King of Hockey

Sanjana Roy Choudhury

Avtar Singh Sohal Tari The Greatest Sikh Sportsman Away from India

If one were to ask the question: Who is the greatest Sikh sportsman outside India, the answer undoubtedly would be: Avtar Singh Sohal, affectionately know as ‘Tari’.

A Living Legend of Hockey

At six feet tall, a sturdy physique, and now eighty years of age, Tari is known all over the hockey world for his stupendous achievements in the sport. He has represented Kenya at four Olympic games: 1960 (Rome), 1964 (Tokyo, captain), 1968 (Mexico, captain), and 1972 (Munich, captain).

Tari was also the Kenya team captain at the very 1st World Cup held in Barcelona in 1971 where Kenya narrowly lost to India in the bronze medal match and finished fourth overall.

Tari represented Kenya from 1957-72 and was capped 167 times. After he retired he embarked on a coaching career and was Kenyan national coach from 1978-88, including the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. Tari also took up umpiring and was awarded an FIH (Fédération Internationale de Hockey) International Umpires badge in 1980. He was a judge at the Seoul Olympics in 1988 and was appointed to the FIH Development and Coaching Committee the same year. In the year 2000, Tari was presented with the Diploma of Merit by the FIH for his services to the game of hockey. There undoubtedly cannot be found another equivalent. Tari breathes hockey and travels across the globe for the sport.

From Phagwara to Kenya

Tari doesn’t miss a single opportunity to visit the land of his forefathers to stay connected to his roots. His father, Sardar Pyara Singh, who was in the British Air Force, migrated to Kenya with his wife, Parmeshwari Kaur in 1936 from village Virk in the Phagwara district of Punjab. Those were the days when Kenya was under colonial rule. Sardar Pyara Singh and his wife settled in quite easily as there were hundreds of Sikhs and Indians already working there. It was in Nairobi that Tari was born on 22 March 1938. Tari was educated at City Primary School and Duke of Gloucester School, both in Nairobi where he played hockey and cricket for the school teams.

Whilst at high school Tari started playing with the juniors of his local side Sikh Union Club Nairobi. Tari recalls that it was another hockey Kenyan legend Surjeet Singh Deol ‘Senior’ who spotted his talent and started nurturing him. He was impressed by what he saw and added to Tari’s talent was his height, which was a great advantage. Upon Deol Senior’s insistence, Tari filled in for one of the two fullbacks who had retired from the 1st eleven with Sikh Union Nairobi Club. He gained his first international cap for Kenya when he was selected to play against South Africa at the age of nineteen.

Tari was part of this great Club side that won the first ever M. R. D’Souza Gold Cup in Kenya in 1959. Post this win he was selected for the 1960 Rome Olympics and was appointed national team captain in 1962 for a test series against Pakistan. From then on he led Kenya for a period of ten years during which time Kenya was amongst the best teams in the world and they played India and Pakistan regularly, beating both powerhouses home and away.

Tari belongs to that very elite club of players that has represented his country in multiple Olympics, an honor that hardly anyone can boast of. Says an emotionally charged Tari during this interview: ‘I first came to India with the Kenyan side in 1962. I was very excited to visit the land of my forefathers. When I landed in Bombay, I touched the pious soil of India. That feeling cannot be described in words. It is the land of our gurus.’

Rock-like Full Back

Tari was truly an amazing fullback. It was simply impossible to dodge him when he was in form. The memories of the Barcelona 1971 World Cup semi-final between India and Kenya are still fresh in his mind. It was a tense semi-final. India was down 0-1 at halftime thanks to a goal by him. ‘We were at the threshold of knocking out India to claim the bronze medal in the first World Cup hockey championship. But that was not meant to be as India scored two goals in the final moments,’ recalls Tari. In that match, India had five Sikh players and Kenya had seven Sikh players. Most of them were originally from Sansarpur in Jalandhar district of Punjab.

‘I had watched him play in the Barcelona World Cup. It was Tari all the way leading from the front. He was a phenomenal full back player,’ recalls Jasdev Singh, inarguably of the finest commentators of the game of hockey.

The inevitable question is: How did he become such a great fullback? Tari explains. ‘I started playing as fullback right from my school days. It is an extremely challenging position. There are two fullbacks in hockey mainly responsible for ensuring that the opposition’s chances to score a goal are minimized. They not only stop attacks on their side but also cover other defensive positions. They have the added responsibility of taking free hits inside their own half. Many full-backs in world teams are also known for their scoring ability through penalty corners.’

Sanjana Roy Choudhury