Surjeet Singh Panesar “Sindhi” played hockey for an unbroken 23 years, taking in over 1,000 matches for his beloved Sikh Union Nairobi, Club from 1957 to 1980.
During that period, the architect also donned the Kenya shirt, earning 165 caps that took in one fourth place finish at the World Cup and 31 world record setting matches at four consecutive Olympic Games. His world record stood for the next 40 years.
He passed on in Nairobi on the evening of November 6 at the age of 83.
Known affectionately and popularly as “Junior” or “Sindhi,” his passing on has brought down the curtain on a true sporting colossus.
A one club man, he only played for his beloved Sikh Union Hockey Club, Nairobi, in an illustrious senior hockey career.
Together with the late Alu Mendonca and the living Avtar Singh Sohal “Tar,” they represented Kenya at an astonishing 473 international matches, all documented.
Of these Panesar’s tally was 165.
Panesar was born in Nairobi on June 24, 1936, and took up the game, at the Duke of Gloucester, School, in Nairobi. His parents — father Balwant Singh Lalton and mother Tar Kaur — had emigrated to Nairobi in 1918.
Upon graduating from the Duke of Gloucester 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.
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 UK, Germany, The Netherlands, Spain, Canada, USA and Zimbabwe.
At club level, he won every club competition of the time, receiving several accolades, along the way.
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.
He captained his club for three years, between 1975 and 1977, with his versatility seeing him play at either centre-half or full-back.
Other than the full Kenya 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 19 September 1958.
Panesar first represented Kenya on September 20 1959 in Nairobi against Rhodesia. Kenya won that match 4-0 and 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 1972 Munich Olympics. Kenya also won that match 2-1 and, fittingly, his long-time team mate “Tari” scored Kenya’s winning goal.
This match was to later acquire global historical significance. (Back to it later.)
Upon returning home, Panesar then played competitively for a further eight years for Sikh Union Club, Nairobi, eventually calling it a day in 1980.
Internationally, Panesar’s playing highlights would almost certainly have been becoming a four time Olympian for Kenya and taking Kenya to fourth place at the inaugural Hockey World Cup, in Barcelona.
Panesar represented Kenya at four consecutive Summer Olympic games.
These were at Rome (1960), Tokyo (1964), Mexico (1968) and Munich (1972).
Together with Alu Mendonca (who died on March 10, 2017) and “Tari,” they became the first Africans to represent their nations at four Olympiads.
“Tari,” who still lives in Nairobi, made the Guniness Book of World Records in 1984 for his hockey exploits and was Kenya’s captain at the 1964, 1968 and 1972 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 Olympics, 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.”
In his own words: “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.
Of the latter, I quote him: “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.” (I have the fading yellow copy cutting of this publication.)
On his other great moment: “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.”
Continued “Tari” on the same: “So, yes, 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, Panesar spoke with despair. “We have not been to the Olympics for 30 years now. During that time, teams that we routinely been at the Olympics have since gone on to become either world or Olympic champions. Tragic.”
The record books certainly bear him out.
Of the 31 matches that Kenya played at the summer Olympics between 1960 and 1972, at various times they beat Australia, Germany, The Netherlands, Argentina and the UK among others. All of these nations, have since gone on to 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 31st consecutive match at the Olympics. It was also a milestone as no other person had until that date played 31 matches in field hockey at the Summer Olympics.
This record byPanesar remained unbroken for 40 years, till the 2012 London Olympics.The stuff of true sporting legends.
Panesar was to African hockey what Joginder Singh Bhachu was to African motorsports, Kipchoge Keino to African athletics and Jackson Omaido to African rugby.
Upon hearing of the passing on of his great friend and long time Olympic sporting team member, “Tari” spoke to Nation Sport from India and mourned his team mate.
“Sindhi, was a class act. Pure genius with 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 a phenomenal human being.”
Survived by his wife of 60 years Kuldip Kaur “Dipi” and sons Jagpal Singh “Pali”and Prithpal Singh “Bilo,” his funeral service took place in Nairobi on Saturday, November 9, 2019.
It was preceded by a befitting hockey stick guard of honour on the AstroTurf of the Sikh Union Club.
“Sindhi,” unmatched and unforgettable, global hockey colossus. Thank you for the cherished memories, great man!