Liberal Opinion: Tribute to great “Bhaji” of Indian hockey, Penalty King Prithipal Singh

40th death anniversary of Prithipal Singh

Remembering a stalwart : He was a real “King.”

Last month I was in Nairobi to witness the Vaisakhi Hockey Tournament organized by Sikh Union, Nairobi, perhaps one of the oldest sports clubs in the world. The Club will be celebrating its centenary in 2026. One of several luminaries the Club proudly claims to have produced is Avtar Singh Sohal, “Tari” to his friends and fans the world over.

Tari belongs to a rare band of hockey Olympians who attended six Olympics, four as a player, one as a coach and one as a Technical Delegate.

Interestingly, he represented two “Kenyas” in the prestigious quadrangular Games. In 1960, his first Olympics, he represented British Kenya. Subsequently, he represented independent Kenya in 1964, 1968 and 1972 Olympic Games.

We often meet, exchange notes, talk hockey and share some interesting encounters/episodes on and off the hockey field.

Recently when I buttonholed him in Nairobi, I asked Tari who had been his favorite Indian hockey player. Overwhelmed, he smiled back : “those days, all Indian players were outstanding and great. I was always a fan of VJ Peter, Joginder Singh also known as Gindi, and of course the great Balbir Singh Senior. But my all-time favorite was Prithipal Singh, one of the greatest fullbacks the game has produced. He was an icon – ruthless, tough and the best penalty corner hitter of his times.

“Since I also played as a fullback, I used to watch him closely. I learnt so much from him. Besides being an outstanding player with whom I played in a couple of Olympic Games, including 1964 and 1968, he was a simple man, a thorough gentleman,” recalls Avtar Singh Sohal.

There cannot be a better tribute from an Olympian to an Olympian, from an outstanding fullback to one of greatest fullbacks of his time. They rubbed shoulders and opposed each other many times on the playfield but remained great friends.

“I was deeply anguished when I heard of his untimely death in 1983. Hockey needed him for a much longer period,” adds Avtar Singh Sohal.

Those who know “Bhaji” will fully endorse what Tari says.

Besides being an accomplished hockey player, he was a top administrator and was Director, Students Welfare, at Punjab Agricultural University, Ludhiana. He, himself, held master’s in agriculture.

His soul used to be in lush green playfields of Punjab Agricultural University. And those who ever invaded the playfields for activities other than sports knew the punishment. Hockey was his passion. He, however, never compromised on his principles.

Not many would have known that he refused to bow to the pressure tactics of the then hockey chief, Mr. Ashwani Kumar. To the great dismay of Mr. Kumar quit Punjab Police and joined Railways. He knew this step may cost him a place in the 1964 Olympic team. But for him his principles and ideals were higher than begging for a place in the team.

As expected, his name was missing from the initial list of players chosen for the Olympic Games camp. Prithipal was not traceable. He had gone underground. There was a lot of hue and cry in the media about his exclusion from the Olympic  list.

The IHF relented and recalled him not only to the camp but also included him in the team. The mischief IHF played was quickly spotted by Prithipal Singh. He was categoric that he would go to Tokyo Olympics as a fullback and not a halfback as announced by the IHF selection committee.

The team left for some warm up games in  New Zealand on the way to Tokyo Olympic Games without  clarifying his position. He did not play in the first match that India lost badly. Criticism in the media back home was so loud that the team management led by the manager Inder Mohan Mahajan had to relent and named him in the squad for playing subsequent games. But he was not named as a fullback.

Prithipal refused to take field as a halfback and offered to be flown back home instead.

The team management was in a fix as it was aware that he was “stubborn” and would not compromise.

Ultimately, he was fielded as a fullback, and he helped India win with his penalty corner conversions. His awe was so much that India won the last Test match against New Zealand by a huge margin. The morale of the team after wins in the last two games touched a new high as it arrived in Tokyo.

Prithipal scripted history in Tokyo with his lethal strikes and helped India not only reach the final but also helped the former champions regain the gold they had lost to Pakistan in Rome. It was his penalty corner strike that got India a penalty stroke from which Mohinder Lal scored the match clincher. It was at Tokyo that Prithipal was crowned “Penalty King.” He became the first sports star to be awarded both the Arjuna award and Padma Shri.

In 1975 when Indian hockey was in doldrums after Ashwani Kumar had quit, Punjab offered to train the team. And India led by Ajitpal Singh won the 3rd World Cup in Kuala Lumpur, Prithipal Singh was back in the limelight. The new IHF Chief, Dr MAM Ramaswamy, named him as Chairman of the Selection Committee.

But this did not last for long as Prithipal refused to compromise his position. After the 1976 Montreal Olympic games debacle, when Dr MAM Ramaswamy, decided to name Aslam Sher Khan as captain of the Indian team for participation in the Quaid-e-Azam invitation tournament in Lahore without consulting him, he resigned. He refused to take it back even after Dr Ramaswamy tried to persuade him. This was Prithipal, steadfast, and uncompromising. He always remained “bhaji” to those who knew him well.

I used to be one of his confidants. At times I would get a call from his personal staff for drafting letters or statements. His  tone and tenor used to be straight, to the point and always in the larger interest of the sports in general and hockey in particular.

In one of the then popular Guru Nanak Dev Memorial Cricket Tournaments, I was declared second best wicketkeeper and Bhaji was the chief guest. “So, you play cricket also. I thought hockey is your game,” quipped Bhaji at the prize distribution function.

Believe me, he was all sport when I persuaded him to play an exhibition cricket game between Hockey players (mostly Olympians) and the PAU cricket team. He was a superb hitter of the ball. It was fun watching Bhaji don white flannels.

(Prabhjot Singh is a veteran journalist with over three decades of experience of 14 years with Reuters News and 30 years with The Tribune Group, covering a wide spectrum of subjects and stories. He has covered Punjab and Sikh affairs for more than three decades besides covering seven Olympics and several major sporting events and hosting TV shows.)