Hockey legend KD Singh ‘Babu’: Forgotten in his own city, state

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Qaiser Mohammad Ali

@AlwaysCricket

The name KD Singh ‘Babu’ might not ring a bell with many people of today’s cricket-crazy generation. He was one of the best-known hockey legends; people who had seen his magical stick work rate him either at par with hockey wizard Dhyan Chand, some a notch higher.

That Kunwar Digvijay Singh ‘Babu’, who excelled while playing at the inside-right position, won two Olympic gold medals as captain (1952) and vice-captain (1948) of the Indian teams is a historic fact. But not many people would probably know is that he was also pretty good at several other sports. He was a more-than-competent cricketer – he hammered three centuries, including a double hundred, in the Sheesh Mahal Tournament in Lucknow — a master shooter/hunter, and a competent golfer and tennis player.

Son of KD Singh 'Babu', Kunwar Dhirendra Singh, in front of the hockey legend's portraits and the Helms Trophy at his residence in Lucknow.
Son of KD Singh ‘Babu’, Kunwar Dhirendra Singh, in front of the hockey legend’s trophy cabinet that includes the prestigious Helms Trophy and Padam Shri at his residence in Lucknow.

For his priceless contribution to hockey, ‘Babu’ was awarded the Helms Trophy in 1952 by the American Helms Foundation – the first Asian to receive the honour — while the Indian government conferred Padma Shri on him in 1958.

Despite his great achievements, KD Singh ‘Babu’ today is virtually completely forgotten in the city he was born in 1923, Barabanki, and in Lucknow, just 27 kilometres away, where he studied and played most of his hockey. Apart from the two stadiums being named after him, in Lucknow and Barabanki, nothing else is done to introduce the present generation of hockey players to the legend, whose name could be used to motivate them to gain greater glory.

The ancestral home of KD Singh 'Babu' as it looks today in Barabanki city, 27 kms from Lucknow. Photo: Qaiser Mohammad Ali
The ancestral home of KD Singh ‘Babu’ as it looks today in Barabanki city, 27 kms from Lucknow. Photo: Qaiser Mohammad Ali

The only occasion in a year when KD Singh’s name is remembered is when the under-14 hockey tournament is organised by the KD Singh ‘Babu’ Hockey Society in Lucknow. Incidentally, the 26th edition of the tournament is presently on, with the final scheduled for February 6 – four days after the legend’s 93rd birth anniversary on February 2.

“We, the ‘Babu’ Hockey Society, organise this tournament. We manage to get some sponsors to patronise this tournament, which is played at the KD Singh ‘Bbau’ Stadium. Last year we celebrated the silver jubilee of the tournament and gave Rs 10 lakh as prize money to five teams, thanks to our sponsors,” Syed Ali, a hockey Olympian and technical secretary of the Society, told jantakareporter.com.

“This year the prize money for the winners is Rs 1 lakh, the losing finalists will receive Rs 50,000 and the third placed team will get Rs 25,000 ,” said Syed Ali, who had special affinity for ‘Babu’ as he was coached and groomed by him.

“I was fortunate enough to have learnt the game from him for five years, from 1972 to 1975,” said the man who was part of the Indian team that won two silver medals at the Asian Games.

The ignored plaque of the 'Kunwar Dihvijay Singh 'Babu' Marg' in Barabanki city, near Lucknow. Photo: Qaiser Mohammad Ali
The ignored plaque of the ‘Kunwar Digvijay Singh ‘Babu’ Marg’ in Barabanki city, near Lucknow. Photo: Qaiser Mohammad Ali

Kunwar Dhirendra Singh ‘Commander’, son of KD Singh ‘Babu’, too rues the failure of successive Uttar Pradesh governments to recognise the immense contribution his legendary father made to Uttar Pradesh’s and India’s fortunes as a player, coach and later as an administrator.

“He did not get his due,” Dhirendra Singh told jantakreporter.com, sitting in front of a couple giant photos of his father, a poster-size painting and the Helms Trophy, in the drawing room of his Lucknow residence.

Dhirendra Singh clarified that by “lack of recognition” he did not mean that the government should give the family of ‘Babu’ money, but that the honour could come in many different ways. “There has virtually been no recognition from the government, except the naming of the two stadiums after him,” he said ruefully.

“As a tribute to the legend, the KD Singh ‘Babu’ Society organises a tournament every year in his name,” Dhirendra Singh points out. “Besides that, the ‘Babu’ Society runs an academy for boys between age of five and 18 years in Lucknow. Presently, there are about 70 boys at the academy.”

Apart from these stadiums named after KD Singh ‘Babu’, a road in Barabanki is also named after legend. But the district administration’s apathy towards the versatile hockey player is starkly visible from the stone plaques on both ends of the road. They are completely invisible behind paper bills and outgrown bushes while a bill board on top of the plaques, on the edge of Lucknow-Faizabad highway, attract all the attention (see photo).

This, despite the ancestral home of ‘Babu’ (see photo), as well as a cabinet minister of Akhilesh Yadav’s government and a senior Rajya Sabha member of the Congress party having their residences on the same road.

KD Singh ‘Babu’ was a man of principles and he never compromised with that, said Dhirendra Singh, who himself was a good cricketer. He said that but for a word of recommendation from his influential father he might have progressed further in the game.

“When I asked my father if he could put in a word, he told me firmly not to expect him to seek favours for my selection,” he said, recalling those words that he still clearly remembers.

KD Singh, who attended a Government School in Barabanki and Kanyakubj Inter College in Lucknow, was a truly multi-faceted personality who also served as coach of the Indian hockey team that competed at the 1972 Munich Olympics.

Dhirendra Singh has many tales to tell about his famous father – the player, the sports administrator, and the man. He, however, candidly admits that by the time he grew up and started understand the game his father, one of the six brothers, had retired.

What Dhirendra Singh does remember is watching his father work as a sports administrator. As a cricketer, KD Singh scored three “classical” centuries in the Sheesh Mahal Tournament, now discontinued, he said. “He would play cricket with a hockey stick in the nets,” informed Dhirendra Singh.

In hockey circles in Lucknow, a story goes that ‘Babu’ would dribble the hockey ball from Barabanki to Lucknow, all of 27 kilometres. But Dhirendra Singh says it was not true, though he was an early riser and would train every morning with utmost sincerity.

“My father had a strict regimen. He would have dinner at exactly at 9 pm and go to sleep at 9.30 pm. He would wake up at 4 am for training. He would do dribbling, running and brisk walking for about eight kilometres every morning,” said Dhirendra Singh.

The KD Singh 'Babu' Stadium in Lucknow.
The KD Singh ‘Babu’ Stadium in Lucknow.

KD Singh ‘Babu’, who served as Director Sports in Uttar Pradesh, was instrumental in setting up the present-day Lucknow Sports College and Sports Hostels, said his son.

“He was offered the post of Director of National Institute of Sports in Patiala when it was opened. He was also offered several coaching jobs outside Uttar Pradesh. Hong Kong government wanted him to settle down in the city-state,” said Dhirendra Singh. “But he was disillusioned with the prevailing system [in India].”

Dhirendra Singh also said that his father was kind hearted person. “After India’s war with China, ‘Babu’ offered to donate one of his Olympic medals to help the soldiers. But the then Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister CB Gupta declined it, saying that the medal was a national honour,” he informed.

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