Anwar Ahmad Khan... Pakistan hockey’s finest ever centre half

September 26, 2021

Dubbed as the Rock of Gibraltar he was a midfielder par excellence, who often acted as the pivot around whom many Pakistani victories revolved.

Anwar Ahmad Khan... Pakistan hockey’s finest ever centre half

In its heydays Pakistan was a dominant presence in world hockey for over twenty five years. It produced some of the best players that have ever graced a hockey field, be it in attack or defence. Supporting their exciting and explosive forward line and a sturdy, rock solid deep defence, was usually a midfield of quality craftsmen who would function not merely as the first line of interception for opposing forwards, but also act as schemers and planners who would feed their own front line with well directed passes and plan the course of play.Amongst this illustrious midfield list the name that shines most luminously is that of Anwar Ahmad Khan. Dubbed as the Rock of Gibraltar he was a centre-half par excellence, who often acted as the pivot around whom many Pakistani victories revolved.

Anwar was born in 1933 in Bhopal, a state where hockey was a passion that was generously supported even by its ruling family. His father was a doctor in the British army, and though not particularly enthusiastic about hockey, did not discourage his son from pursuing this interest. Anwar was an all round sportsman at school, also excelling at cricket under the tutelage of the famous Indian cricketer Syed Wazir Ali and having the rare honour of playing against Nawab Iftikhar Ali Khan Pataudi, but hockey was his first love. As he progressed to Aligarh University for his studies, in 1949 he joined Bhopal Wanderers, one of India’s premier hockey clubs, and represented them in the Indian Inter Provincial Championship.

In 1950, Anwar migrated to Pakistan and enlisted in SIndh Muslim College, who immediately picked him for their hockey team. He also joined Ali Autos which fielded a strong side that included, apart from Anwar Ahmad, stalwarts like Lateefur Rahman, Habibur Rahman, Akhtar Husain, Major Shakoor and Asrar Sherwani, the father of the future famous British hockey player Imran Sherwani. Anwar also won selection for the Sindh Seniors team for the National Championship, forming part of a formidable half line consisting of Jack Britto at right-half, Anwar himself at centre-half and Habib Ali Kiddie as left-half. All three eventually represented Pakistan in international hockey, including the Olympics, while Britto was also chosen for the national cricket team to play against the visiting West Indians in 1949.

Anwar Ahmad Khan joined Pakistan Railways in 1953 and soon came to the notice of the national selectors. He was invited to the national training camp set up in Lahore to select Pakistan’s team for the 1954 home series against a visiting West German side. Anwar got the selectors nod and was all set to make his debut for Pakistan when tragedy struck. Just before the first test he badly fractured his left foot during an exhibition match. Treatment required encasing the foot in plaster for three months, thus aborting Anwar’s opportunity to play for his country. Soon after his recovery Anwar accompanied the Bahawalpur Afghan Club to Lucknow for the Ramlal Hockey tournament, helping his team to emerge triumphant in the final against the Uttar Pradesh state side.

On his return, in February 1955, Anwar was offered employment in the Karachi Sea Customs which was later renamed as Pakistan Customs. The Customs hockey team of the time was a very powerful unit that registered victories in practically every major national tournament. When a training camp was set up to choose Pakistan’s hockey squad for the 1956 Melbourne Olympics, four Customs players were invited, three half backs, Anwar Ahmad Khan, Habib Ali Kiddie and Qazi Mussarat and a full back Khursheed Aslam, whose younger brother Akhtarul Islam would also represent Pakistan in the future. All three midfielders were selected for the national team which embarked on a series of exhibition practice matches across the country as part of their preparations for the Olympics.

These exhibition matches again took their toll on Anwar. During a game at Sargodha he dislocated his right shoulder and with just ten days left before the Olympics it was touch and go whether he would make the trip to Melbourne. Fortunately, with good treatment at Lahore, his injury healed rapidly allowing Anwar to accompany the team

Led by the famous Abdul Hameed, popularly known as Hameedi, it was a strong and balanced side. The contesting teams were divided into three groups and Pakistan made an emphatic start overcoming Belgium 2-0 and New Zealand 5-1.

West Germany, however, proved to be difficult opponents and Pakistan drew a rough goalless game with them to qualify for the semifinals, where they were scheduled to meet Great Britain who had beaten them at this stage in both the 1948 and 1952 Olympics. In the Olympic village the British inside left Conway boasted that they would beat Pakistan again, which incensed the Pakistani team. Anwar along with the right half Ghulam Rasool and the right full back Manzoor Atif made special plans to tackle Conway, forming an impenetrable trio that totally nullified Conway during the match, forcing him to leave the field before half time, when Pakistan led 2-0. Britain fought back to equalize but Pakistan eventually prevailed 3-2, to set up a final with India.

India had a formidable team, having scored 35 goals without conceding any in the matches leading up to the final. Pakistan fought hard but India won 1-0 through a disputed penalty corner conversion by Randhir Singh Gentle. Pakistan, too, had a golden opportunity to score from a penalty bully (the precursor of today’s penalty stroke), but Habibur Rahman missed a certain goal and Pakistan had to settle for the silver medal. Anwar’s performance during the final was outstanding. He was able to completely neutralize the celebrated Indian centre forward Balbir Singh, leading Balbir to remark that, “If I get Anwar as my centre half, I can challenge the whole world.”

Hockey was introduced to the Asian Games for the first time at Tokyo in 1958. Prior to the tournament the team visited Australia and New Zealand as part of their preparations.

Apart from a string of successes on the playing field they were visibly impressed by the hospitality they received. Anwar’s superb display during this trip earned him the nickname of the “Rock of Gibraltar” from the New Zealand press. The New Zealand coach A.G. McLeod invited the team to his house for dinner and showed them a special glass showcase containing two crossed hockey sticks, one signed by the legend Dhyan Chand and the other by Anwar Ahmad Khan. McLeod opined that these were the two best hockey players he had ever seen in his life. Anwar was totally overwhelmed by this effusive gesture and praise.

In the Tokyo Asian Games itself, five teams participated in a round robin format. Pakistan scored heavily in its matches, beating Japan 5-0, South Korea 8-0 and Malaya (now Malaysia) 6-0. The victory over South Korea was due in no small measure to a penalty corner hat-trick by Munir Dar. One of Munir’s hits also struck Anwar on the jaw, leading to concerns about his fitness for the remainder of the tournament.

In its final round robin match Pakistan played India. Since both teams were unbeaten, the winner of this match would win the round robin format, and with it the gold medal. Anwar, who had not eaten any solid food, since his injury was able to take the field after receiving sufficient painkillers from his treating Japanese doctor. An ill-tempered match, ended in a goalless draw with players from both sides suffering significant injuries. Pakistan’s goal average of 19-0 was superior to India’s 16-1, and hence they were awarded the gold medal. Anwar had again exhibited his class during the tourney and was being widely acclaimed as the best centre half in the game.

This was Pakistan’s first victory in an international hockey tournament. The team, with Anwar as a key player, now had the nucleus for a very strong side. Their next major tournament would be the 1960 Olympics in the eternal city of Rome. Pakistan and Anwar both had a date with destiny. Anwar was one of four Customs players in the national squad for Rome, the others being Habib Ali Kiddie, Khursheed Aslam and the wiry centre forward Abdul Waheed, who would soon become a luminary in his own right.

Interestingly, just a few hours before the team embarked for Rome, Anwar was the center of another celebration, his ‘nikah’ ceremony to a 4th year medic al student chosen as his life partner by his mother who had specially come from India to undertake this task.

The entire Pakistani team attended the ‘nikah’ function, which was followed by their departure for the airport, along with the new bridegroom.

On the way to Rome the team played practice matches in Kenya as fine tuning for the Olympics. Rome was where Pakistan hockey reached the zenith of the sport, unseating India from it’s position atop the pinnacle for over three decades. Wins in group matches against Australia, Poland and Japan brought Pakistan to the knockout stages, where they overcame Germany in the quarterfinals and Spain in the semis. Only India now stood between Pakistan and the gold medal.

The final started on a brisk note with attacks and counter attacks. In the 13th minute, the mastermind of the Pakistan attack and their team captain, Hameedi slipped a pass to his outside-right Noor Alam, who dodged the Indian left half and sent in a stinging cross to Naseer Bunda at the top of the circle. Bunda sidestepped the Indian full back Prithipal Singh, drew the goal keeper Lakshman forwards and put the ball into the goal.

This was Pakistan’s first ever goal against India, who now retaliated with furious attacks in an attempt to equalize. It was a real test of Pakistan’s defence. Led by the cool and collected Anwar they foiled every move the Indian forward line could muster. Hard as they tried, the Indian attack repeatedly found Anwar in their way, guarding an impassable, hermetically sealed wall of resistance. When the final whistle was blown Pakistan had won 1-0. History had been created; India’s 32 year dominance of hockey at the Olympics was over.

Two years later in the 1962 Asian Games in Djakarta Pakistan retained their Asian crown beating India 2-0 in the final. Anwar again played a key role in Pakistan’s success, prompting the Indian manager-cum- coach, J. Jameson to state that “ Their centre-half Anwar Ahmed Khan gave an outstanding performance and but for him Pakistan’s defence would have been ineffectual.”

In April 1964, six months before the Tokyo Olympics, Anwar was appointed as the captain of the national side for the home series against the visiting Japanese team. Pakistan won the series, but much to everyone’s surprise Anwar was replaced as captain for the Olympics by Brigadier Manzoor Atif. In their opening match of the Games, against the hosts Japan, Pakistan was unable to score in the first half. Anwar and the manager Dara came up with a novel strategy, moving Anwar forward as a sixth forward. This move completely unsettled the hosts, allowing Pakistan to score. Anwar had again demonstrated his virtuosity and ability to find creative answers to problems on the field of play. Pakistan reached the finals but were nosed out 1-0 by India in a tight match.

Anwar regained the national captaincy after the Olympics and led the Pakistan side on trips to Indonesia, Kenya, and the Hamburg International Hockey Festival tournament, which proved to be his last outing as a national player.

Following his retirement, Anwar continued to serve Pakistan hockey in various administrative roles of manager, coach and selector. As a manager he helped the national side to win gold in the 1974 Asian Games in Tehran, and silver medals in the 1975 World Cup and the 1986 Asian Games. He was also the manager of the national Junior side that won a bronze medal in the 1982 Junior World Cup.

Anwar passed away in 2014. Affectionately known as Annu Bhai, he was a true hockey wizard, a centre-half with unsurpassed ability. Using brilliant stick work, subtle and deceptive body dodges, and superb anticipation, he would feed his forwards with both precision and prescience. In defence he was indomitable, presenting opponents with an impregnable barrier that could thwart all onslaughts, rendering them powerless and unfructuous.

- Dr Salman Faridi is a senior surgeon, poet, sports aficionado and an avid reader with a private collection of over 7000 books.

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Anwar Ahmad Khan... Pakistan hockey’s finest ever centre half