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Wednesday, May 27, 2020

Aslam Sher Khan: The original super-sub

Eight-time Olympic gold medallists India have been world champions just once and Aslam Sher Khan recalls how he prevented the dream dying a premature death.

Written by Nitin Sharma | Chandigarh | Updated: May 17, 2020 8:46:24 am
Aslam Sher Khan (in white) with teammates Harinder Chimni (left) and VJ Phillips (right) with the World Cup in Kuala Lumpur (Special Arrangement)

Moments after he scored the equaliser against hosts Malaysia to resurrect India in the semi-final of the 1975 Hockey World Cup in Kuala Lumpur, Aslam Sher Khan was met by commentator Jasdev Singh on the ground.

Singh told the player what he had said on air when the latter had entered the field with seven minutes remaining in the match. “Ab Bharat ne Aslam Sher Khan ko maidaan par utara hai aur lagta hai woh Bharat ka bhagya ban kar aye hain.” (India has brought on Aslam Sher Khan and it seems he is India’s lucky charm).

Two minutes later, Khan’s goal through a penalty corner ensured the match was tied 2-2 and went into extra time where Harcharan Singh scored the winner. The Ajitpal Singh-led team had booked their spot in the final against Pakistan, which India would win 2-1 to claim their only World Cup trophy till date.

It has been 45 years but Khan still remembers the win through Singh’s words during the semi-final. “I heard the commentary of the semi-final after some years and those were the exact thoughts in my mind at that time. I was only thinking that I can change the fortunes of my country and that’s exactly what happened. Every time I remember those moments, I remember the words of Jasdev Singh.”

Three years in waiting

Before the conversation veers towards that famous goal at Merdeka Stadium, Khan talks about the years leading up to the World Cup. He had grown up on the tales recounted by his father Ahmed Sher Khan, a member of the 1936 Berlin Olympics gold medal-winning Indian team, but the Bhopal youngster had to wait before cementing his spot in the national side.

A 17-year-old Khan was picked for the Indian team for an ASEAN Tournament in Singapore in 1971 before earning his spot in the Harmek Singh-led team in the 1972 Munich Olympics. However, he warmed the bench in Germany with Mukhbain Singh and Michael Kindo being preferred.

Prior to the 1974 Tehran Asian Games, it was an injury to Kindo which brought Khan into the team as the second-choice full-back and he played in all the matches. “At that time, the Indian team followed the strategy of having three fullbacks with one as reserve, four half-backs, seven forwards and two goalkeepers. I was the third full-back and did not play any match from my first tour in 1971 till the 1974 Asian Games. Obviously, I would get disappointed but then what could have I have done? When Kindo got injured in the national camp, I got my chance in the team. I played in all the matches and scored a goal against Japan.

Aslam Sher Ali Khan is given a rapturous welcome by supporters in Bhopal after his return from the World Cup (Special Arrangement)

“But on the night before the round robin match against Pakistan, I got to know that the team management was thinking to drop me. In the last 27 years, no Muslim player had played against Pakistan at any level and I understood that it could have been one of the reasons. However, the next day, coach Balkrishan Singh woke me up at 6 am and told me that I was playing,” recalls Khan.

At the Aryamehr stadium in Tehran in the final round robin match against Pakistan, India managed to keep the scoreline 1-1, despite relentless attacks by the trio of Samiulluah, Islahuddin and Shahnawaz Sheikh. Khan, Ajitpal and goalkeeper Leslie Fernandes would thwart every Pakistan attack. The draw meant both teams were tied on nine points and faced off again in the gold medal match.

“Playing in Tehran, which had an elevation of more than 1100m above sea level, put a lot of stress on our bodies. During the round robin match against Pakistan, Samiulluah on the left and Islahuddin on the right flank played brilliantly and our half-backs had no answers to their short passes. While we managed to keep it 1-1, Shahnawaz Sheikh – perhaps the best inside left in world hockey – was relentless and it was Ajitpal who covered every single inch and inspired me to bring out my best game as right fullback. That day, I showed Shahnawaz that I can match his every move. Unfortunately, we lost the final despite dominating the match,” laments Khan.

The World Cup glory

Khan’s performance in the Asian Games and the All-Star Exhibition matches after it, where he matched Shahnawaz’s every move all but sealed Khan’s selection for the World Cup. But Khan’s decision to appear for his college exams in Bhopal at the cost of the first month of the Indian team’s camp in Chandigarh did not please the team.

“I had requested the then IOA president Raja Bhalendra Singh to exempt me from the initial duration of the camp as I wanted to appear for my college exams. I guess this decision did not go down well with some of my team-mates and I believe that was where the first thoughts of not giving me a chance in the World Cup arose,” says Khan.

Eight of the 16 players selected for Kuala Lumpur were in the squad that had lost the 1973 World Cup final to the Netherlands. In Malaysia, the team would scrap its way into the semi-finals with three wins – including a 3-1 result against West Germany – a draw against Australia apart from a shock 1-2 defeat against Argentina, Khan’s first match of the tournament.

In the semi-finals at the Merdeka Stadium, which would host the bout between Muhammad Ali and Joe Bugner four months later, the hosts took a 2-1 lead thanks to goals by Fook Loke and N Shanmuganathan with Shivaji Pawar scoring for India. As India trailed Malaysia and with Surjit Singh failing to get past Malaysian goalkeeper Khairuddin Zainal through straight left- side shots in his penalty corner attempts, Khan saw an angry discussion between manager Balbir Singh Senior and coach Bodhi before it was decided to replace the other full-back Kindo with Khan with seven minutes remaining.

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“Our manager Balbir Singh Senior was a very genuine person and when I told him about my anger on missing out earlier, he said that he understood my problem and will do something. In the semi-final, I sat holding my anger before I heard some angry words exchanged between Balbir sir and coach Bodhi and I knew it was about me. They decided that Surjit will not be replaced but I will go in place of Kindo. Balbir sir held my face in his hands and told me ‘Ja beta, aaj tera khuda hi Bharat ko bacha sakta hai.’ The moment I entered the field, all the anger inside me vanished,” recalls Khan.

During the first 63 minutes of the match and in between his fits of anger, Khan would also observe Surjit and Zainal. “Surjit was an excellent penalty corner taker. His shots were less angular and had more power. He always took the shot going inside the D and reducing the angle to keep the ball straight or to the left. It was his power that would beat the goalkeeper. But he could not make the ball turn towards the right from his angle. I, on the other hand, would take the hit with one step and closer to the centre, which helped me hit the ball either left or right according to my choice,” shares Khan.

Two minutes later, Khan scored through a penalty corner with the ball whizzing past Zainal and defender Brian Sta Maria. Khan, who kissed the taweez given to him by his mother Ahmedi Begum before taking that shot, had also considered targeting the left of the goalkeeper but changed his mind in a split second.

“BP Govinda pushed the ball to the left side, where I had wanted and Ajitpal made the perfect stop. Such things come after hours of practice together. At that instant, my initial reaction was to hit the ball towards the left of the goalkeeper. While the right side offered more space as the goalkeeper cannot stretch his right foot much against an angled shot, there was the possibility of ball hitting the goal post or hitting defender Brian Sta Maria and I did not want to take that risk. But at the very next second, I decided to hit towards the right. Maybe it was Allah who made me do it. As I took the shot, Zainal moved towards his left anticipating the angle of the ball and push and before he could stretch back, the ball went past him and the defender,” remembers Khan.

While the goal prompted a mini celebration from the Indians, Khan recalls the silence from the Indian fans. “We had read in the papers that the Malaysian government had issued orders that the Indian fans, including NRIs, cannot cheer for India and after the equaliser happened, the crowd went silent. As a player, we were used to roars after a goal and the silence felt deafening for each of us. The first thing I heard was Ajitpal and Surjit patting my back along with Ashok Kumar and Govinda rushing towards me. ‘Bacha liya yar’ (you saved us), they would say. After we won the semi-final, Balbir sir told me to go to dressing room window and wave to the waiting fans,” says Khan.

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India would face Pakistan in the final on March 15 and in a fast-paced final, it was Pakistan who drew first blood with Muhammad Zahid scoring in the 17th minute. India equalised through Surjit Singh’s penalty corner conversion through his trademark straight left shot before Ashok Kumar scored the winner after a goalmouth mêlée on a long corner by Harcharan Singh. Khan’s shot was deflected by Victor Philips before Kumar’s attempt crossed the goal-line after rebounding from the goal post.

Umpire G Vijayanathan gave the goal to India despite Pakistan’s protests. But it was a moment before the final, which Khan remembers clearly. “I wept for hours at the hotel lobby before the semi-final. When we won the match, I was hugged by waiting fans at the same lobby. Pakistan player Rashid junior, who was facing a ban due to an incident at the 1972 Olympics, told me in the lobby that India would win as the team had won from an almost lost cause and such belief can shock Pakistan. He told Pakistan players the same thing,” says Khan.

The Indian team landed in Chennai after their win and attended a reception in New Delhi from president Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed and Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. The players were treated like stars.

1975 Hockey World Cup The victorious Indian team with Prime Minister Indira Gandhi after their arrival in New Delhi. Aslam Sher Khan is third from the left in the second row. (Special Arrangement)

Prior to their arrival in Delhi, however, the team faced a hurdle in the form of the customs issuing a bill of more than Rs 60,000 on the items bought or gifted in Malaysia and Singapore. It was then IHF president MA Ramaswamy who came to their rescue.

“We were given $500 from the federation apart from our daily allowance of seven dollars per day. Most of us spent that money on shopping and were also given a lot of gifts in Malaysia and Singapore, where the team spent a day. The Chennai customs issued a bill in excess of Rs 60,000 and we did not have that much money. Hours later, Ramaswamy sir talked with the officials and made the payment and we were cleared. Later when I met president Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed, he asked me, ‘Hum aap ke liye kya kar sakte hain?” (what can we do for you) and I replied that my promotion in Indian Airlines was due. That was the only thing which came to my mind and it was done. What could I have asked after giving hope to more than 65 crore Indians in that semi-final and getting a chance to hold the World Cup trophy in my hands,” Khan adds with a lump in his throat.

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