The hockey fraternity is mourning following the death of Kenyan hockey legend Surjeet Singh Panesar in Nairobi on Wednesday.
Known affectionately and popularly as ‘Junior’ or ‘Sindhi’, his passing on, has brought down the curtain on a true sporting colossus; not just Kenyan but a global figure.
A one-club man, he only ever played for his beloved Sikh Union Hockey Club, Nairobi, in an illustrious career that begun in 1957 and ended in 1980.
Comfortable at either centre-half or full-back, his astonishing 23 years of playing top class hockey, brought with it numerous accolades, that cannot possibly be done justice to in this brief article.
Together with Avtar Singh Sohal ‘Tari’ and the late Alu Mendonca, they represented Kenya in a combined 473 international matches, all documented.
Of these, Panesar’s tally was 165.
So who exactly was Panesar and why do I refer to him as a global hockey colossus?
Panesar was born in Nairobi on June 24, 1936 and took up the game of hockey during his early schooling days at the Duke of Gloucester, School, in Nairobi. His parents, Balwant Singh Lalton and mother Tar Kaur, had emigrated to Nairobi in 1918.
Upon graduating from the Duke of Glocester School, Nairobi, Junior returned to India, for his high school and University education. He graduated from Patiala University, in Architecture, specializing in interior architecture.
He thereafter returned to Nairobi in 1957 and put in an illustrious 23 year playing shift for his beloved Sikh Union Nairobi, hockey club.
He played over 1000 matches for Sikh Union Club, Nairobi, both locally and on overseas tours. His tours took him to among other nations, Tanzania, Uganda, Pakistan, Zambia , the United Kingdom, Germany, The Netherlands, Spain, Canada, USA and Zimbabwe.
At club level, he won every club competition of the time and was also honoured severally by his club. Cups won, were among others the D’Souza Gold Cup, the Kenya Cup, Ujjager Singh Rai Cup, Kesar Singh Cup, Aggarwal Cup and the prestigious Siri Guru Gobind Singh Cup.
Other than the national team, Junior also represented other select teams. These were notably Nairobi XI and Asian Sports Association. On the former team he played against England in Nairobi on September 19, 1958.
Panesar first represented Kenya on September 20, 1959 in their 4-0 win against Rhodesia in Nairobi. He scored a goal on his debut. The last time he donned the Kenya shirt was on September 7, 1972. This was in a match against Argentina at the 19772 Munich Olympics. Kenya also won that macth 2-1 and fittingly, his long time teammate, Avtar Singh Sohal ‘Tari’, scored Kenya’s winning goal.
This match was to later acquire historical significance and lend credence to my earlier remarks here, that he was a truly global hockey figure.
Upon returning home, Sindhi then played competitively for a further eight years for Sikh, eventually calling it a day in 1980.
Internationally, Junior’s playing highlights, would almost certainly have been the following. Becoming a four-time Olympian for Kenya and taking Kenya to fourth place in the world at the inaugural Hockey World Cup, in Barcelona.
Panesar represented Kenya at four consecutive Olympics. These were at Rome 1960, Tokyo 1964, Mexico 1968 and Munich 1972.
Together with Alu Mendonca and Avtar Singh Sohal, they became the first Africans to represent their nations at four Olympics.
Sohal, who still lives in Nairobi, made the Guinness book of records in 1984 for his hockey exploits and was Kenya’s captain at the '64, ’68 and ’72 Olympics.
Pakistan played a three test series in Nairobi on their way to the Rome Olympics in 1960. Panesar put in such a cracking performance, that he was immediately called up for the games. He was thereafter never to relinquish the centre half or full back position, till retirement in 1972.
Mendonca had already represented Kenya at the Melbourne Summer Games in 1956.
I was privileged to sit down with both Panesar and Tari in late 2018. This was during the 50th Anniversary of their Mexico Games exploits. It was then that Panesar, informed me of the origins of the nick name ‘Junior’.
"When I joined the Kenya Olympics team in 1960 the returning captain from our inaugural Olympics appearance in Melbourne was Surjeet Singh Deol. He was still captain in 1960. So to differentiate between the two of us, I was nick named ‘Junior’ and Deol ‘Senior’."
During the same interview, Panesar, had a lot to say on his hockey odyssey. He spoke passionately on the current state of Kenyan hockey and also recollected his two greatest hockey playing moments.
“I had two unforgettable playing moments, even though one came with a tinge of regret. Beating India the reigning Olympic champions, in Jabalpur in 1964. We led 3-0 at half time and eventually won 4-0. We were on our way to the Tokyo Olympics and the Indian press at the time, went to town classifying me as the best centre half in the world.”
“At the inaugural Barcelona Hockey World Cup, we came through our pool games, pretty much unscathed. A suspicious refereeing call meant that Pakistan progressed ahead of us, to play in the final, against Spain. We thus took on the mighty Indians, for the bronze medal. They beat us 2-1 and only after extra time, with Tari our scorer.”
“We returned to Kenya as the fourth best hockey nation in the world, but we and the rest of the world knew, that for some biased refereeing calls against us, in our previous match, we would have met Pakistan in the final and undoubtedly taken them to the cleaners."
This bronze medal match was played on Sunday October 24, 1971.
On the state of Kenya hockey, Sindhi spoke with despair: "We have not been to the Olympics for 30 years now. During that time, teams that we routinely beat at the Olympics have since gone on to become either World or Olympic champions. Tragic."
The record books certainly paint a similar picture. Of the 31 matches that Kenya played at the Olympics between 1960 and 1972, we beat Australia, Germany, The Netherlands, Argentina and the UK among others. All of these nations, have since gone on to taste Olympic glory.
At the outset of this story I alluded to the historical significance of Panesar’s last Olympic Games outing on September 7, 1972 against Argentina at the Munich Olympics.
It was his 31 consecutive match at the Olympics. It was also a milestone as no other person had till that date played 31 matches in field hockey at the Olympics. This record by Sindhi remained unbroken for 40 years, till the 2012 London Olympics.
Panesar was to African hockey what Joginder Singh Bhachu was to African motorsports, Kipchoge Keino to athletics and Jackson Omaido to rugby.
Upon hearing of the passing on of his great friend, Tari said: "Sindhi was a class act. Pure genius with the hockey stick in hand. At his best, he could have played, with distinction for any hockey nation on the earth. A great sports man and the perfect gentleman off the pitch. If you never saw Sindhi play, you missed out on a sporting spectacle. My unforgettable friend.”
Also mourning him was Del Mudher, the curator of the Sikh Union Nairobi, hockey museum. “Sindhi, uncle the most gentle of gentlemen, a softly spoken man of many stories. Loved all and was loved by all both in his hey days and in his twilight years. He will be greatly remembered as a phenomenal player but for me who never saw him on a hockey field, I will cherish his memories as phenomenal human being.”
Only slowed down by illness over the past year, Panesar was nonetheless still involved with his beloved Sikh Union Club, till the very end. He was an integral part of the management committee that put together all the hard work and unveiled their astro-turf pitch mid this year.
Junior is survived by his wife Kuldip Kaur ‘Deepi' and his two sons Dr. Jagpal Singh ‘Pali’ and Prithpal Singh ‘Bilo’.
His funeral service takes place Saturday morning at Sikh Temple Pangani from 11am, with his final rites at the Hindu Kariokor Crematorium from 12 noon.
Sindhi, unmatched and unforgettable, global hockey colossus. Thank you for the cherished memories, great man.