Tuesday, November 12, 2019

Norman Da Costa: Surjeet Panesar, celebration of an elegant icon, always

 This is at the Mahan Hall of Fame in Nairobi with Will Lobo, Delphine Da Costa, Ramesh Bhalla, Norman, Avtar and Surjeet.
Sindhi with Malkit Singh Sondh, Olympic Village, Munich, 1972

 Surjeet was chief guest of Silu Fernandes when he visited Toronto in 2017. 

Leo Fernandes, Silu Fernandes, Sindhi, Hilary Fernandes, Norman Da Costa

Silu, Sindhi, Hilary ... a gallery of great icons


By Norman Da Costa

There was an aura around him when he took his place at the centre of the field. Surjeet Singh Panesar - also known as Sindhi or Junior - was always the centre of attention not only because of the position he occupied on the field. Everything he did smacked elegance. He mastered the art of pinpoint passing, timely tackling and deft dribbling. But what elevated him to a higher level as one of the finest centre-halves in the world was his vision. Gifted by this unique ability, this classy player could open up holes in the opposing defences for his teammates. This great centre-half for Kenya and Sikh Union passed away in Nairobi at the age of 81 after a brief illness on Nov. 6, 2019. He leaves behind his wife Deepi and a family spread across England, Canada and the United States.

 His death has left many fans and his international teammates speechless. This doesn’t come as a surprise as Sindhi endeared himself to his teammates and supporters alike always put his team ahead of individual accolades
 “Sindhi, as we used to call him, was in his day one of the best centre-halves in the world,” said ex-international teammate Edgar Fernandes who lives in Melbourne. “His death leaves me speechless, but he will be remembered and admired for not only for his exceptional ability in hockey, but his outstanding personality.”

Edgar was Sindhi’s Olympic teammate and also played at the club level against him for several years for Nairobi Goan Institute against the Sikh Union. Edgar was one of Kenya’s three greatest wizards of the dribble in the game along with Hilary Fernandes and Sindhi.

Surjeet was one of three players to represent Kenya at four Olympics with the late left-winger Alu Mendonca and full-back Avtar Singh who were both selected for a world X1 during Kenya’s heydays. Surjeet was born in Nairobi and received his early hockey training in India at the Maharaja Patiala Public School and Patiala University where he was trained by the legendary Harbail Singh, who coached India to Olympic gold in Helsinki in 1952 and Melbourne in 1956. On returning to Nairobi he joined Sikh Union, the most dominant club team in East Africa, with whom he hoisted the M.R. de Souza Gold Cup, the Blue Riband of hockey tournaments in Africa, a record 13 occasions. While he made his mark as a centre half the versatile Surjeet started his international career as a centre forward and ended it as a full back. He won his first international cap on May 29, 1960 against Uganda up front as the centre half position was filled by the great Surjeet Singh Deol. To differentiate between the two Surjeets, Deol was called Senior and Sindhi was universally referred to as Junior. Junior made an immediate impact in his international debut with two goals in Kenya’s 4-0 triumph and eventually moved to centre half when Senior retired following the East African Championships in Zanzibar in 1962. The versatile Sindhi, who also filled in as a fullback, earned more than a 100 caps and was an integral member of the national team ever since 1960 when he was picked for the Olympics in Rome where Kenya finished eighth. He was a member of Kenya’s greatest teams in the 1960s and ’70s including Tokyo four years later where the country finished sixth. A couple of right bounces and Kenya could have ended on the Olympic podium in Tokyo but it was never to be. Kenya was eighth in Mexico in 1968 and 13th in Munich in 1972 where Sindhi played in his last international after a record 31 Olympic matches.

Fellow internationals Silu Fernandes and Hilary Fernandes, who both now reside in Toronto, heaped praise on their teammate.

“My friend and teammate Surjeet dazzled the opposition with his style internationally, at home and abroad and at the Olympics,” said Silu Fernandes, who played for the Railway Goan Institute and was vice-captain of the national team. “He will surely rank as among the best in the world.” And Hilary Fernandes, who played against Surjeet for Kenya Police and the Railway Goan Institute and later as his teammate on Sikh Union, added, “Surjeet was a natural and gifted hockey player.

“I enjoyed playing alongside him on one of the finest club teams ever for almost five of my glorious hockey playing years.” Amar Singh, another Sikh Union and Kenya teammate, who lives in Calgary, considered Surjeet one of the greats of Kenya hockey. “He was one of Sikh Union’s most outstanding players and I will always remember that when I captained the club he was always punctual.”
Full-back Raphael Fernandes played with Surjeet in his later years. “He was my mentor and he always referred to me as his son. I learned a lot from Surjeet and always tried to portray him,’’ said Fernandes who also resides in Toronto.
Apart from being an exceptional player, Sindhi also made a fashion statement for being stylishly dressed and always perfectly groomed.

One of Surjeet’s closest friends was teammate and full back Avtar Singh, who I was fortunate to make contact with two days ago, while he is vacationing in India. 
“Right from the start of our careers we were close family friends,’’ said Avtar. “There was great understanding among us, on the field and off the field, we had a fantastic time and you know about it.”

Avtar, who lives in Nairobi, added he and Surjeet engaged in a competition when it came to taking penalty hits. “If I missed he would take the next one. I will miss a great guy.”

 Uganda’s international centre-forward Malkit Singh came face to face with Surjeet on several occasions at the club level and internationally. The dashing centre forward for Kampala Sikh Union played against Surjeet from 1964 to 1972 in the Gold Cup and in the East African championships. “Sindhi was a legend; he invented the scoop shot which became his signature play. I always remember him as the defensive backbone of the Kenya & Nairobi Sikh Union teams,’’ added Malkit who lives in England. “He was naturally talented, intelligent and a very good game reader of the game. He loved to dress well, had an immaculate beard and turban, loved cooking and enjoyed his whisky.”

Sindhi was a field hockey icon and I had the unique opportunity of playing against him for the RGI and also reporting on who in my opinion was one of the greatest centre-halves of his era that included some extraordinary Indians and Pakistanis. Off the field, he was a dapper individual with a sense of good clothing and an immaculate beard and turban. I recently met Surjeet in Nairobi in 2018 when I and my wife Delphine were invited to Sikh Union by him, Avtar, Del Mudher and Ramesh Bhalla. They presented me with an autographed brochure of the club at the newly-built Mahan Hall of Fame that houses photographs of all of the club’s capped players. Of course, no visit would be possible without Sindhi cooking his world-famous chicken koroga dish. We then visited this talented architect’s house he designed on the outskirts of Nairobi. We were invited to this fabulous house along with Willie Lobo, a former soccer goalkeeper with Kisumu Hotstars and photographer Anil Vidyarthi, my colleague for several years with the Daily Nation.
His garden was a picture of colour and included a fish pond, a waterfall and a huge barbeque area tended by his wife Deepi. Farewell, my friend. My other regret about the passing away of an icon was that I will never receive the koroga recipe he had promised me.  

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