During his heyday, goalkeeper Baljit Singh was considered to be one with lightning-fast reflexes. Quick to get off his line to avert any crisis, the Punjab player had a reputation of being the best between the sticks for India. But what unfolded on a dry and tiring day in July, 2009 changed the man forever.
Busy polishing his skills at the national camp in Pune for a four-nation tournament, the then Indian mainstay misjudged the speed of a golf ball as it pierced through his helmet and injured his right eye. An exercise aimed at improving his reflexes turned out be so serious that Baljit damaged the retina, cornea and lens of his right eye because of the direct trauma suffered due to the incident.
Former Indian goalkeeper Baljit Singh has come through the trauma of losing an eye
He underwent an operation soon after. But the injury, however, drew curtains on Baljit’s international career as he was never considered for the national team again. Though he put up a number of commendable performances at the domestic level, nothing could convince the team selection panel as a poor peripheral vision meant that it was all over for the Chandigarh man.
“It was disappointing. I was looking towards making a comeback, but that never happened,” said the former Indian international, who was in Bengaluru for the Hockey India awards recently.
“Post the injury, I had put in a lot of effort and was performing well on the domestic front too. But then the injury hit, and it was a bad one. The worst thing about such injuries is that you’re lost overnight, no one knows who you’re or how good you’re,” he recalled.
While the regret of never returning to the national team still lingers in Baljit’s heart, the recovery phase taught him a important life lesson. Something he passionately described. “As soon as I was injured, I started thinking about my recovery regime. I was keen to get back to full fitness.
“And thankfully I had a legend in Nawab of Pataudi (Mansoor Ali Khan Pataudi) who came ahead and not only promised me all the help that I would need, but also assured me that I will be back to being myself soon. And his message hit me hard. I was like, if someone like Nawab of Pataudi can recover from his accident, play cricket and lead India with one eye, what is stopping me from making a comeback,” he explained.
Though the doors to the national team closed on the ’keeper post the tragedy, that never stopped him from doing what he loves most — play hockey. The 34-year-old turns out for Indian Oil in the domestic circuit and is still one of the best in the business.
“I play for Indian Oil now. They have done a lot in ensuring that I play again. These people showed faith in me when I needed it the most. I’m 34 now and if am still playing — 6-7 years after the injury — it has got a lot to do with Indian Oil,” he continued.
In India the number one slot of a goalkeeper has changed hands more frequently than anywhere else. While a certain Adrian D’Souza took over when Baljit was sidelined, Bharat Chettri was the next in command when Adrian lost his spot for reasons other than hockey. And with PR Sreejesh out-gunning Chettri with his performances, it was not a surprise when the Kerala man was handed over the mantle post India’s dismal show at the 2012 London Olympics.
Now with the Rio Olympics just around the corner, Baljit was of the opinion that though the Indians are safe in front of the goal with Sreejesh being the first choice ’keeper, the team needed more guys to fight for the spot. “If you see Sreejesh has been phenomenal and if someone has to dislodge him, he’ll need to put in a great effort,” he said.
“But having said that, I would like that we get a ’keeper of his quality soon, because hockey is such an uncertain sport. You never know what could happen. Sreejesh could get injured and if such a situation arises, I would like to see an equally capable or a better guy take his spot.”
Note: The story was first published in Deccan Herald on April 10, 2016