When we were unmatched

April 7, 2019

The time when both finalists of an international hockey tournament were from Pakistan

When we were unmatched

These days in Pakistan hockey, there are constant complaints: there is lack of talent, there are no suitable replacements for the ageing players; the pool of players has shrunk.

Back in the glory days, it was altogether different. In fact, most of the time, the abundance of talent meant that selectors were spoilt for the choice.

It is perhaps best epitomised by the appearance of not one but two Pakistani teams at a high-profile tournament in Lahore exactly half a century back.

The International Hockey Tournament staged at the Lahore (now Gaddafi) Stadium in the spring of 1969 featured 10 teams, including two from the hosts Pakistan.

Only a few months back, Pakistan had won the gold medal at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico. They did it in style, winning all the nine matches.

Instead of basking in the glory of game’s highest prize, the hierarchy of the PHF immediately sat down to plan for the future.

The PHF president was none other than Air Marshal Nur Khan, easily the most successful sports administrator in the country’s history – for some in the world. He was ably supported by another genius: Manzoor Hussain Atif, the manager of Pakistan team at the 1968 Olympics, later secretary PHF.

The PHF decided to field two Pakistan teams in the Lahore tourney. The federation didn’t bank upon the players already on the radar. In a revolutionary step, Atif announced open trials which were conducted at the Punjab University ground, Lahore.

No less than 600 players from across the length and breadth of the country turned up. In the first phase, around 200 were shortlisted. After a couple of more trials, the number was trimmed to 66, six for each position, who were called for training at what is now Gaddafi Stadium.

Finally, the two Pakistan teams were announced. In those days, substitutions were not allowed. The teams had to end the match with the starting XI. If a player left the ground during the match due to some injury, the team had to make do with 10 players.

It was a sagacious decision by Atif, the camp commandant, to induct the reserves of Pakistan’s first string into Pakistan’s junior team. They included Fazalur Rahman, Anwar Shah, Farooq Khan and Laeeq.

The rest of the junior squad comprised some fringe players, who had made occasional international appearances, and out of the talent unearthed during the trials.

The reserves for the two sides also consisted mainly raw talent. All the teams had appeared at the 1968 Olympics. Only India, Holland and New Zealand were missing from the top-11 finishers at the Olympics.

People thronged the stadium – hockey was a national obsession at the time. The world No 1 Pakistan’s senior side easily went past all the four opponents in its pool. However, it was Pakistan juniors who really heartened the locals. In the very first match, they defeated Kenya. The East Africans were a strong hockey nation of that era. At the 1971 World Cup, Kenya went on to finish fourth, losing the semi-final and the third position playoff only in extra time.

The juniors also won against Germany and France. In their last pool match, they came across Australia, the World No 2, who had narrowly lost to Pakistan at the Mexico Olympics final. Spurred on by a big crowd, Pakistan juniors downed Australia 2-0. The two Pakistan teams won their respective semi-finals by an identical score of 2-0.

Though there was not much at stake in the final, it produced a very good contest – to the delight of around 30,000 spectators.   The match went to the wire. Only in the dying minutes, a miscommunication between the juniors’ goalkeeper and a full back presented Khalid Mahmood, Pakistan’s captain, a chance to score the match winning goal.

Pakistan’s supremacy of the hockey world had been confirmed. Moreover, quite a few players emerged who later served Pakistan hockey well. Islahuddin had made the 1967 tour to East Africa but only made a few appearances. At the Lahore event, he emerged as a star, top scoring for the juniors. Islah, who played as centre forward/inside right, later emerged as one of the greatest right wingers in the history of the game and remained an automatic Pakistan selection for a decade. He also captained Pakistan during that memorable year of 1978 when the Green-shirts won World Cup, Asian Games and Champions Trophy.

It was full-back Akhtarul Islam’s maiden appearance. He carved out a permanent place in Pakistan’s hockey folklore by scoring the winning goal in the final of the inaugural World Cup in 1971.

A jewel was found in the shape of Shahnaz Sheikh. He played at left out but later also figured as left-in and centre forward as per Pakistan’s needs.

Shahnaz remained one of the most feared forwards in the world throughout the ‘70s. "I owe my breakthrough to the open trials conducted by late Brigadier Atif," he says. I was yet to appear in the nationals; had only played a few domestic events. Even for the selection in the zonal sides for the national championships, one needed some strong lobby. But the open trials provided me with a platform to showcase my abilities. During the camp also, Atif worked hard, especially with the new boys. The juniors played matches against the seniors. Then Atif juggled the players of the two teams. Sometimes half lines were exchanged. This made juniors confident that they could compete against any side," says Shahnaz.

All this paid dividends. Pakistan completed the grand slam by adding the World Cup (1971) and Asian Games (1970) titles to the Olympic gold.

In the long term, quite a few among the newcomers, such as Islah and Shahnaz, starred in Pakistan’s glories throughout the ‘70s: Pakistan won two World Cups, all the three Asian Games and were unlucky to miss out on Olympic golds at the 1972 (silver) and 1976 (bronze) and 1975 World Cup (silver).

It was the vision and dedication of Nur Khan and Atif. Unfortunately, today we don’t have anyone comparable at the PHF. There are only leeches who come out with all sorts of excuses after every failure of the national team.

XIs in the Final:

Pakistan: Goalkeeper: Salahuddin, Fullbacks: Tanvir Dar & Riazuddin. Halfbacks: Saeed Anwar, Mohammad Riaz & Gulraiz

Forwards: Khalid Mahmood (captain), Ashfaq, Rasheed Jr, Asad Malik & Jehangir Butt

Pakistan Juniors: Akhtar Gillani. Akhtarul Islam & Aslam. Anwar Shah, Naseeb & Fazalur Rahmam (captain). Farooq Khan, Athar, Islahuddin, Laeeq and Shahnaz

When we were unmatched