His friends feel cheated. Mohammed Shahid’s last words before he was airlifted to a Delhi hospital still ring in their ears. “Fikar mat karo partner, mein jald aaunga,” he told everyone who came to meet him at Benaras Hindu University hospital. They believed him. Like they always have. But as the news of his demise spread on Wednesday morning, there was a sense of betrayal. “Humein bhi dodge maar ke chale gaye?” Shahid’s close friend and former India coach AK Bansal says, holding back tears.
The word ‘dodge’ will stick with him, no matter what. His son Saif recalled how his father tried to ‘dodge’ him by ignoring the concerns of heavy swelling in his legs. Saif saw his father had torn his socks as they wouldn’t fit because of excessive swelling. Alarmed, the son would approach the doctors at BHU, who advised that Shahid should be taken to a better facility in Delhi.
Inside the steel and chrome building of a Gurgaon hospital, Shahid was shifted from special ward to ICU, where he would spend his last two weeks before being pronounced dead on Wednesday. For a man who has dreaded flying all his life, Shahid made his final journey to Varanasi on an Indigo flight on Wednesday evening.
At his home town, roughly 1000 people — family, former teammates, friends and fans — reached the airport to receive him. They were expecting the magician to pull off one last trick. But this was one trick too many even for Shahid.
One of his kind
Unlike Dhyan Chand or Balbir Singh Senior, Shahid wasn’t groomed to score goals. The inside forward’s primary role was to create scoring opportunities for his teammates. The forward line back then comprised Shahid, Zafar Iqbal and Merwyn Fernandes. It was easily one of the best attacking trios India has ever had and Shahid’s job was to feed the other two. And he never disappointed in that.
To use a cricketing parlance, his average was Bradmanesque in managing get something out of every attack. Every time he stepped out of the shadow of defenders, he would inevitably end up scoring a goal, earning a penalty corner or a penalty stroke.
So it was ironic, and also fitting in a way, that he would score the goal would help India win the gold medal at the 1980 Moscow Olympics. For a change, it was Shahid who received an inch-perfect pass from right-winger MK Kaushik to put the ball beyond the Spanish goalkeeper. Having made his international debut just a year ago, it was quite an occasion to mark his arrival on the big stage. His stock kept on soaring and it peaked in the mid-80s, when he would single-handedly demolish India’s opponents.
All the players had to do was to pass the ball to Shahid and the magic would begin. His duels with players from Pakistan are the stuff of legend. Pakistan great Hasan Sardar was once so furious that he almost hit him for pulling off a trick that made him look silly. Shahid took the ball, pushed it between Sardar’s legs and then pulled it back. Sardar did not know where to hide his face. To put it in perspective, their rivalry back then was as intense as Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo’s is today, if not more.
According to a hockey historian K Arumugam, India won all but one match to Pakistan during 1984 and 1985. The only time they lost was the Asia Cup final in Dhaka where five Indian players were suspended.
His flamboyance, though, could not help the Indian team realise its true potential and that was something that bothered him till date. “In so many tournaments, we came second-third, second-third. We had a few shortcomings, penalty corner being one of them. Shahid earned us numerous corners but we never managed to convert,” says Iqbal.
His spat with then coach MP Ganesh over his role in the team before — and during — the 1988 Seoul Olympics disillusioned him to the point that he decided to retire from the game. At the same time, the death of his daughter shook him. “His daughter had a hole in her heart and Shahid blamed himself for not being able to devote proper time to her,” Iqbal adds.
The combination of events affected him so much that he decided to return to Varanasi. He was successful in escaping public glare just like he evaded defenders during his playing days. Shahid joined Diesel Locomotive Works as their sports officer and began his second innings in a tiny room with decayed walls and files stacked around him.
After the years he spent sprinting, Shahid loved the slow-paced life of Varanasi. He had occasional stints with hockey as a selector but politics in sport forced him to stay away. Instead, he would spend hours chatting up with his friends, plotting ways to make Varanasi a sporting hub and singing ghazals.
His close friend and colleague Rakesh Mehrotra says Shahid was a big fan of Mohammad Rafi and Mehdi Hasan and would sing a glazal or two during lunch every day. On Shivratri, he would sit on the banks of Ganga and spend hours listening to bhajans. At times, even he would join in.
“He was enjoying his life. Always checking up on others’ health while never sharing the problems he faced,” says Dhanraj Pillay, perhaps the only player who has come close to matching Shahid’s elegance in the last three decades.
“He dodged the question every time we asked.”