“Mohammad Shahid with the ball now, Shahid to Zafar, Zafar to Shahid, Back to Zafar, Shahid again … Shahid … Shahid … Shahid in the striking cricle … Still him .. and and and … a penalty corner for India.” That was the 80s, and like those motor-mouth television commentators with a radio past, you didn’t take a breath or blink when Shahid crossed that ‘pachchis gaz ki rekha‘. When the usually high-pitched Hindi sportscaster started talking about Shahid’s foray into the last 25 yards in whispers and with dramatic pauses, there was a possibility that a volcano was about to erupt. It was an early warning to be attentive as Shahid could launch on his mesmeric run that would stay in the minds forever. Thank god we soaked it all in, since youtube, heart-breakingly, draws a blank when you type ‘Mohammed Shahid hockey’.
Like the present-day South American football commentator, those ‘goooaaaaaaaaal’ screamers, the voices that described hockey during DD’s ‘World of Sports’ era were unabashedly emotional, hopelessly nationalistic and delightfully biased. Coincidently, the 80s accommodated the last years of India’s joga bonito with sticks. Like Brazil of today, Indian hockey, thanks to the dribbler in the fading blue shirt No.10, showed moments of silken grace even during that free fall. Shahid saw to it that India did look occasionally beautiful while suffering the ugly slide.
Those were challenging times, the world was moving on. Long balls, aerial passes, sliding tackles, diving goals was making modern hockey a football twin. Shahid wasn’t changing, he was the throwback to the days of ‘bully’ when dribbling made a player a ‘big show’ and not a ‘show off’. Till the very last, he remained a romantic, the man from Banaras strongly tied to his roots, like ball to his hockey stick. It was a losing battle but he never looked defeated.
Shahid had a way to make the result of the game, if not irrelevant, but certainly less overbearing. He could make a loss, and there were many during his playing days, less traumatic. It was almost like the Tendulkar of 90s, when the crowd walked out of the stadium talking about the ‘master blasters’ ton in excited tones and unbothered by yet another loss for the team. These towering sporting icons had the skill to reduce a team sport to an individual event. Shahid was a stunning solo performance, who stood out on a crowded field.
If there was a 100m race of hockey players running with the ball, Shahid would have won with ease. Add to that speed, his quick dribble, the sly feint and, as Vasudev Baskaran says, the ability to dodge with one-hand made him a sight.
When Shahid blew like a gust towards the goal, cutting past rival defenders and the television volume was modestly high, you felt like you were running with him, hanging on to his hockey stick, following every sudden swerve and accompanying him into the striking circle. Much before the world discovered virtual reality games, Shahid, dragged a generation of fans into the television, giving them a digital 3-D experience. Shahid demanded your attention, got you engrossed, and left you exhausted after watching a hockey game. For those who came in late, the young people, it was ‘pokemon go’ without moving around, and without looking stupid.
The hockey wizard prepared the Indian sports fans for another dribbling genius who would grace our television in the second half of the decade— the 1986 FIFA World Cup. Maradona was certainly a headier high but Shahid had initiated us to sporting intoxication. Imagine the 80s. We were young and impressionable and propping up on our television were these pied pipers — Shahid, Maradona, Tyson, Richards, Hadlee, Kapil, Gavaskar, McEnroe and Becker, Edberg, Sampras, Steffi, Sabatini, Tendulkar among others. How the hell was one supposed to concentrate on algebra, integration or the thoroughly boring Mr Heisenberg and his uncertainty principle.
In that crowded 80s section in our memories, Shahid has managed to hold his own. He made old-timers nostalgic and his stock never fell. After retirement, Shahid disappeared, back to his beloved Varanasi.
Out of sight, didn’t mean out of mind. He might not have been a match-winner, but magician he was. Dribbling wasn’t merely his calling card, it was an obsession, his pet indulgence. And we all know Shahid had in a habit to be over-indulgent and not always be logical in his choice. Old-mate Zafar Iqbal, long after his retirement, once joked that he wouldn’t be part of a hockey discussion with Shahid as he knew that his one-time partner would never pass the mic to him.
It seemed Shahid didn’t felt the need to pass the ball for he believed, not always correctly, that he could find his way through every maze. It desired to dodge every defender and finally the goalkeeper and sound the board with a wristy flick.
Men like Maradona and Shahid are dreamers. They over-reach. Maradona managed to do the impossible more often than Shahid. That’s the reason the commentator’s lines that have stayed in mind end with “a penalty corner for India” and not a ‘goooaaaaaaaaal’ scream.
Shahid would get more corner, less goals. That’s because his magical run would mostly ending with him being brought down by a defender or the ball catching a rival’s shoe. A typical penalty corner would have Shahid pushing the ball to some Singh who would fluff the chance.
But about the 80s hockey, you don’t remember India’s slow crawl but Shahid’s brilliant runs.