During those days, I operated as a centre-half and was part of the Madras University side. At that time, Balbir was a selection committee member. One morning, he called me and spoke about a few things. As I approached him, I felt a bit restless.
He said: “Baskaran, you are a very aggressive player for a centre-half. But, you will have to play some soft hockey as well. If you want to climb up the ladder and don the India jersey for a long time, you will have to play in other positions too.”
The following morning, when we had a match, Balbir asked me to play in the forward line. We had another game in the evening and in that, I was deployed as a left-half. I think I did reasonably well that day and as a result of it, I was named in the team which toured Australia.
For the 1973 World Cup in the Netherlands, the selection committee had a tough job in its hands as there were a number of quality Indian players. I made it to the 16-member squad as I played in multiple positions. I wouldn’t have been part of World Cups had I operated only as a centre-half or left-half.
I was taken in as an all-rounder. In times of emergency, I fitted into a variety of positions. During my career, I was involved in three World Cups, two Olympic Games and two Asian Games. So, I owe a lot to Balbir. His words made me play total hockey. I also had the pleasure of travelling with him to Pakistan in the 1980s.
The Indian government selected me and I was honoured to share the stage with him. We (Olympians) were felicitated in front of 30,000 fans at the Lahore Stadium. I still remember that occasion. In general, I shared a lovely bond with him.
Whenever I went to Chandigarh, I walked straight into his house. I never took any appointment as he treated me like his son. He always greeted me with a cheerful face.
I used to meet him often. In fact, the last time I met him was in January in New Delhi.
Balbir wasn’t keeping well (at that time), but managed to come to the dais during an event. I even spoke to his grandson Kabir last week and enquired about his health. Sadly, he is no more with us. He was a gentleman and a very humble person.
It’s a huge loss for the country and the hockey world. His three Olympic Games gold medals are there for everyone to see. But, I will miss him more as a person.
— (As told to Shrivathsan S)