‘Hockey has been my first love’

February 25, 2018

Former PCB chairman Shaharyar Khan talks about his long association with hockey and laments the country’s downfall in the sport

Shaharyar Khan, a former foreign secretary of Pakistan, has had two tenures as the Chairman of the Pakistan Cricket Board. The second ended only a few months back. But hockey has always been his first love; not surprising since he comes from Bhopal, hockey’s biggest centre in the undivided India.

He is a scion of Bhopal’s royal family. His mother was the eldest daughter of Hamidullah Khan, the last ruler of the princely state, now the capital of Madhya Pradesh. The family migrated to Pakistan in 1950, when he was 17.

Shaharyar has always been a keen follower of hockey. Not only international fixtures, he is often seen in stadiums during local tournaments; has also written articles on hockey for Pakistan’s big newspapers. Only a few weeks back, Shaharyar, now 84, was at the National Hockey Stadium, Lahore, watching the high-profile World XI vs Pakistan match.

Here, he talks about memories of Bhopal, Pakistan hockey and the game in general. "I was born in a hockey town. Bhopal was steeped in hockey. My mother played the game and had a team of her own named Pink Elephant. She also patronised a club Noorus Saba for children who played on a ground adjacent to our big residence, where I started. Anwaar Ahmed Khan, Pakistan’s legendary centre half, played in our kids’ team. I mostly played at the left out position.

"Hockey was everywhere: grounds, roads, narrow streets. Rich and poor all played. Not affording a proper hockey stick, many played with wooden sticks cut directly from the trees. There must be around one hundred clubs/teams.

-- The prominent local sides

"The army teams, Sultania Infantry and Gohar-i-Taj Infantry, plus Police were strong departmental sides. Among private teams, Sikandria, Hamidia, Heroes and Iqtidaria Clubs were prominent. But Bhopal Wanderers stood out; became city’s pride. Interestingly, it didn’t originate in Bhopal. A number of Bhopal boys including some from the royal family were studying in the Aligarh Muslim University. In 1931, they entered a team in a tournament with the name of Bhopal Wanderers. When they returned to Bhopal, the Bhopal Wanderers also arrived in the city. Patronised by the local royalty, in no time it became the strongest side not only in Bhopal but the entire country, winning all the major events such as Bombay’s Agha Khan Cup, Calcutta’s Beighton Cup and Madras’s MCC Murugappa Gold Cup."

-- Bhopal itself held a mega annual tournament

"Iqtidaria Hockey Tournament started by the Iqtidaria Club, later called All India Ubaidullah Khan Gold Cup, was another pride of the town. It attracted top teams from all over the country: Punjab, Bannu, Bengal, Indore, and Jhansi. Legends like Dhyan Chand, Balbir Singh, Hameedi, all came. There used to be a carnival atmosphere. Families thronged the Aishbagh Stadium and a crowd of around 10,000 was a common sight. They were knowledgeable and appreciated the fine points of the game."

-- The town was a cradle of quality players

"All this meant that Bhopal became a big nursery. The 1936 Olympics gold medal winning team of India included Ahsan Mohammad Khan and Ahmed Sher Khan (father of Aslam Sher Khan who played a stellar role in India’s only World Cup victory in 1975), and there was no looking back. Quite a few Bhopalis later served Pakistan hockey. Akhtar Hussain, Latifur Rahman and that great dribbler Habibur Rahman have the distinction of appearing in the Olympics for both India and Pakistan. Then there was Anwaar Ahmed Khan, who started as a kid with me at Noorus Saba, and came to be known as Pakistan’s all-time great centre half. One Bannay Khan, the indefatigable midfielder was perhaps the best of them. He used to play in Aligarh pyjamas and refused to wear shorts -- the reason for his non-inclusion in the Indian Olympic team of 1936."

-- His own hockey prowess

"I wasn’t that good. I studied outside Bhopal, in Indore and Dehradun, and played for the school teams. Later, during my Cambridge University days, I did play for the university side a few teams without gaining blue; didn’t appear in a varsity match against Oxford University."

-- Love for the game never abated

"During my diplomatic career, I often played club hockey as per the circumstances and also travelled to Pakistan’s big matches whenever I could. In 1963, stationed in Tunis, I went on a holiday to Lyons, France, for the Pre-Olympic tournament. I had quite a few stints in Europe, and my holidays often revolved around the itinerary of international hockey events on the continent involving Pakistan."

-- Like so many of his generation, the memoires of Pakistan’s first Olympic gold in 1960 are the most precious

"For the Rome Olympics, I came from London.  The entire nation had been looking for the gold since independence. Pakistan’s attacks were mainly via the right trio. Pakistan won the final 1-0. The goal arrived through this trio’s move. Right half Ghulam Rasool sent a pass to right in Hameedi. As the Indians closed in towards the much feared Pakistani skipper, Hameedi slipped the ball to right out Nur Alam whose trademark cross was well received by left in Bunda who put the ball into the cage in a flash of an eye. Post Olympics, the Pakistan team visited England on our (Pakistan high commission) invitation where apart from attending several receptions, they played exhibition matches against top local sides."

-- The game has changed over the time

"The introduction of synthetic turf and rules’ alteration, especially the no off side rule, has had a major impact on the way hockey is played today. Now, the essence is speed and hitting. This is perhaps the demand of TV viewership. But the art and dexterity have declined. The subtle stick work and body dodges of the past are not seen much."

-- Pakistan hockey’s decline is disappointing

"It is very unfortunate that the country which held all the big titles is now struggling even to qualify for the major international events. There are quite a few factors. The change of rules is one but then we have also failed to adapt to the requirements of the modern hockey. National team’s poor performance has also diminished people’s and sponsors’ interest."

-- But his interest is alive

"I still follow the game and watch Pakistan’s matches."

‘Hockey has been my first love’