Versatile Balwant Singh makes strong case for national recall
When Balwant Singh picked up a diagonal pass from Manuel Lanzarote, turned his marker and curled the ball in to score ATK's first goal of the season, his first professional coach Sukhwinder Singh was watching on television, admiring the strides made by his ward since his first season with JCT over a decade ago.
"Dekho kitna accha goal kiya abhi (look how well he scored that goal)," says Sukhwinder of Balwant, adjudged player of the match in ATK's 2-1 win against Delhi Dynamos that got them off the mark for the season.
As ATK make the trip to their coach Steve Coppell's previous club, Jamshedpur FC, on Sunday, the onus on Balwant is not just to maintain his form, but also serve a reminder to national coach Stephen Constantine about his utility to India for the Asian Cup next January.
Balwant's game is full of attributes that would make any coach want him on their squad. He is approaching 32 but runs all day long. He can operate as centre forward and drop along the wings. He heads the ball well and knows how to contribute to defence. His work rate on Wednesday evening against Delhi was noticeable, allowing the muscular Kalu Uche and the elegant Lanzarote to run the show along the centre, as he and teenager Komal Thatal worked the left and right channels, respectively.
Sukhwinder says this work rate was what set him out when he started off with the JCT academy.
"When he came in, there were many good players who just wanted to be at JCT," he says. "I remember this guy's target wasn't just to play for JCT. He used to be very aggressive right at the start of the season, and that aggression would invariably lead to injuries. He would then sit out for two to four months. I vividly remember these injuries, which sometimes came from over-eagerness to shoot when the angle was either difficult or impossible."
With time, Balwant learned to hedge his bets, moving to Salgaocar and Churchill Brothers after JCT withdrew their team in 2011. Balwant is also the first Indian to have scored in ISL history, for Chennaiyin FC, but endured a dry spell in the two seasons in Chennai, as also at Mohun Bagan, when a friend in the media got him to seek out Sukhwinder.
"Balwant was injury prone because of his aggressive game, and I gave him the example of Jo-Paul Ancheri," says Sukhwinder, who coached former India captain Ancheri alongside IM Vijayan and Bhaichung Bhutia in the title winning JCT team of 1997.
"When he [Ancheri] played for a big club, they would rush him into games as soon as he recovered, and then he would get injured again. We got him to practise for one month after an injury and when then he played the rest of the season, Ancheri won many matches single-handed. This is what I advised Balwant. Don't rush back into competition once you recover."
The old JCT group had a reunion at Chennaiyin goalkeeper Karanjit Singh's wedding earlier in the summer, and Sukhwinder remembers how Balwant told him Constantine himself had felt he blooded Balwant too late for India, in 2017.
"Balwant missed an open goal against Bengaluru FC for Mohun Bagan while Constantine was watching in the stands. These kinds of things stick in your mind when you sit down to select your team," says Sukhwinder of a feeble attempt at a finish during the epic 1-1 draw that won Bagan their first national title in 13 years, in 2015.
With the Asian Cup finals just over two months away, and friendlies against Syria and Palestine lined up over the next international break, Sukhwinder agrees Balwant could be back in contention, especially with a dip in form for Jeje Lalpekhlua.
"We mistake professionalism with those who take good money for their services, but being professional is all about being committed," says Sukhwinder, highlighting Sunil Chhetri and Balwant among the current crop. "Those at the top who want to stay at the top -- that for me is professionalism."