'Was the Platini of hockey then'

'Was the Platini of hockey then'

'Was the Platini of hockey then'

The year 1980 is a very special one for Indian hockey. Not only did the national team win the last of its eight Olympic gold medals, it also saw the emergence of one the finest players in the sport.

Having made an instant impression as a sprightly 19-year-old in the Junior World Cup in France in 1979, Mohammad Shahid was given his senior international debut at the 555 four-nation tournament in Malaysia prior to the Moscow Games. Shahid made a stellar impact at the event, his career taking off like a searing hit into the goal from which there was no looking back.

His captain then, V Baskaran, says he realised at the first sight itself that Shahid was marked for greatness.

“In his first tournament itself, he bamboozled everybody. The moment I watched him, I knew he was going to become one of the greatest players ever. Pakistan was one the strongest sides then. They had some exceptional players but Shahid would leave them chasing shadows. They had very little idea on how to contain him. I can say that I’m proud and happy that Shahid had to start his career under my captaincy.

“He’s one of the greatest dribblers I’ve ever seen. His stickwork and ball skills were simply extraordinary. He perhaps was the best during his time and one of the best ever.

He reminded me of V J Peter, a former Olympian and Arjuna award winner. He hardly used to score goals but was the man behind most goals scored. He simply knew how to pierce a defence and send that crucial pass. Shahid was a mirror image of Peter. A superb play-maker and a totally selfless player, Shahid was the Michel Platini of hockey at that time,” Baskaran adds.

Baskaran, who also coached India, says Shahid excelled under pressure. “The fact that he was left-handed made him a treat to watch. Actually, he could play and do things with both hands efficiently. He was fearless when he ventured forward. The defenders had a harrowing time stopping him. His speed, control and vision was exemplary. He was well ahead of his time and I can easily say, I’ve rarely seen a player like him.

“The best thing about him was he thrived under pressure. He would rarely fail in a big match. As his fame grew, more players started marking him. Sometimes 3-4 players would crowd him. But, like every great player, he improvised. He wouldn’t attack in such a scenario. He would lure them to their doom. He wouldn’t dribble much when he was crowded around but relied on the one-touch pass. He often used to tell me, Baskar I don’t want to waste my energy in running behind the ball. I’ll make them run. Very rarely you would see him tackled. Eliminating a defender was his speciality. He was simply marvellous.”

Baskaran, who had some gifted players under him as captain, said the presence of Zafar Iqbal and Shahid would ease all his worries. “With Shahid and Zafar (Iqbal) taking charge of the flanks, I didn’t have to worry one bit. They had the speed, the skill and their understanding was brilliant. Very often during matches we used to switch flanks and they excelled in that as well. Many players have trouble switching flanks as that upsets their rhythm. But not for Shahid and Zafar.

“When they went forward together, it was an absolute joy to watch. I remember how Shahid troubled the Aussie great Ric Charlesworth at the 1984 Olympics. A lot of people talk about modern hockey. What’s the point in whipping the balls from one end to another?”

Baskaran felt more could have been done to save his former team-mate and friend. “If there is one regret, I think not enough was done to save his life. I believe if he was treated better he could have lived for some more years. But that’s the case with many legends, they are forgotten heroes.”

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