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Nairobi Sikhs celebrate the late Surjeet Singh Panesar

Surjeet Singh Panesar (Jr), Kenya’s four-time Olympian passes away

by Dil Bahra

8 November 2019

Surjeet Singh Panesar (Jr), affectionately known as Sindh, who represented Kenya at four Olympic Games, died in Nairobi, Kenya on Wednesday 6 November 2019 following a short illness. He was aged 81.
Sindh was born on 24 June 1938 in Nairobi, Kenya. His parents had emigrated to Kenya from India in 1919.
He studied at Duke of Gloucester School in Nairobi and went to India for further studies in 1954. He studied at Maharaja Patiala Public School and Patiala University. He played hockey for his school and university teams and during school holidays he played for Mohindra College. Harbail Singh, the legendary Indian Team Coach, who had coached India’s Gold Medal winning teams at Helsinki 1952 and Melbourne 1956 Olympic Games and who was his college coach, took him under his wings and had a big influence in his hockey. He also played football at school and university.
On returning to Kenya in 1957, he joined Sikh Union Nairobi, a Club which his father, Mr Balwant Singh Lalton, a very active sportsman, had a very deep association with
– he was one of the founders of Khalsa Club which later became Sikh Union Club.

Sindh represented Sikh Union Nairobi from 1957 to 1980, winning the Ujjager Singh Rai Cup; Kesar Singh Cup; Siri Guru Gobind Singh Cup and Aggarwal Cup in the 1957 – 58 season. He was a member of the Club’s team that won the M R D’Souza Gold Cup for a record thirteen times.

He represented the Asian Sports Association and was a member of the team that won the Kenya Cup in 1958.

Surjeet Junior seated 1st left with Sikh Union Nairobi Team 1970

He was selected to represent Nairobi X1 against England at City Park Stadium, Nairobi on 19 September 1958 and the following year he continued representing Nairobi X1 as a centre forward in the matches against India in Kenya.

He was selected to represent Kenya National team at the East African Championships (Rahim Jivraj Trophy) in Nairobi in May 1960 and earned his first international cap when he played against Uganda on 29 May 1960. Playing as a centre forward, he scored two goals on his debut, in Kenya’s 4 – 0 win and helped his team win the Championship for the second year running.
From that moment he became a regular for the National team, playing as a centre forward and was selected for Rome 1960 Olympic Games. He played in the 3 Test match series against Pakistan in Nairobi on the way to the Olympics.
Following the East African Championships held in Zanzibar in 1962 and retirement of Surjeet Singh Deol (Sr), Sindh took over the pivotal position of centre half and this is the position where he excelled. He played at Tokyo 1964 Olympic Games and started as a centre half at Mexico 1968 Olympic Games. An injury to the left back and captain of the Kenya team after only two matches at Mexico forced Sindh to take up the position of left full back for the rest of these Games.

Surjeet Junior standing 1st left with the Kenyan Team that toured India in April 1964.

On 27 April 1964 this team defeated India 0 – 3 in Jabalpur, this being India’s biggest defeat at that time in 184 internationals. Six months later, India won the Gold at Tokyo Olympics and Kenya finished 6th – her best Olympic Games position.

He was selected to represent Kenya at the first Hockey World Cup in Barcelona in 1971 where Kenya reached the semi-finals.

At Munich 1972 Olympic Games, Sindh played as right back. He retired from playing international hockey after these Games. At the Munich Olympics he became the first player to have played 31 matches, a record he held until 1988 when he was joined by Australia’s Richard Charlesworth. They both held this record until the London Olympic Games. The Rules of Hockey have changed over the years. The  Substitutes rule only came into existence in 1972 and now the rolling subs rule is in play.
He was one of three Kenyans to have played at four Olympic Games - Alu Mendonca and Avtar Singh Sohal being the others.

Surjeet Junior, standing 4th from left, with the Kenya Team at the 1st World Cup in Barcelona, Spain in 1971. Kenya finished fourth.


Avtar Singh Sohal (Tari), Kenya’s captain from 1962 - 1972 said “We were both very close friends and played together for many years for Sikh Union Club and for Kenya and both of us groomed many youngsters for the club. We were one in hockey and I will personally miss him as my very good friend and great hockey colleague. Condolences to our dear family.”
Surjit Singh Rihal, Kenya’s captain from 1973 – 81 paid this tribute “It was an honour to have played along with a great legend who inspired a lot of youngsters, including me, with his graceful stick work in Kenya to play and love hockey.  I admired and learned his style of scooping the ball. In 1969 l came back to Kenya after studying in India and joined the famous Sikh Union Club Nairobi so that l could play along with him. I took his position as centre half and he moved to right back position. Playing here at Sikh Union gave me a chance to learn more from his knowledge of hockey. We then played together for Sikh Union and Kenya in the  1971 World Cup and 1972 Munich Olympic Games. I admire him for his love for sports especially hockey and the respect he showed to all, both young and old people. I met him for the last time last year here in London along with many other Sikh Union players who had played together in the World Cup and Olympic Games with him. We will miss him but he will stay in the hearts of everyone.”
Raphael Fernandes, former Kenyan Olympian who now lives in Canada paid this tribute “Sindh was an Officer & a Gentleman – very soft spoken - and a Handsome

Personality with a dynamic International Etiquette and a Stylish Dress code! He was always the main attraction on the field – as he portrayed his Love / Discipline / Respect for the sport – with his Mastery / Brilliance / Skill / Experience / Expertise & Sportsmanship! He was my mentor and he always referred to me as “My Son” who has the longest strides with exhibition stick-work – but in reality I learned all the Golden Rules from the Master himself - and always tried to portray him!”
Davinder Singh Deegan, former Kenyan Olympian said “When I joined Sikh Union Club in 1965, Sindhi was the one who used to encourage me all the time. He was my pillar of strength when I started playing for Kenya. We played for Sikh Union and Kenya from 1965 to 1978. Throughout this time we were very close. He was a very honest and helpful gentleman should go out of his way to help anyone. We were roommates on many occasions on our tours and he was a fantastic roommate. He was a unique player who could play in any position.”

Cyprian Fernandes, journalist and author, who now lives in Australia, paid this tribute “When I saw Junior player for the first time, at centre-half for the Sikh Union I was like a stunned mullet. I had watched the visiting Indian, Pakistani and other visiting teams but I had never seen anyone take total command of a game as the supremo Junior did. He played hockey like  he  was  weaving  with  a  pair  of  knitting needles - he weaved between players, around players, found tiny crevasses in a closely packed defensive line and a flicked pass to the right or left or straight through the middle, especially to the right to Hilary Fernandes, and the move breached the defensive wall and Kenya was once again close to the D and poised dangerously for a goal. The very famous Hardial Singh once told me that the players were the ones that bent over and played close to the ground and yet had the ability to spring and watch what was happening in front of them or on either side. Junior was close to the ground, very close to the ground. I always marvelled at watching Junior in action.”

Ajmal Malik, former Kenyan Olympian, now residing in Islamabad, Pakistan said “Sindh was not only a great hockey player, but also a great colleague and friend. He was always there to help and provide guidance and advice on improving your hockey skills. During overseas tours he was always concerned about the well-being of his fellow players. He was a thorough gentleman with subtle sense of humour which always kept our spirits high.”

Hilary Fernandes former Kenyan Olympian, now residing in Toronto, Canada said “We were team mates in the Kenya National team for almost 13 years, representing the Country in almost all the matches that Kenya played during this period, at home and abroad. We played three Olympic Games together. What a pleasure it was playing alongside a very talented and gifted young hockey player. He made life easy for all of us on the field with his support and encouragement. He was capable of playing in any position if called upon, but was a star when he played in his preferred position as centre-half. He was in the driver’s seat and feared no opposition. I also had the privilege and pleasure of playing with him from 1965 – 1969 for one of the best hockey teams in the country – Sikh Union Club Nairobi. He was a well-groomed

guy who wouldn’t take any nonsense from anyone when he was on the field, he was in command and full of confidence.”

Silu Fernandes, former Kenyan Olympian, now residing in Toronto, Canada had this to say: “My friend and team mate Surjeet Jr. dazzled the world of hockey, both on and off the field at the Olympics in Rome, Tokyo, Mexico City and Munich and Test matches in India, Pakistan and at home in Kenya. Showmanship and style were the undiluted essence of his life on and off the field and puts him right up there on the ranking of the world’s top sportsmen ...most certainly on mine ! Our team mates, here in Toronto, Hillary, Raphael and Leo Fernandes, Norman da Costa and I were very fortunate to meet up with the Maestro during his short visit in April of last year.”

Amarjeet Singh Marwa, former Kenyan Olympian said “I joined Sikh Union & the Kenya National Hockey teams in 1965 & met Surjeet for the first time. I was immediately captivated by his dedication, fitness & skill. He was a master class playmaker & during my playing career at Sikh Union, we lost only one game out of hundreds we played, sweeping all the tournaments, thanks to Surjeet & Avtar's help in defence. It was the same with the National team in World Cups & Olympic  Games. Surjeet was our guiding light for the young players & he was always helpful on & off the field. I am greatly honoured to have played with him. In the summer of 2018 in London, I, with some of my Olympic colleagues, had the opportunity of meeting him for the last time when we talked about our hockey conquests! We all will miss him greatly.”

Harvinder Singh Sibia, former Kenyan Olympian, now residing in the UK said “Surjeet Panesar - An amazing player with captivating skills, immense technical know - how with a gentle and polite demeanour to all those who came into contact with him. I had the opportunity to play alongside him and found his tips and encouragement very illuminating. A great player who stood among the best in the world.”

Jack Simonian, former Kenyan Olympian, now residing in the UK paid this tribute: “Sindhi, as he was popularly known, was a good friend of mine throughout my long period at Sikh / Simba Union in Nairobi. I am proud to describe him as a well- meaning character who would never have a negative word to say about anyone! "Rare at any time". At Hockey, he was a "Gentle Wizard" with his stick work and distribution of the ball to penetrative movements. He really understood the meaning of "The Craft of Hockey" by listening to people like our Mahan Singh and others from India who were on hand to advise in his maturing ages. To have listened and accepted the advice given shows, in my opinion, "Humbleness". I am proud to have known him and will miss his presence.”

Edgar Fernandes, former Kenyan Olympian, now residing in Melbourne, Australia paid this tribute: “Sindhi as he was affectionately known, was in my opinion, the greatest centre-half of his era, in the world. He was a player of great distinction, dedicated, determined, and it was a pleasure to play with him in my time, including the Rome and Tokyo Olympics. But as a person he exuded an air of confidence, was always impeccably dressed, had a great sense of humour, very friendly, courteous, and extremely helpful. He will always be remembered for not only his exceptional

ability in Hockey but also his outstanding personality. He was one of the greatest hockey players of Kenya.”

Norman Dacosta, former hockey correspondent of Daily Nation (Kenya), now residing in Canada, had this to say: “Sindhi was a field hockey icon and I had the unique opportunity of playing against him for the Railway Goan Institute 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 was fortunate enough to meet Surjeet in Toronto and later in Nairobi in 2018 and visit his beautiful home that he designed. And his garden was something to behold. Apart from his exploits on the field, Surjeet was a great cook and his chicken koroga was out of this world.”

(published on Monday 8 November 2019)

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