In the 1980s, however, a revolution started there, a hockey revolution.
Nestled in the Kurukshetra district is the town of Shahabad Markanda, located on the banks of the Markanda River. Again, the soil is rich in history. The first part of the town’s name is in honour of Muhammad Shahab-ud-din Ghori. One of his generals founded the town in 1192.
Right from those depths of existence, Shahabad and history have never left each other’s side. It, therefore, is not hard to believe that a warrior called Baldev Singh was God-sent to make that history richer and more diverse.
And he engineered that with a hockey stick.
On Monday, after 16 Indian women stopped the country for 60 minutes, Baldev couldn’t be reached. Maybe he was soaking up the moment alone in a room at his home in Ludhiana. Women’s hockey had finally fixed a date with the Olympic semifinals in Tokyo with a historic 1-0 win over Australia.
(At Tokyo 2020, India made its maiden entry into the semifinals of an Olympic women’s hockey event – Photo courtesy HI Twitter)
It gave Baldev every reason to be just with himself. His toil of many years in Shahabad was reaping rich dividends on the biggest stage of them all. That toil and hard work put into a search that produced more than 70 international stars from the quaint town.
Not that the current Indian team has players from the Shahabad academy in numbers, but the impetus to reach this day is credited to none other than Baldev, who created the engine that propelled women’s hockey in the country.
Around 250 yards from one of the gates of the Guru Nanak Pritam Girls Senior Secondary School in Shahabad used to be a narrow lane that led to the house of Baldev’s most famous student, Rani. Her father’s cart, on which he would load bricks to deliver, would always be parked at the edge of the lane. Today, she is the captain of the team that is just one win away from an Olympic medal.
Rani joined the Shahabad academy in the early 2000s. She was 5 or 6 then. The academy had seen a sea-change by then, since the day Baldev took up its charge and of the training ground in the GNPGSS School — a grassless stretch that one could call a stone pit.
(Rani with her father walking through the narrow lane in front of their old house in Shahabad – BCCL Photo)
During the first of Baldev’s two stints in Shahabad, Bhupinder Kaur was the first woman player to be selected in the Indian team. Sandeep Kaur had gone a step ahead and became India captain. The list kept growing with names such as Suman Bala, Surinder Kaur, Rajwinder Kaur, Jasjeet Kaur, Joydeep Kaur and Ritu Rani.
All were products of Baldev’s coaching. But it wasn’t an easy start for him.
BALDEV’S ARRIVAL IN SHAHABAD
After a short stay in his first coaching job with the Namdhari XI team at the Bhaini Sahib Academy, the NIS coach from the 1979-80 batch accepted the Haryana Government‘s job offer and was posted in Shahabad as Senior Coach of the state’s Sports Department.
That’s when the foundation of that hockey revolution was laid. But there were roadblocks every step of the way in the beginning.
Shahabad was a conservative town, still is to an extent, but much more back then. Sports was not considered something girls should indulge in. The shallow earnings of the largely lower-income group inhabitants left little chance for parents to allow their children to play.
Baldev had a challenge that went beyond the training ground. If he would make the girls wear shorts and skirts, objections would be raised. Crowds at tournaments would heckle the players.
THE DEPARTURE AND RETURN
So he left in 1986 and renewed his association with the Namdhari team. This time they stationed him in Sirsa. In five years, he turned Namdhari XI into one of the most successful club teams in India.
That’s when the GNPGSS School management established contact with Baldev and asked if he would want to return to Shahabad for a second innings. He accepted and never looked back.
(Baldev Singh – Photo By Stanley Chou/ALLSPORT/Getty Images)
MY WAY OR THE HIGHWAY
Baldev coached according to his own rules. The day would start at 5 am. Late-comers were fined. But the results started pouring in. At the Nationals, Federation Cups and other elite domestic tournaments, Shahabad was the team to beat. But they rarely got beaten.
Baldev’s headmasterly style of coaching and severe reprimands for players would bring him memos and warnings. But he believed there was nothing wrong if his ways were building a secure future for the kids.
Despite the complaints and in his endeavour to turn Shahabad into India’s nursery that churned out international players, Baldev would go to lengths unheard of.
Funds were a problem those days. That made travelling to tournaments difficult, sometimes impossible. Baldev had to find a way. He found one. He sold his car, added a few lakhs to the amount and bought a truck. He fitted that with seats, arranged in a way that it could accommodate the entire team.
Women’s hockey in India has no other example of such level of dedication.
(Skipper Rani hugs Navneet Kaur, after the latter’s crucial goal against Ireland during the Tokyo Olympics – PTI Photo)
Witnessing that, some of the parents would offer to help Baldev in any way possible. Navneet Kaur’s father, Buta Singh, for example, took charge of all academy paperwork that needed to be done, along with ensuring that the players maintained discipline.
Navneet was 5-6 years junior to Rani at the academy. Both are part of the team in Tokyo, along with Navjot Kaur as the third player from Shahabad.
The chance to further Shahbad’s relation with history now rests in the trio’s hands, when India take on Argentina in the semifinals on August 4. That will be a fine way to repay Baldev’s trust on behalf of every girl who played, plays and will play hockey in Shahabad.
(Baldev Singh presently works for the Khalsa University, Amritsar, and keeps travelling between Ludhiana and Amritsar. Besides his influential role at the Shahabad academy, he held various coaching roles with India’s men and women national teams)