After Independence in 1947, the nation yearned for an Olympic medal. Pakistan’s first Olympic medal in any sport was in the 1956 Melbourne Olympics, a silver in hockey. Matiullah Khan, who passed away in his native Bahawalpur in the early hours of August 12 at age 88, was the last surviving member of that 1956 team.
Four years later, he figured in Pakistan’s historic gold medal success at the Rome Olympics. He also had another silver medal from the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. Counting the gold medals in both his Asian Games appearances (1958 and 1962), he had an enviable collection from the only two title tournaments of the time.
One of the finest left-wingers of hockey, Matiullah started playing from Bahawalpur and was soon counted among the most promising players of his city. But the dawn of his global stardom was only possible after a bleak night of Pakistan’s sports management.
British India had won the Olympics gold in hockey in all the last three editions before Partition. Pakistan were widely tipped to at least reach the final of the 1948 London Olympics but, because of poor team selection and gross mismanagement, they could only finish fourth at both the 1948 and 1952 Helsinki Olympics. The successive failures sparked a national outcry. A committee led by Mian Riazuddin, a senior bureaucrat and former hockey player, was formed, and its recommendations were carried out.
Matiullah Khan, who passed away on August 12, will always be remembered as one of the finest left-wingers in hockey and the last remaining member of the 1956 team that won Pakistan its first Olympics medal
Talent was meticulously picked from across the length and breadth of the country. Matiullah was named in the 33 probables for the national team in 1955. The following year, he gained his first international selection for the Melbourne Olympics.
The other left-winger in the squad was the experienced and popular Latifur Rahman, the vice-captain of the team. Latif was appearing in his third Olympics; his second for Pakistan. He had won gold at the 1948 Olympics for India. An excellent dribbler, Latif possessed great stick skills. Yet, Matiullah displaced the vice-captain as Pakistan’s first choice left-winger during the 1956 Olympics and played in the latter stages, including in the semi-final and final. The team management found him to be a complete winger, especially for his goal-labelled crosses.
Over the next decade, Matiullah remained a regular choice for the Pakistan team. His last appearance was at the International Hockey Festival in the German city of Hamburg in 1966.
In the early phase of his international career, Matiullah’s classic duels with India’s legendary right-half Leslie Claudius captured the attention of the onlookers. Claudius, the winner of three golds and a silver at the Olympics, also captained India in his last Olympics appearance in 1960 in Rome.
In that era of positional play, the right-half confronted the opposing left-out. Experienced and confident Claudius even tried to physically subdue young Matiullah, but the youngster refused to be overawed. Later, it was Claudius who avoided the dangerous Pakistani left-winger.
Moti, as he was affectionately called, was the darling of the crowds. He had a unique style — dragging the ball behind him, in a peculiar run and hit style. Still, he was extremely effective with a lovely hit and accurate cross. Also a great opportunist, the winger only needed a sniff of a chance to score. He had 13 international goals to his name.
Moti possessed great speed and could execute a cross at the same speed. He had a deceptive style, giving the impression of being lazy, which resembled the legendary Shahbaz Ahmed, whose long strides also gave an illusion of slowness. But before opponents realised it, Matiullah would weave past them.
Matiullah’s prowess on the hockey field fetched him employment in the Railways. Pakistan Railways were the strongest departmental hockey team at the time. Matiullah also won the national championships in their colours. He retired from Railways in 1994.
The youngsters of Bahawalpur were greatly inspired by their hero’s exploits and the town became a big centre of the country’s national game.
Matiullah’s three nephews, his brother’s sons Hidayatullah, Samiullah and Kaleemullah went on to represent Pakistan with great distinction. The names of the latter two are enshrined in the country’s sports lore. Left-out Samiullah, popularly known as the ‘Flying Horse’, in his illustrious international career from 1973-82, won golds at two World Cups, three Asian Games and one Asia Cup.
Right-out Kaleemullah (1979-86) is among the very few in the world with golds at all the title hockey tournaments: the Olympics, the World Cup, the Asian Games, the Asia Cup and even the Junior World Cup. Both the brothers went on to captain Pakistan. The eldest of the siblings, Hidayatullah, in his short international career, also won gold at the 1974 Asian Games that were held in Tehran.
Kaleemullah recalls: “When I first gained selection for the Bahawalpur under-16 team, my uncle took me under his wing. He would wake me up at 5am to take me to the ground on his bicycle. There he made me run until I was exhausted. He stressed a lot on speed and fitness.” And, later the hockey world would acknowledge Kaleemullah as the fastest winger on the international scene.
Matiullah coached young players in Bahawalpur as long as his health permitted. He never sought any office in the district or divisional hockey bodies. “Politics is not my game,” he would say. His contemporaries would say that he was a jovial person, friendly with everyone, senior or junior, and never a part of any group within the team.
‘Moti’, his nickname, means pearl in Urdu. Pakistan hockey cashed in on this pearl on the field as well as off it. His city honoured him by naming the hockey stadium in Bahawalpur after him. The Pakistan government conferred him with the Tamgha-i-Imtiaz in 1963.
As for the connoisseurs of hockey, the list for Pakistan’s greatest left-winger would be a very short one — it would comprise just Matiullah and his nephew Samiullah. It is not easy to name just one.
The writer is a freelance sports journalist based in Lahore.
He tweets @ijazChaudhry1
Published in Dawn, EOS, August 21st, 2022