K D Singh: The ‘Houdini of Hockey’

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About a hundred years ago, in a village in Barabanki, Uttar Pradesh, a slip of a boy and his siblings would revel in a good old game of homegrown hockey. As they smacked a rubber ball around with wooden sticks and tore up the dirt, they whiled away their time in pure delight. But there was one child among them for whom the game became more than just a pastime. He would go on to win two Olympic gold medals, one of them as captain of the Indian hockey team.

That child grew up to be Kunwar Digvijay Singh, a sporting great whose birth centenary we celebrate today. Fondly known as K D Singh ‘Babu’, he is remembered not only for his wizardry on the hockey field but also for grooming thousands of young players, many of whom have left their own mark on the game.

The Indian hockey team, captained by K D Singh, poses after winning the final in the 1952 Olympics

A Genius Is Discovered

Singh was born into an enlightened family. His father was a lawyer and social activist, and a role model for Singh and his ten siblings. He studied at the local government high school and graduated from Kanyakubj Inter College in Lucknow, where he excelled in academics.

But it was in sports that Singh would find his true calling. The first tournament he participated in was an inter-collegiate hockey competition at the Dewa Mela, an annual festival held in his hometown of Barabanki, in 1937. He went on to play for the Lucknow Young Men’s Association Club.

It was during a tournament when he faced off against Mohammad Hussain, an Olympic player, that Singh shot into the limelight. His stick work on the field kept Hussain on his toes throughout the match. The senior player was so impressed by Singh’s raw talent that he predicted a great future in hockey for the teenager.

Singh’s artistry and technique had taken everyone by surprise and the next day he made the headlines. The young hockey genius had arrived. Quick as lightning and almost impossible to intercept on the field, Singh earned the nickname ‘Houdini of Hockey’. He was one of India’s most talented forwards. And, boy, was he a treat to watch in action! He was such a sensation that stadiums filled up at the very mention of his name.

K D Singh scoring the winning goal in the semi-finals versus the Netherlands in the 1948 Olympics. India beat the Dutch 2 - 1.

Singh was soon representing his state at the Nationals, a matter of great prestige. But it was in 1946 that he got his big break, when he led the Indian hockey team on its tour in Celyon (present-day Sri Lanka). The next year, he was on the team that toured Afghanistan, Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania.

His crowning glory was his golden run at the Olympic Games. Singh was Vice-Captain of the Indian hockey team at the 1948 Olympics in London and brought back gold. Four years later, he captained the team at the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki, and once again brought back gold.

The victorious Indian hockey team gets a heroes’ welcome after winning Independent India’s first Olympic Gold medal in the 1948 London Olympics. In the picture is Vice-Captain K D Singh and the team at the Delhi station.

With many more active playing years ahead of him, Sing continued to mesmerize audiences and floor his opponents. Commentators used only superlatives to describe his game and sports journalists were often at a loss for words. One reporter wrote of his fancy footwork in the field: “…the best brains of the FBI, if enlisted, would have been unable to put manacles on this all-time great inside forward.”

In 1953, Singh was awarded the prestigious Helms Trophy, which named him ‘best player in the world’ for that year. The Indian government gave him the Padma Shri in 1958.

Children Are The Future

K D Singh’s family welcomes him home after the legend led the Indian hockey team to its second Olympic gold at the 1952 Helsinki Olympics

Singh retired from the national hockey team in 1959, bringing to an end a 20-year career during which he covered himself and his country in glory. But he was not done with the sport, not by a long shot. It was time to give back to the game.

He began by coaching the Indian hockey team, first as assistant coach on the team’s tour to East Africa in 1959, and then as chief coach on the Hong Kong tour in 1966. His biggest moment as coach came in 1972, when he coached the team that went to the Munich Olympic Games, where India won a bronze medal.

But, according to Singh, giving back meant inviting children in India’s villages to discover the joy of sports. So he set up two sports hostels, in Lucknow and Meerut, to promote budding talent. He also organized tournaments where he would bring in children from far and wide to participate.

Singh’s son Vishwa Vijay Singh, in an interview to the media, says his father would take care of the children’s boarding and lodging too. Sometimes, he would even eat with them to prove that they were not being fed substandard food!

For Singh, sports was much more than winning medals. He campaigned for sports quotas in jobs in government departments, and helped to set up teams in these departments from where players were selected for the national team.

Singh didn’t restrict himself to hockey and was a member of various organisations such as the All India Council of Sports, Railway Board and Rifle Association of India. The magic finally came to an end on 27th March 1978, when he died at the age of 56.