“You remember Shaheed? That guy drove us nuts!” So said Michael Nobbs, former coach of the Indian hockey team and Australian international who played against Mohammed Shahid on more than a few occasions. He was replying to a question asked by my friend Yuvraj Walmiki, who was in the Indian team when he was in charge, about how it was playing against India back in the 1980s. Three decades on, the first thing that popped up in Nobbs’s mind was just one man and probably flashes of him tormenting rival defences and transforming hockey into a form of art.Such was the genius of Mohammed Shahid, that the formidable Pakistani hit-man and the greatest centre forward of that era, Hassan Sardar, still laments on so many occasions about how he would have loved to play alongside this hockey maestro from Benares. To understand the significance of this statement, one needs to remember that the Pakistani forward line back then was simply the greatest. With stalwarts and superstars such as Mansoor Junior as inside right and Hanif Khan as inside left, with the flying horse Samiullah Khan as outside left and his brother Kaleemullah Khan (who had replaced the unstoppable Islahuddin Siddique) on the outside right, backed up by the extraordinary Akhtar Rasool at centre half, they were imperious.So on one summer evening in 2001, when my father asked me to get ready as we were to go out for dinner, I simply wanted to know whom we were going to meet. Without any ambiguity or doubt in his voice came the reply, “We are going to meet the greatest player of my generation.” As soon as my dad had finished his sentence, my uncle, with diary in hand and childlike excitement that he was making a poor attempt at concealing, chipped in with a broad smile on his face, “We are going to meet Mohammed Shahid.” I asked him what the diary was for and he said it is for the autograph of the only player he had ever wanted an autograph of.Yes, we were going to meet Mohammed Shahid.The dinner was being hosted by Mir Ranjan Negi, the former India goalkeeper and Shahid’s teammate, at his residence. As we entered, on the sofa across the hall was seated the greatest player of the generation after Shahid – Dhanraj Pillai. I had to literally pinch myself and wondered, was this really happening? Was it possible? Could it really be? Nilesh Negi – my teammate and best friend in school and also Mr Negi’s son – and I seated ourselves strategically at one corner of the hall room. A few minutes later, the man arrived. He was accompanied by Rahul Singh, another Olympian from Benares whose elder brother Vivek Singh was a class act in his own right and whose father, Gauri Shankar Singh, was someone Shahid had grown up watching in Benares.The first thing that struck me was his humility. He was humble to a fault. Everyone knew that Pillai looked up to Shahid as his idol. To just have them in front of me reminisce and get nostalgic about an era when the Indian team was expected to win hockey tournaments as a matter of right was nothing short of a dream. Pillai made sure he was seated besides him all evening: diligently, attentively and in a certain state of alertness, the pupil taking in every word the master had to say. Nilesh and I did not utter a single word, but every now and then looked at each other in utter awe as the stories of Shahid’s exploits rolled on. At that time, we were both trying to make a mark in school hockey and here were two gentlemen who had destroyed and made a mockery of defences all over the world and spoke about it as casually as we lesser mortals sometimes do after a five-a-side game at a nearby park.As dinner was about to be served, Shahid walked up to us and asked where we played. My reply was prompt, “Full back, Sir!”. Nilesh said inside right, inside left. Shahid just smiled and nodded his head in approval. Then, almost as if sensing our excitement and knowing that we were waiting to hear his advice on how to improve our game, he spoke: “Try and receive the ball in your own half. If there is only one player in front of you, beat him. Open up the field of play, carry the ball and then look to play the most effective pass. If possible try for a return ball. Practice your skills. Everyday, every minute, try and dribble till you collapse”. He then proceeded to the dinner table as we disappeared from the scene for sometime. “Beat him, open up the field of play, look for the most effective pass.” Once, twice, thrice.. we must have repeated these lines in our heads over a hundred times in less than a minute. There it was in a nutshell. The philosophy that annihilated defences world over. Einstein had famously said, “If you cannot explain it simply, you have not understood it well enough.” The greatest inside left India has ever produced (barring the inimitable Inam-ur-Rehman) understood his philosophy and used it to devastating effect.As a southpaw, he had a natural advantage giving him a strong left hand, which allowed him to beat players with one hand. He possessed the magical combination of speed and skill in equal measure, which makes every defender in the world uncomfortable. When these attributes are in the arsenal of someone with the talent of Shahid, run for cover! Shahid was the ultimate playmaker who carried the Indian attack for more than a decade. No defender was good enough and his faith in his own ability was supreme. Shahid’s touch was pure gold, his eye for a pass sensational and his play-making abilities second to none. What should have been a disadvantage probably turned out to be his biggest strength. His lack of height, which gave him a very low centre of gravity, allowing him to change direction at will at top speed and unusually robust thighs for a man who was otherwise slightly built, gave him acceleration that would leave defenders trailing when he would change gears. From the moment he appeared on the big stage as a prodigious 19-year-old from the UP Sports Hostel to his breathtaking runs with Zafar Iqbal down the left flank at three Olympic Games, Shahid was a phenom.Just before the final good-byes were said, Shahid spotted a stick and ball in the adjacent room. Picking it up, he gave a dribbling and juggling performance at half past 12 at night that quite simply made our jaws drop. Yes, every story, every anecdote you will ever hear about this man is true. He was that, bloody, good!Incidentally, my grandfather also hailed from Benares. Perhaps on Shahid’s last visit to Mumbai, my father invited him over for dinner. Shahid was at his charming best, reeling anecdotes in his unique style. In his delightful voice, he performed Mehdi Hassan’s ghazal Main nazar se pee raha hoon, yeh samaa badal na jaye. For sure, that samaa will be etched in my memory forever.Shahid enjoyed his tipple, loved his music and was a poet at heart, who was at ease quoting Ghalib and Firaaq. This man was the personification of the city of Benares, the only place he called home and loved above everything else, except his hockey. He was an artist. Only in his case the sitar and the shehnai were replaced by the hockey stick. The music flowed and the applause was no less than what would have been reserved for an ustad or a pandit.In any other country where talent is recognised, they would have erected stadiums in his honour and made statues in his name. But in India, we are simply grateful that his department (Indian Railways) stood by him in his time of need rather than abandoning him like what has been the wretched fate of many of our country’s sporting greats. Shahid, of course, could not have been bothered. The world was his stage and even though the virtuoso has passed away his ‘music’ will remain immortal.On behalf of the thousands, whose lives you touched with your artistry, indomitable spirit and sheer genius from L.A. to Seoul, with the utmost humility – a big thank you. Mohammed Shahid, there will never be another you!
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