude and the letter showed the kind of respect he commanded from his juniors. PK had such a strong image of never-say-die attitude among those who knew him.

Similarly, one could only wonder, the height to which the football career of Goswami would have taken, if he would have accepted a foreign assignment with Tottenham Hotspur in his heydays of the 1960s.

Whenever Balbir Singh described the medal ceremony of the 1948 Games-his arms used to slowly rise to depict India’s flag being hoisted for the first time. His eyes would moist over. And, then he said:-‘As a child I used to ask my father, who was a freedom fighter, what independence meant and what would we get out of it. He would reply that independence would give us our own identity, pride and flag forever.’

We need to pass such many stories related to our legends to the next generation. It may be through pieces of literature, films, halls of fame and museums or as Dilip Vengsarkar had said- narrated by the coaches in the academies or made a part of the school curriculum. This will be a far bigger tribute to these true legends than the obituaries we read and forget.

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