“Hamara ek usool tha, ya toh banda jaaye ya ball.” (We had one rule, either let the man go, or the ball)”
Hassan Sardar allows himself a mischievous grin as he recollects the unwritten rule of India-Pakistan matches. We are in the cozy surroundings of a Bhubaneswar hotel, sheltered from the dry heat outside in which Pakistan trained for a little more than an hour on Thursday. The Green Shirts open their World Cup campaign on Saturday against Germany, a match most expect them to lose — lose badly. “We are in the toughest group. It’ll be nice if we can just qualify for the next round,” Sardar, the team’s manager, says. There’s a tone of resignation in his voice, almost embarrassed to admit Pakistan’s dramatic fall from grace in the last few years. The last time he travelled with a Pakistan team for a World Cup in India, in 1982, things were different. Pakistan had bulldozed their way to lifting the Cup and with his kangaroo-like stance, Sardar was at the helm of it. He spun webs around defenders, showcasing control and dodging abilities that few have been able to match since.
This was an era where Pakistan were not just the most dominant side in the world, but also the most stylish – so revolutionary, in fact, that then Argentina football coach Cesar Luis Menotti borrowed their tactics and successfully implemented on his players.
Sardar’s parameter to judge that team’s popularity, however, is different. “We got more respect in India than in Pakistan or anywhere else. People here understand hockey, so that was the biggest recognition,” he says. “Then again, we had a great team. Samiullah, Kaleemullah, Manzoor Junior, Hanif Khan and myself as forwards. Akhtar Rasool was the centre-half…uff!”
Aggression on field
Perhaps, the greatest ever. The respect, however, did not extend to the playing field – at least among the players. “If we weren’t able to stop a player, we said to each other, ‘maaro’. Some of the players in both these teams were so skillful that it was impossible to stop them any other way,” he says. “But there was always a warning: tareeke se maarna.”
Sardar weaves stories just like he weaved his way through the sea of defenders in front of him during his playing days. His fondest memories involve late India full-back Surjit Singh. Though contemporaries, Sardar says he was a big fan of Surjit’s style and considered him as his brother. But once they wore the national team jerseys, things would often take a violent turn.
“He used to beat me up, quite literally and I often responded in kind. After the match, hum ‘sorry bhaijaan, sorry bhaijaan’ kehkar pata lete the,” he laughs. “There was this another time when I got involved in a full-fledged fight with this full-back – a tall chap, I think Vineet Kumar. We were beating each other up, thain thain thain… proper ladai. When umpire came, I faked an injury, which incensed him further. Then (MM) Somaiya played the role of peacemaker.”
The aggression was only till the time they were on field. Once off it, they’d share their meals together. “We bonded over food. In India, we loved dal makhani. When Indian players came to Pakistan, we used to go out for kebabs. They loved our barbecue,” he says. “When you are on the pitch, you are representing your country, not some club. Sometimes, when you went out of the way, you thought, ‘baad mein dekh lenge, abhi toh rok de…’ It was from both sides,” Sardar says.
Some of the highest points of Sardar’s career came in India – the gold medals at the World Cup and Asian Games in 1982. There hasn’t been an edition of a World Cup where a team has been so dominant – Pakistan scored five goals on an average in every match and won by comfortable margins. Sardar was named the player of the tournament, an honour he earned at the Asia Cup and Asian Games that year as well as the 1984 Olympics.
“There were so many world class players in that team, so it was tough to beat us. It was a rare occurrence. For instance, if India had Shahid then they didn’t have a Dhanraj in the same era. If there was a Dhanraj, then you didn’t have a Gaganajit… woh hai toh Sardar nahi hai. If India had players of this caliber in the same team, no one will be able to beat them,” he says.
The World Cup in Bombay was memorable for him not just for hockey reasons. For a Pakistani player in his mid-20s, there was certain charm about Bombay. “I was a big fan of Bollywood movies and this is where the movie industry was,” he says. “Praan was a big hockey fan so he called us to his place. I believe that in 1978, he had hosted the team led by Islahuddin. Even Dilip Kumar called us to his house.”
The after-parties was where Sardar and his teammates would meet the who’s who of Indian cinema. “I met Parveen Babi, Reena Roy – who I think wasn’t married back then – Saira Banu… Parveen Babi was very beautiful… it’s shocking that some of them are no more. Dilip Kumar saab toh abhi hai na?” he enquires and mutters a small prayer for his long life.
If Bombay was where he brushed shoulders with the movie stars, he says playing in Delhi at the 1982 Asian Games helped him forge lifelong relationships with the country’s biggest politicians. “When I came in 1982, (former India captain) Aslam Sher Khan introduced me to Rajiv Gandhi, who had just been made in charge of the Youth Congress. The brief meeting turned into proper friendship… hum lateefay share karne lage,” he says.
After Gandhi became the Prime Minister, Sardar says he invited the Pakistani team to play a series in 1986. Sardar was the captain of the side and Gandhi greeted him by sending a bouquet of flowers and a car to pick him up. “Laal batti waali gaadi thi. It was a short, memorable meeting… We met again, this time in Pakistan, after Benazir Bhutto became our Prime Minister in 1988. He was on a visit and I was one of the invitees for a gala dinner along with the likes of (squash legend) Jahangir Khan and (cricketer) Hanif Mohammad. When Rajiv saw me, he came over and gave me a warm hug. Even Benazir Bhutto was surprised to see how close we were. I miss him a lot even today…” he says with a tinge of sadness in his voice.
Sardar says the health of hockey in both these countries, especially Pakistan, would be much better if the political class on both sides of border showed more trust. The Indian and Pakistani federations have been mulling to have bilateral series for more than a decade, but the plans haven’t materialized due to the tense relations.
This is, in fact, the first time a Pakistani hockey team is playing in India since the 2014 Champions Trophy, which was also held in Bhubaneswar. That trip ended with Pakistani players drawing the fans’ ire for their ‘wild’ celebrations following the win over India in the semifinals. Consequently, a miffed Hockey India cut all bilateral ties with them.
Sardar, however, says they are ready to host matches at a neutral venue if India is concerned about the security situation in Pakistan. “The security scenario has improved a lot in Pakistan but still if India feels otherwise, we can have a series at neutral venues – Dubai, Muscat, Malaysia… But it is important that these two nations play hockey against each other,” he says. “India-Pakistan matches produce heroes. That’s what we need.”
Regular matches, he hopes, will also ensure the aggression that was common in India-Pakistan matches returns. “The players today are better connected than we were because of WhatsApp, Facebook, etc. (Muhammad) Saqlain used to tell us that Sardar’s mother used to cook paratha’s for him when he came to India… that’s how close they are,” he says. “This connection is very important. If Europeans can stay together despite what happened during World War, why can’t we manage that?”