Chandigarh: The last of the hockey icons, Balbir Singh Sr turned 90 on Tuesday, looking back with satisfaction at his long and rewarding tryst with hockey, which he calls his "first love", but sad at the state of the game in India.
Gentle and soft-spoken as ever, ramrod straight Balbir belies his years. Triple gold Olympian and a victorious Olympic captain, he was also the chief coach and manager of the team that won the one and only World Cup hockey title for India in 1975.
Chosen as one of the 16 "iconic Olympians" across all disciplines since 1896, the start of the modern Olympic era, Balbir was honoured by the International Olympic Committee during the 2012 London Olympics alongwith other great sportsmen such as legendary sprinter the late Jesse Owens.
Balbir remains the holder of Olympic and world record for the most goals scored by an individual in an Olympic men`s hockey final for scoring 5 out of the 6 goals against Holland in the 1952 Helsinki Olympics. He captained the Indian team that won the title in the 1956 Melbourne Olympics.
Despite an outstanding career, Balbir remains a modest man and has to be coaxed into talking about his achievements. "I was very lucky", he says.
He calls hockey "my Goddess, my first love and my darling". He is still waiting for his "hockey fairy" who would help India regain its glory in the game.
Asked about the state of Indian hockey, Balbir replies, "very bad. I did not want to say this word. I feel dejected. I am sad".
He recalled that when he was being honoured during the London Olympics, the Indian team had not won a single match which had shocked him. "Balbir comes and Balbir goes but India is there forever. It is India which is more important".
What is wrong with Indian hockey, he was asked, to which he replied, "coaches, training, physical fitness, the way the game is run". Balbir reckons that depending on foreign coaches alone to lift the standard of hockey in the country may not be enough as they are "over qualified" for the job.
"There are very good foreign coaches, they are highly qualified but they are over-qualified for our conditions. We must get our intelligent coaches, educated ones, trained abroad. They should get the training so that when they come back, they can continue till they retire.
"Now, foreign coaches, come and take salaries, sorry to say that, and they go back. If we can get our own coaches trained, get all the training facilities abroad, they can come back, serve the country. Then they will feel honoured to serve the country. We have talent, our boys are good, but we lack in training and physical fitness. We should be among the top 4-5 teams. We should be there", he said.
The hockey legend enlisted a number of other reasons for the declining standard of Indian hockey which, he said, has been given a "step-motherly treatment". The long-standing feud between the two federations -- Hockey India (HI) and Indian Hockey Federation (IHF) -- was also hurting the game.
"Unfortunately, there are two federations. Because of the division, our hockey has suffered a lot", he points out.
"training is also one of the reasons, because our coaches are qualified, but nowadays, foreign coaches come, they train their (style) hockey. We should get our coaches trained, so as to produce many more coaches.
"Then, we have given hockey step motherly treatment. Other sports, No.1 is cricket, it is in limelight, the players are highly paid, always on TV, cameras are there. They are treated as actors. But hockey poor chaps, sorry", he said.
Balbir has devised an innovative three-tier revival plan for Indian hockey which he believes can improve the standard of the game.
Elaborating on his scheme, he said "It's a hockey league. We should hold it once a year and we finish it within a month. If there is a national league in place of a national championship and there are at least 30 teams, divide them in three divisions, according to their merit as per the latest national hockey championship. Top to bottom, according to their rankings, divide those teams into three. Top division 10 teams, then second 20-30 and then the third 20-30.
"You split up the teams. The top 10 will fight among themselves and you will have specific financial incentive. Then you have a system in place for promotion and demotion. Then in the number two league, you would be promoted to the next group. The same rule you follow for football all over.
Balbir said that shortcomings in technique and skills can only be overcome by repeated practice.
"Practice, it's the key. Penalty corners, there were times when we use to score from penalty corners also. Individual training is also important. Time and again, we use to practice penalty corners. Excellence, then, is not an art but a habit. I always used to tell the players, the top spot is always vacant. Anybody who works hard can reach there" he said.
Asked whether the current set of players lack desire to excel, Balbir said they have become more money-minded.
"They are more money-minded these days, that is normal also because money is required. Money is very important. In my hockey league, there is a prize money for the coaches, for the teams, for the associations also.
Balbir, who lives with his family here, says that turning 90 means entering the "golden decade" of his life.
"It is like the golden goal in my beloved game. Whoever scores that goal wins. Now I am up against the Almighty God. Whenever He scores I will lose and will have to go. But I have lived a full life for which I am grateful to God".