Mohammed Shahid, the master dribbler who played hockey with a painter's brush
After all these years of frustration and extreme exasperation, the defenders have finally won. Mohammed Shahid, the master of the dribble, couldn’t dribble through, a final time.
'The Dribbler' is gone and Benares mourns. Someone noticed that the Ganges suddenly calmed down; the angry waters bowing their head. The city’s favourite son Mohammed Shahid has left to display his wares elsewhere.
From Benares to Delhi to Mumbai, onwards to Karachi, Lahore, Kuala Lumpur and even across the continents in the city of Los Angeles, they all mourn. In Seoul, the venue of his last Olympics, the stadium shifts, its shoulders slightly bowed in homage — to a man who gave immense joy; his flair, skills and dribbles lifting a nation. He made every fan sit on the edge as they watched him dribble past one, two, three and even four till he was the last man standing.
At the Medanta in Gurgaon, the hospital wonders, trying to understand a multi-generational gap - Mohammed Shahid has passed away, who? To a generation brought up on cross-batted drives and wild heaves for sixes, Shahid’s time was one of romance. You went to watch for joy. Passion. Ecstacy. For some it was bliss, revelry of the finest in hockey dribbling. Rarely has a stick enjoyed its existence the way it came alive in Shahid’s hands. Twisting and turning like a belly-dancer in full flow. Probably, even the ball was rapturous, enjoying the feel, the applause and the wonderment of the audiences present. You saw elderly gentlemen straining to watch, their eyes wide open like caves, clapping like a bunch of giggly teenagers. Fathers dragging their son’s to the stadium admonishing them, asking them to watch and learn on how to be ‘Mohammed Shahid’. Nobody said hockey. Everybody said, 'I want you to be Mohammed Shahid.'
He was thin. Like a hockey stick. Bent down, his wrists working like a windmill, Shahid was the happiest on a hockey ground. “He was the finest. He was top class,” says the 1975 World Cup star Aslam Sher Khan. “You don’t make them anymore. He was gifted.”
All these years later, in 2012 at the London Olympics, former Pakistan captain Akhtar Rasool was asked about skills and the demise of traditional hockey. His answer was spontaneous. “Of course, Pakistan has had its legends but ‘your’ Mohammed Shahid was different. They came to watch him.” Akhtar Rasool was part of four Pakistan World Cup teams, winning three golds and a silver.
1964 Tokyo Olympic gold medallist Harbinder Singh’s voice is soft. So soft that you strain to hear what he is saying. And when he spoke about Shahid, there was a reverence. “I am shocked,” he said. “I spoke to his son only yesterday. I was his coach in the Railways. I am so proud that when Shahid received his Padmashri, I was present next to him. He was an artist.”
Rarely does Shahid provoke the word ‘hockey player’ in anyone. For everybody, he was the painter. The man who played with a painter’s brush. Never a stick.
One of his canvases was Kuala Lumpur; they still remember him there as the wizard. Captain of the Malaysian team at the 1982 World Cup in Mumbai, Ow Soon Kooi is sad that the player he loved watching is no more. “I remember him as a highly skillful and disciplined player who was the live wire of the Indian team. He pried open defences. It’s a huge loss.”
To a nation flirting with different styles and an ongoing relationship with foreign coaches, Mohammed Shahid was a player who believed in the senses – of skills, dodges, feints, dribbles. It was a November evening in 1990 at the Shivaji Stadium where he was watching a Nehru Cup match between Indian Airlines and Punjab Police. Rarely was he in a mood to talk about hockey but he chatted casually and spoke about how we were moving away from our strengths.
“Arre Bhai, Haaki se samjhauta nahi kar sakte. Dil hai to khelo nahi toh baal ko mar ke bhagna toh koi bhi kar le. (You can't compromise with hockey. Play if you have heart, otherwise anyone can hit the ball and run)” In the duration of 15 minutes, while he watched likes of Dhanraj Pillay, Mukesh Kumar and Jagbir Singh play for Airlines, Shahid spoke about artistry and the need for Indian hockey to remain ‘Indian.’ Honestly, things hadn’t changed drastically, then. But he probably saw the future. In that way, he was Nostradamus. After 98' and a wretched World Cup, Shahid once in a gathering in Delhi, responded to a question on the state of hockey by saying, “Haaki toh chal rahi hai paar woh maaza aab nahi hai (Hockey is there, but that joy is no more).” He once again spoke about the need for going back to the roots, to a need to dazzle people, to be able to mesmerize audiences and in the process the opposition. For Shahid, the sport was God, Allah. He bowed before it. He played for it.
In Chandigarh, the voice of Balbir Singh Senior, triple Olympic gold medallist, quivers. Part of it is old age. Balbir played at three consecutive 48’, 52’ and 56’ Olympics. But the sadness is obvious. He refers to Shahid as one of his boys. “He was a great player and a gem of a person,” says Balbir. “One of the best to have played for India and on the ground his dribbling skills was a sight to behold. May his soul rest in peace.”
But Balbir also says something which is like putting ice on soul. “We seem to remember and acknowledge the greats once they are gone.”
How one wishes that the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic do-or-die pool match against Germany wouldn’t have petered out in a draw after India dominated. In the words of Australian great Ric Charlesworth, the 1984 Indian side was one the best and ‘you guys had Shaheed.’ A win against Germany would have made India enter the semis and a possible shot at a consecutive second gold medal for India and Mohammed Shahid after 80’ Moscow.
To use a cliché, it’s the end of an era. But in a way, it’s not. He will still walk the lanes of Benares; still watch matches from his loft above, his wry smile provoking you to ask him, ‘what are you thinking?' For the uninitiated, he will be another hockey player. For the initiated, a part of us dies today. After all these years of frustration and extreme exasperation, the defenders have finally won. Mohammed Shahid, the master of the dribble, couldn’t dribble through, a final time.
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