The boys from Bannu

Updated December 18, 2016


Hameedi at the top of the podium in the 1960 Olympics
Hameedi at the top of the podium in the 1960 Olympics

As attempts at resuscitating Pakistan hockey continue apace, there is more good news: Bannu’s players are back in the big time. The country’s Under-18 boys team, which appeared in the U-18 Asia Cup and played a series against Oman a few weeks back, included three players from Bannu: Amjad Ali, Khairullah Shah and Mohibullah. Pakistan’s U-21 side, silver medallists at the recent Sultan of Johor Cup also included a Bannu boy, Junaid Kamal.

Hockey has been the district’s identity. In fact, Bannu has played the role of a nursery for Pakistan hockey, producing many greats of the game along the way. Things had stalled after Bannu became victim to terrorism and militancy; till a few years ago, Bannu was among the towns most affected by terrorism. Outdoor sports activities had almost ceased to exist as fear reigned the streets.

But Operation Zarb-i-Azb has managed to restore peace in the area. Slowly but surely, we now see the resumption of hockey activities where not long ago people feared stepping out of their homes. Life is returning to Bannu and to Pakistan hockey.

It was a colonial cantonment that became a bustling town renowned for producing superstars. After a decade of reeling from war, Bannu is beginning to churn out hockey talent once again

A British import that became a local delight

The seeds of hockey in Bannu, as in many other parts of the sub-continent, were planted by the British.

Bannu was founded as Dhulipnagar in 1848 by Herbert Benjamin Edwardes. He was a lieutenant in a regiment of the East India Company’s private army which was posted there. Although the outpost was initially named after the Maharajah of Lahore at the time, the town became Edwardesabad in 1869. In 1903, it finally received its current name, Bannu.

Hockey was seen as a game to attain peak physical fitness and soldiers of the British army were into the game because of this reason. Watching soldiers in action, Bannu’s indigenous youth was also inspired to play this game. Little did they know then that hockey will become a source of pride for the area.

The man who became a real source of inspiration was no less than the ‘juggler’ Dhyan Chand, regarded by many as the greatest hockey player of all time. Dhyan Chand stayed in Bannu for about four years in the latter half of the 1930s with his army unit. Apart from his army team, the legend also turned out for local clubs and people flocked to see him in action. Thus the roots of hockey further spread during his stay in Bannu.

But Bannu’s hockey had already created a niche for itself in the sub-continent. As far back as 1935-36, Bannu’s oldest outfit, Waziri Club, had won the All-India tournament in Bhopal (now the capital of the Indian state of Madhya Pradesh). There were a number of clubs in Bannu but the main rivalry was between the Waziri Club and the Giants Club. Their matches attracted crowds of up to 7,000, which is remarkable for a town of around 100,000 at the time.

Hockey activities were not confined to the clubs, however. The sport was more or less part of the curriculum in most schools while most teachers used to supervise training themselves. The main competition was between Islamia High School and Government High School. Their encounters had a community flavour attached to them. The Muslims supported the Islamia High School while the Government High School was cheered on by the Hindus.

The pre-Partition Bannu hockey boom coincided with Hitler’s war. Therefore, Bannu players couldn’t don international colours since there was no international hockey during the war years. Throughout this period though, clubs from Bannu excelled in various All-India tourneys. It was only a matter of time before Bannu would be recognised on the big stage.

The heroics of Hameedi

After nearly a century of hockey tradition, a player from this hockey-crazy town was finally noticed ... but he didn’t quite make it.

In 1947, a player by the name of Yaqoob was selected for the All-India team. But the youngster spurned the offer as he wanted to serve his newly-independent country, Pakistan. Unfortunately for him, he was never selected by the new country’s team.

Nevertheless, Pakistan’s first-ever international team, which had the honour of participating in the 1948 Olympics, included a youngster from the town of Bannu. His name was Abdul Hameed, better known as Hameedi.

Hameedi rose to the rank of brigadier in the Pakistan Army. He was an outstanding inside-right, not only a schemer but also a tremendous scorer. Hameedi was a member of both the 1948 and 1952 Olympics teams.

But these teams, despite having several outstanding players, could only finish fourth. The main reason of the failure was a lack of harmony and discipline. Hameedi was then made the captain of the team in 1954 and he didn’t disappoint — the army officer inculcated much-needed discipline and spirit in the team.

Under Hameedi’s able captaincy, Pakistan won the silver medal at the 1956 Olympics losing to India by a controversial goal in the final. Still, it was an epoch-making moment in the country’s sporting history as it was Pakistan’s first ever medal of any colour in any Olympic discipline.

Then, in 1958, Hameedi led Pakistan to a gold medal at the Asian Games. It was the first time that India was relegated to second position in any international hockey tournament. And finally Hameedi attained eternal legend status by skippering Pakistan to its maiden Olympic gold (in any sport) at the 1960 Olympics in Rome, beating India 1-0. This victory ended India’s 32-year hold on the Olympic title and announced Pakistan’s arrival as a hockey superpower.

Watching his game in Rome, the famous English hockey journalist R.I. Holland paid tribute to Hameedi by calling him “the most constructive forward in the world today.” Hameedi’s tally of 16 Olympic goals remained a Pakistan record till 2008 when Sohail Abbas surpassed it.

Even after his retirement from professional hockey, Hameedi managed the Pakistan team on quite a few occasions, including the 1966 and 1970 Asian Games with Pakistan winning silver and gold medals, respectively. His last stint as manager was the 1973 World Cup, where Hameedi was handicapped since he was overseeing a second-string side. The Pakistan team which had participated in the 1972 Olympics was banned by the International Hockey Federation (FIH) for inappropriate behaviour after their defeat in the controversy-marred final against the hosts West Germany. And yet, it goes to Hameedi and his team’s credit that Pakistan still managed to finish fourth at the 1973 World Cup.

Hameedi’s last role was as the secretary of the Pakistan Hockey Federation (PHF). He assumed the post when the country’s hockey was at the lowest ebb till then. Pakistan had slumped to its worst positions in the World Cup and the Olympics. They ended 11th at the 1986 World Cup and finished fifth at the 1988 Olympics.

Then began a revival under Hameedi’s watchful gaze. Pakistan regained some of their lost prestige by finishing as the runners-up in the 1990 World Cup, superbly hosted in Lahore by Hameed’s PHF, and then by winning the bronze at the 1992 Olympics. In addition, Pakistan regained the Asian Games title apart from retaining the Asia Cup.

Without Hameedi, the story of Pakistani hockey would be incomplete. He served the game in almost every possible capacity: player, captain, manager of the team, and secretary of the PHF. At all times, Hameedi brought hope with him.

The roar of Rasheed

Bannu’s second son to attain legendary status was Abdul Rasheed Junior, the younger brother of Abdul Hameed. Originally a right-in like his illustrious brother, he was converted into an opportunistic centre-forward by Brigadier M.H. Atif. He turned out to be a predator availing even half chances. In his first big tournament, the 1968 Olympics, he was joint top-scorer of the gold medal winning team. Rasheed Jr was again Pakistan’s top-scorer at the 1972 Olympics.

In between, he also earned a World Cup winners medal in its inaugural edition of 1971. Rasheed ended his career emulating his brother by captaining Pakistan at the Olympics (Montreal, 1976). His tally of Olympic goals is just one short of Hameedi’s 16 goals. He enjoys a unique distinction in Pakistan sports history to be the only sportsman to have a complete set of Olympic medals: Gold (1968), Silver (1972) and Bronze (1976). When he called it a day, Rasheed Jr’s tally of 96 international goals was a Pakistan record at the time.

Like Hameedi, Rasheed also had a managerial spell. And he achieved one distinction that even eluded Hameedi — managing Pakistan to a global title, World Cup 1994. He was also the manager of the 1994 victorious Champions Trophy team.

The sublime Saeed

The next outstanding player to emerge from this southern division of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa was Saeed Khan. Primarily a left-in, he was also effective playing left-out. Saeed was a bit unfortunate as his period coincided with that of the greats Shahnaz Sheikh and Hanif Khan.

Although, he represented Pakistan from 1974-1982, he mainly remained a reserve left side forward. He would have been a number one choice in almost any other side of his era. When given a chance, Saeed Khan never disappointed. His misery can be assessed from just one instance. He was Pakistan’s vice-captain for the 1983 Champions Trophy, yet he mostly remained on the bench because the playing left-in was none other than Hanif Khan, the skipper of that side.

However, Saeed Khan has the satisfaction of being a proud member of two World Cup winning squads (1978 and 1982) and three Asian Games winning sides (1974, 1978 and 1982). Then he returned as coach of the national team from 1993 to 1995 (with city-mate Rasheed Jr as the manager). In that role, he achieved the distinction of winning the 1994 World Cup as well as the Champions Trophy, the same year.

After a long absence, Saeed Khan was given the assignment of manager and head coach of the Pakistan’s women’s team this year. Under his guidance, the newly-raised national women’s team surprised everyone by reaching the semi-final of the Asian Hockey Federation Cup in October.

Farhat’s fire and fury

Temperamental Pakhtun Farhat Khan
Temperamental Pakhtun Farhat Khan

The Bannu conveyor belt continued to roll. Soon after Saeed Khan’s departure from the playing field, another player with sublime skills entered the fray. His name was Farhat Khan, whose international career had two spells and interestingly in different roles.

He played as left-in from 1985 to 1987 before being dropped. He was recalled in late 1989. At the time, Farhat was still playing as a left-in on the domestic circuit but with the national team in dire need of an attacking centre-half, he was roped in.

Farhat proved the selectors’ call to be correct. A hot-tempered Pakhtun, he thrived under pressure and was a big match player. Farhat turned out to be the real lynchpin of the Pakistan team. He played a stellar role in reviving Pakistan hockey’s fortunes after the dark period of 1986-1988. Pakistan were runners-up at the 1990 World Cup and bagged bronze at the 1992 Olympics. The national team also regained the Asiad gold and retained the Asia Cup.

Mohib’s magic

Bannu’s hockey stadium is named after Qazi Mohib
Bannu’s hockey stadium is named after Qazi Mohib

Another Bannu man who appeared at almost the same time as Farhat was Qazi Mohib. Very stylish for a full-back, Mohib possessed fine stick-work and dribbling ability apart from defensive solidity. His attacking skills were picked up by Brigadier Atif, under whose managership he played as a right-half. Mohib fully justified his manager’s faith in him and was declared ‘Player of the Tournament’ in the 1988 Champions Trophy.

During his brief career, he received many distinctions. Mohib became the third man from Bannu to captain Pakistan. He led his country to second place in the 1990 World Cup, first position in the 1989 Asia Cup as well as the 1990 Asian Games. Qazi Mohib passed away in 1997. The hockey stadium in Bannu is named after him.

It will be a great injustice not to mention a person, who despite not getting the national colour, remained the greatest servant of Bannu hockey for almost four decades. Late Zafar Ali Zafari (not to be confused with Col Zafari, another Pakistan hockey Olympian) had been the foremost hockey organiser in Bannu from 1960 till the mid-1990s, when only old age stopped him from continuing his mission. He organised many All-Pakistan tournaments in Bannu and it was his endeavours that resulted in the conversion of the municipal committee ground into a hockey stadium, where an Astroturf was laid later. Zafari also started the Bannu School of Hockey where young lads were trained. Zafari was the associate manager of Pakistan’s victorious team of the 1984 Olympics.

Since Farhat Khan’s departure from the scene, only a handful of Bannu players have donned the green Pakistan blazer. None of them became mega-stars. Bannu was one of the places badly hit by terrorism for almost a decade but now, hockey grounds are buzzing once again. The results have been instant and there are definite indicators that in the very near future, stars would emerge from Bannu in the tradition of Hameedi, Rasheed Jr, Saeed, Farhat and Mohib.

Bannu is back and, hopefully, so will Pakistan hockey.

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, December 18th, 2016