Indian origin Kenya’s Hockey Legend Avtar Singh Sohal fondly recalls his links with India
Avtar Singh Sohal does not miss any opportunity to visit the land of his forefathers in order to find his roots. Considered as the all time greatest Indian sportsperson outside India, Sohal has captained Kenyan hockey side in three Olympics games. Those were the days when it was power house in Hockey world thanks to Sikhs. “I came here with Kenyan side in 1962 for the first time to play test matches against the Indian side. When I reached the Bombay airport, I touched the pious soil of India. That feeling cannot be described in words,” says Sohal, who is now 78, and also known as ‘Tari’ in Hockey world.
Avtar boasts of four Olympic appearances as a player, a veteran who has been involved in hockey all his life. His standout performance saw him get a mention in the 1984 Guinness World Book of Records as having the most International appearances at that
time, having represented Kenya 167 times between 1957 and 1972. “It is a
phenomenal record that a player led his country three times as captain in Olympic games and played all together 4 times in Olympic games. Avtar is arguably the greatest Indian origin player,” says noted hockey commentator Jasdev Singh.
The memories of the Barcelona 1971 World Cup Hockey semi-final match between India and Kenya are still fresh in his mind. It was a tense semi-final match. India was down 0-1 at half-time due to goal from him. “We were in the threshold of knocking out India to clinch bronze medal in the first World Cup hockey championship. But, it did not happen as India scored two goals in the final moments”, recalls Avtar Singh Sohal.
Captained Three Times in Olympics
Avtar was appointed National team captain of Kenya in 1962 for a Test series against Pakistan, a role he maintained for 10 years when Kenya was ranked among the best teams in the world. Avtar was selected for the 1960 Olympic games for the first time as full back. He captained Kenya at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, Mexico (1968) and Munich (1972) and was also captain at the 1st World Cup in Barcelona in 1971.
Even though hockey side of Kenya was not there at Rio Olympic games, Avtar was there as an observer of FIH. “I used to cheer Indian side as and when they played against any other side except Kenya. I am
emotionally attached to India as my parents came from Jalandhar and India is also Guru Ghar,” said Sohal. There in Rio he met Sachin Tendulkar and both greats cheered Indian side sitting together.
Idolising Dhyan Chand
How did he develop interest in playing hockey? “I still remember Indian hockey side came to Kenya in 1948 under the captainship of Dhyan Chand. Those were the exciting times. It had several other stalwarts. After watching magician Dhyan Chand in a match, I developed keen interest in hockey. His dribbling and dodging were out of the world. My father had also encouraged me to play hockey. Prior to that, I used to play Cricket in School,” informs Avtar Singh Sohal.
Sikhs in Kenyan Hockey
Talking about the contribution of Sikhs in Kenyan hockey, Avtar Singh Sohal says that it was people from India, especially Sikhs, who introduced
hockey there. Mahan Singh was elected President of the Kenya Hockey Union in 1957. He was the life and soul of our hockey. The backbone of the Kenya National Team has been the Sikh Union Club, Nairobi. The Club which started as Khalsa Union in 1920 and became Sikh Union in 1926 fielded majority of players in the National team and won most of the domestic trophies in 1950s, 60s and 70s.
Avtar adds that the Sikhs have
represented Kenya at Olympic Games, World Cups, East African Championships and Africa Cup of Nations. Says Avtar, “I cannot think of life without hockey at all. After I retired from playing, I began a coaching career and was Kenyan National Coach from 1978-88, coaching them at the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles. I also took up umpiring and was awarded an FIH International Umpires badge in 1980. I was a judge at the 1988 Seoul Olympics and was appointed to the FIH Development and Coaching Committee in 1988.”
This truly ‘Olympic man’ still starts
trembling when he recalls the gory
incident that happened very close to him in Munich Olympic games in 1972. He was almost in tears while recounting those moments when athletes killed in the attack were taken to hospital.
A deeply religious Avtar Singh Sohal visiting Patna Saheb, Hazur Saheb
and many other Gurudwaras besides
visiting his ancestral village in Phagwara and Reetha Saheb Gurudwara in Uttrakhand, sees it as an article of faith for him. He is visiting there with his wife Ripudaman Kaur and other friends from Kenya for Sewa at the Reetha Sahib Gurudwara. “When I reach my ancestral village or Reetha Sahib, I get a feeling as I am in the lap of Guru Nanak Dev ji”, says Avtar Singh Sohal.
(The writer is a senior journalist and former editor of Somaiya Publications)