In the assembly line of hockey stalwarts from Pakistan, forwards have made a telling contribution. Islahuddin Siddiqui, Hassan Sardar, Shahnaz Sheikh, Samiullah, Tahir Zaman and Waseem Feroz were all considered wizards, who could pierce through opposition defence like a knife through butter.
But one man arguably ranks higher than any player in the history of the game; his control of the hockey ball, lightening runs from one end of the field to another, razor sharp and accurate passes for the centre forwards made him the ‘Maradona of hockey’.
Shahbaz Ahmed captained Pakistan to the 1994 World Cup title in Sydney, the last global triumph for the country in the much loved national sport.
His performance in the final against the Netherlands is considered by many as one of the greatest displays of dribbling, body dodges, ball control and stick work the world has ever seen.
Despite his wonderful display, the match ended in a 1-1 stalemate after the allotted 70 minutes and in a repeat of the semi-finals (against Germany) the greenshirts prevailed after a nail-biting penalty shootout. In the tie-breaker against Germany, Shahbaz’s feeble push barely succeeded in making it over the line (he was not a regular penalty stroke taker, but since most players froze under pressure Shahbaz took the challenge head-on).
One can’t doubt that destiny and lady luck was on the Faisalabad-based player’s side, who did everything but single-handedly win the title during the 1990 World Cup final, also against the Netherlands in front of a 60,000 strong crowd in Lahore.
From 1990 to 1994, Shahbaz was by a country mile the best player in the game, he won the man of the tournament awards in both the 1990 and 1994 World Cups and had a bigger impact than any other player in the 1992 Barcelona Olympics as Pakistan grabbed the bronze medal.
With his trademark dribbling skills and crossfield runs, Shahbaz possessed the rare ability of producing magic when least expected.
His main asset was his incredible fitness; a lithe and agile athlete who had supple muscle and powerful legs that helped him run around the field with ease.
During his playing days, the green shirts were a powerhouse at the regional level, especially against archrivals India. The 1990 Asian Games and the 1989 Asia Cup were won thanks to the sublime performance of the great forward in crucial games.
Shahbaz’s heroics in the Asia Cup final at Delhi left the Indian supporters rattled and frustrated as Pakistan lifted the trophy. The team bus was attacked by hooligans on their way to the hotel, slightly injuring some of the players.
But it wasn’t India alone that bore the brunt of Shahbaz’s prowess; even the Australia and the European teams held him in great regard.
The respect that the forward received on and off the field made him one of the most likeable players of his era. Rarely was he seen arguing with the umpires and experts often quipped that a player of his ability was too good to indulge in unnecessary antics.
Shahbaz was awarded some of the greatest accolades and awards in the country, including the Pride of Performance and Hilal-e-Pakistan awards.
He had an unflinching desire to bow out on a high and made more than one comebacks to the national fold. Unfortunately, Shahbaz was a shadow of his former self in the 1996 Atlanta Olympics and his last few days on the pitch petered out unceremoniously.
1994 was the last year of global success for the national hockey team; after Shahbaz’s retirement, it seems that a whole generation of Pakistan’s talent vanished. Twenty years have passed, but the memories of his breathtaking runs against Australia, Germany and the Netherlands are etched in memories of millions.
Published in The Express Tribune, May 28th, 2014.