Former India hockey captain Balbir Singh Sr. dies aged 95

Balbir Singh scored 22 goals for India at the Olympics. Jonathan Selvaraj/ESPN

Balbir Singh Sr., one of Indian hockey's greatest players, died of multiple health issues in Chandigarh on Monday. He was 95.

Balbir was admitted to hospital on May 8 following a 104-degree fever. On May 10, he tested negative for COVID-19 but was in critical condition as he battled bronchial pneumonia. He suffered multiple cardiac arrests the following week and remained critical.

In January last year, Balbir was discharged from hospital after spending 108 days in intensive care recovering from bronchial pneumonia.

His career played out between the early years of India's hockey supremacy in the days of Dhyan Chand and the later generations who found it difficult to dominate at the highest levels.

Balbir, who played as a centre-forward, was a key member of the Indian team that won gold at the 1948 (London), 1952 (Helsinki) and 1956 (Melbourne) Olympics.

At his first Games in 1948, which he almost missed out on due to a clerical error, Balbir scored a hat-trick in a 9-1 group-stage win over Argentina, as well as two goals in the 4-0 defeat of Great Britain in the final.

Four years later in Helsinki, where he was India's flagbearer for the opening ceremony, Balbir was at his best. He scored nine of the 13 goals in India's campaign, including a hat-trick against Great Britain in the semi-final and five goals in the 6-1 drubbing of Netherlands in the gold-medal match.

At Melbourne in 1956, Balbir -- who was also the captain -- scored five goals in the opener against Afghanistan before being injured. He returned for the semi-final and final, in which India beat Pakistan 1-0.

For Balbir, the 1948 gold was extra special. "We were a British colony [when we won our first three Olympic golds in hockey -- in 1928, 1932 and 1936]: when we won, the honour went to the Union Jack. In London [1948], the difference was the national flag," he told ESPN in 2017.

It didn't matter to him that he made little money during these glory years. "Paise nahi mile par shabashi zaroor mili (We didn't get much money but we got the adulation)," he said.

Balbir didn't play another Olympics after 1956 but was part of the Indian team when hockey was introduced at the Asian Games in 1958, where Pakistan edged India to gold on superior goal difference at the end of a round-robin format. He was also manager of the Indian side that won their only World Cup in 1975.

For his contributions to hockey, he was awarded the Padma Shri in 1957, making him the first sportsperson to earn India's fourth-highest civilian honour.

Balbir was one of just four Indians to have won three Olympic gold medals since Independence, alongside teammates Leslie Claudius, Randhir Singh Gentle and Raganathan Francis. Claudius, who died in 2012, also captained India to silver at the 1960 Games, making him the only athlete to exceed Balbir's haul of three medals.

(With inputs from PTI)