An Indian’s tribute to the Flying Horse

July 31, 2022

Reminiscences from the last golden era of Asian-style hockey and when Indians rooted for Pakistan

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The year 1982 was a delightful one for hockey lovers in India with Bombay hosting the fifth edition of World Cup and New Delhi hosting the 9th Asian Games.

It was an exciting time also because colour television was introduced in India for the first time. For young sports lovers it was an opportunity to see the dazzle of sport in colour.

India were reigning Olympic champions (Moscow 1980) in field hockey and as a young boy enamoured by the sport, I was looking forward to seeing the dribbling skills of Mohammad Shahid and the moves of Zafar Iqbal - both household names in India.

India played well in their group games but narrowly lost to both Netherlands and Australia and were out of the tournament.

However, in another group, there was one team that was making waves by playing the same style of hockey that India did - India's archrivals Pakistan. In the first match, Pakistan routed Argentina 6-1. That was followed by a 4-1 win over Spain. The third match was a total humiliation for New Zealand with Pakistan winning 12-3.

The match against Germany had a lot of twists. Pakistan began well and were 2-0 ahead but the Germans scored 3 successive goals. Eventually Pakistan won 5-3 as a result of a late goal from the left wing.

The final game against Poland was a cakewalk with a scoreline of 4-1.

Having started watching the tournament with the hope of seeing India dazzle I was witnessing Pakistan win all their group matches in great style. One man on the left flank played like a magician. No other left winger of any team ran as fast as Samiullah Khan of Pakistan. The speed with which he took the ball and moved towards the opponents' goal with total control was pulsating. It was like Diego Maradona going past the English defence in that quarterfinal at Mexico in 1986.

Samiullah had lightning speed combined with superb control and great precision to send in crosses from the left wing into the opponents' goal area. So precise were his crosses that they often led to goals.

The tournament was hit by a controversy when the then President of the International Hockey Federation, Rene Frank, remarked that despite Pakistan's initial success at the tournament the Indian style of hockey with five forwards was dead and the Europeans would outwit the Pakistanis with counter attack. This did not go down well with the Pakistanis but what was more surprising and heartening was that this did not go down well with the hockey lovers of India too who took pride in the Indian style of hockey.

As India had already been knocked out of the tournament, hockey lovers of the host nation saw Pakistan as the torch-bearer of the Asian style of hockey.

On January 10, 1982, playing Indian-style hockey, Pakistan defeated the Netherlands 4-2 and a few days later showed the same brilliant style of hockey to win 3-1 against Germany to lift the world cup trophy for the second successive time.

The full forward attack (5-3-2) with both wingers feeding the ball to the centre forward from left and right was too much for the Europeans to handle. The leader of that pack was the supersonic Samiullah. He moved the game ahead from the left flank with such great speed and control that it was impossible for the defenders to intercept.

Pakistan had a great team in late 1970s and early 1980s. Samiullah's brother Kaleemullah scored the winning goal in the 1982 world cup final and at the Los Angeles 1984 Olympics final to give Pakistan their third Olympic Gold.

During this period, Pakistan won the 1978 and 1982 world cups, the 1978 and 1982 Asian Games, the first two editions of the Champions Trophy and the 1984 Olympics and the first edition of the Asia Cup. Such was Pakistan's domination that they defeated India 7-1 in the 1982 Asian Games at Delhi.

It was an era that gave world hockey a centre forward like Hasan Sardar, a centre half like Akhtar Rasool, a midfielder like Hanif Khan and one of the greatest pairs of full backs in Manzoorul Hassan and Munawwaruz Zaman. Add to this the two brothers Samiullah and Kaleemullah on the left and right flank and no wonder Pakistan won so many prized trophies.

There was such abundance of talent that a great Olympian like Shahnaz Sheikh would often not find a place in the final eleven.

The city of Bahawalpur in Pakistan gave world hockey three gems from the same family. Samiullah's uncle Motiullah Khan won gold at the Rome Olympics (1960) and two silver medals at Melbourne (1956) and Tokyo (1964). He also won Gold at the 1962 Jakarta Asian Games.

The family won its first medal for Pakistan in 1956 and the last in 1984. The international hockey stadium in Bahawalpur is named after Motiullah.

Motiullah repeatedly acknowledged the contribution of Balbir Singh Sr to hockey not just in India but in Pakistan too. Motiullah also had the courage to say that sports and cultural exchanges should not be kept hostage to political relations. His great nephew Samiullah holds the same views. Motiullah got the Presidential Medal and Samiullah was honoured with Sitara-e-Imtiaz, the third highest civil award in Pakistan.

A statue of Samiullah has been constructed in the Model Town area of Bahawalpur. It is richly deserved because there was no better sight in sport than Samiullah playing hockey. The world's best defenders could not stop him and perhaps no hockey player could grip the stick with a light bottom hand and such flexible wrists.

Hockey is a sport of such speed that no tactics can be discussed during the match and the role of the captain is very limited during play. It is the off-field demeanour of the captain that motivates the team. Samiullah was outstanding in this regard. The President of the Pakistan Hockey Federation during that era was Air Vice Marshal Nur Khan who was a towering personality. Yet, Samiullah did not hesitate to take the players' demands to the President.

For his supersonic speed, he was named The Flying Horse by a German coach during the 1975 world cup. The 1982 World Cup Hockey came at a time in my life when I as a young boy was beginning to be mesmerised by the sport of field hockey. By the time the year ended with the Asian Games I was lucky to have witnessed one of the greatest hockey teams ever in the history of field hockey.

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