When India was playing Pakistan at hockey’s Asian Champions Trophy at Chennai, DD Sports was occupied with the live telecast of the newly launched arm-wrestling league. The Mayor Radhakrishnan Stadium was full but unlike the 1995 SAF Games face-off between the arch-rivals at the same venue, there wasn’t a crowd of close to 5,000 waiting outside the jam-packed house. The game on Wednesday did showcase that wristy subcontinent artistry but it didn’t have the magic of that 1995 game where Dhanraj Pillay would move forward like an angry storm, taking the entire stadium along with him, with Shahbaaz Ahmed flowing in the opposite end like a river in spate.
The one-sided contest, that had three penalty corner strikes and a handful of missed field goals, provided the distressing reminder that India vs Pakistan was no longer a mouth-watering rivalry that guaranteed riveting action. India’s 4-0 win didn’t exude gravitas, it had the look and feel of ‘just another league game’ of a continental tourney.
For once this was an Indo-Pak sporting encounter that didn’t warrant an emotional investment. There was no nervousness to cross fingers or utter a silent prayer under the breath. Unlike in the past, this Chennai game between nations with shared history and a similar hockey DNA, lacked the drama, intensity and most importantly world-class skills.
Back in the day, a hockey game between India and Pakistan, like Brazil vs Argentina in football, regardless of their world ranking, piqued the interest of all hockey lovers. At the World Cup and Olympics, neutrals would flock to see the delightful possibilities when supple wrists, prancing legs and an active mind work in tandem.
Dhyan Chand the wizard, Mohammad Shahid the dodger, Shahbaz the electric heels, Samiullah the Flying Horse and Hassan Sardar the Striker—their art would give them individual identity, and collectively they would build a brand that would appeal to those who value fine things in life. It was Jogo Bonito with a smaller, harder ball and a three feet curled wooden stick. Such was the mesmeric aura of the team they represented that even when they lost, those on the terraces would carry home stories of their charmingly mysterious play that would add to the myth of the sorcerers from the east.
It was said India’s rivals would often check Dhyan Chand’s stick for glue or magnets. There was also a story of how Hitler wanted him drafted in his Army after the Berlin Games and the grapevine even had it that in Vienna there was a statue with four hands. The Hitler bit could never be confirmed and the Vienna one was an outright lie but these unverified rumours show that Dhyan Chand’s game could spark imagination. In those pre-television times, fiction came in handy to describe the man who could send the stands in a hypnotic daze.
While India would dominate world hockey in the post-independence Dhyan Chand era, Pakistan would make its presence felt for two decades starting from the mid-70s. Till the mid-90s, the players in green would make a habit of climbing podiums at big tournaments. It was in the 80s that Pakistan unearthed a handsome centre forward with electric speed and a calm mind capable of discovering uncharted paths to the goal. He went by the intimidating name of Hassan Sardar.
At the Los Angeles Olympics, he scored a goal 7 seconds after the start. Cutting past the crowded mid-field, like an incredibly skillful biker dodging peak traffic, he reached the D. As a desperate measure the last defender nudged Sardar from behind. He didn’t fall, such was his balance that he gained speed because of the push and found the net while on run.
In his storied career, Sardar won gold medals at World Cups and Olympics but it was the 1982 Asian Games final win over India at New Delhi that he relishes the most. Long after his retirement, Sardar, in a PTV interview, available on Youtube, painted a vivid picture of the afternoon of their 7-1 defeat over hosts India. According to the Pakistan captain, who scored a couple of goals in the game, the venue, Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium, was so crowded that fans had made their way next to the playing area, lining the sidelines.
He shared the team tactics too. The Pakistan huddle was of the view that the best way to silence the crowd was scoring first. The plan didn’t work as India took the lead. Unfazed, Pakistan got back and scored two.
This opened the floodgates. “After the 5th goal, we were told madam Indira Gandhi had left the stadium,” recalls Sardar.
With India burning in rage, the rivalry would reach its peak. Those were the 80s, be it cricket or hockey, the roads of the two nations would have light traffic on match days. If it was Sharjah for cricket, hockey would have enticing bilateral series.
Two to tango
In 1986 Pakistan would tour India. That was the time Mohammad Shahid would be in the form of his life. He would nutmeg Sardar and the Pakistan star would lose his cool. The crowd would go wild, jump the fence and hug Shahid. Like Kapil Dev and Imran Khan in the past, Babar and Kohli now, the ‘who’s better’ debate would feature Sardar and Shahid. Hockey was very much part of the national conversation and consciousness.
The 90s were about Shahbaz Ahmed and Dhanraj Pillay – the baton-careers of the subcontinent wizardry. Since his early days in Faisalabad as a school boy, he was seen as gifted. With time the world would call him the Maradona of Hockey. Conveniently tall, his strides had the grace of a West Indies fast bowler of yore. He would lean over the ball, keep it well in front even when he was in full flow allowing his legs to break into a sprint. With him and Dhanraj, the India-Pakistan game was an opportunity to see the best in business.
Even when they retired or were fading, the rivalry didn’t diminish.
Though India and Pakistan were no longer podium contenders at big tournaments, they would put their body on the line for the bragging rights of their passionate fans. Case in point – the 2003 Champions Trophy epic at Amstelveen. It was the game where the daredevil defender Jugraj Singh would cancel out Pakistan’s star drag flicker Sohail Abbas with his blinding runs as a rusher. It was the game where India scored 5 goals in 19 minutes to win 7-4. It was a game of breath-taking goals scored after a series of sly passes, clever moves and cunning dodges.
Be it Dhyan Chand, Sardar, Shahbaz or Dhanraj, there is a common character that the Indian and Pakistan players have. This comes to the fore in Sardar’s PTV interview where the seasoned host, Moneeza Hashmi, asks the hockey legend an interesting question that has a short precursor.
Moneeza tells Sardar about a friend who had an interesting taunt for those with a deceitful personality. “He would say ‘badaa hockey player hai. Hockey dikhata kahin hai aur maarta kahin hai (He is a great hockey player. He points the hockey stick in one direction and hits the ball elsewhere). Do you think hockey is about being chalak (clever)?” she asked.
Sardar smiles, it’s like his pass has been read. “Hockey is all about chalaki, it’s about fooling your rival. If someone reads your pass, it can never be called a pass,” he says.
The other day at Chennai when India played Pakistan, you could read most of the passes. While following the ball, you missed the erstwhile chalaki. It was tragic. There’s no magic when you see through the tricks.