A plethora of footballing legends from Maradona to Zidane to Messi get invariably summoned in attempting to describe the peerless Shahbaz Ahmed to the present generation of hockey fans.
Mulling over his favourite nickname for himself,Shahbaz rubs his bearded chin in the fading lights of the Mumbai Hockey Association stadium,and settles for a whole line that he overheard a rival coach say about him. The best thing ever said about me was that the only difference between the two teams was Shahbaz Ahmed. That made me very happy, he remembers,not bothering to don the garb of modesty.
A mask not required when the man according to general consensus is the last of craftsmen who could strut the Asian skills unapologetically on astroturfs,and won for Pakistan the 1994 World Cup,their last big tournament.
Its difficult,though,to immediately recognise the now 44-year-old legend in the crowd at the World Series Hockey final,with his scholarly spectacles and the beard altering the erstwhile clean-shaven jawline,even as the thick mop of hair has receded taking with it some of the trademark flamboyance.
The chutzpah,though,is intact when he says,Its a pity Im not playing still. Id have loved it if this league was happening 20 years ago. I miss myself playing out there.
He fondly recalls the best of the banners that would be spotted in the stands when he took the field Superman,F-16,The King and of course,Maradona of hockey. The first of these posters first surfaced in Lucknow,in fact,when Pakistan won the Indira Gandhi Gold Cup,defeating India,but the appreciative crowd fell for the stick-wizard from Faisalabad.
So,how did he conjure that magic? I always stole that fraction of a second over the defenders, he says. In order to do so,he didnt need some enchanted potion; the mantra was rather simple.
I was very focused all my playing life. Its difficult to describe magic,but even tougher to explain some of the basic things that went into creating that magic. Id always start preparing for a big event six months before it started: The individual things not the team preparation. Six months before,Id decide which shoes Id wear,which stick Id play with,what time to wake up every single day,what time to sleep. I always believe that you had to prepare to the last detail. Artistry comes later; discipline is non-negotiable.
Beating the defence
Shahbazs most talked about sizzling run past six Australian defenders (he was often crowded by four) ended in an unselfish pass to a team-mate at goal-mouth,to whom the strike was credited.
It was the smartest thing to do,and I loved the surprised look on their faces after the goal, he recalls. I always watched opponents footwork and stick,and tried to go in the opposite direction. Fairly simple,except that he did all of it at breakneck speed,often outwitting the entire clutch of defenders. I would get great pleasure from finishing off a waiting rivals defence line like,killing them almost, he happily chortles.
His famous Indian counterparts were Mohammad Shahid and Dhanraj Pillay. There was no one like Mohammad Shahid a magician,with the best ball control skills, he says,adding that Dhanraj Pillay in comparison was a good fighter,opportunist,and simply a very determined opponent. If only they could be merged into one person.
Disheartened with what has become of the two great sides,Shahbaz blames federations of both countries for not stepping up efforts to save the standard of the game. Europeans studied the game well,and we couldnt reinvent soon enough, he says,predicting an out of top six finish at the Olympics for both teams.
Players,too,are less interested now. They have faulty priorities,mobile phones. How can you be expected to put together a sizzling run with all those distractions.