NEW DELHI: If you happen to be an old-school hockey fan somewhere around Melbourne’s Bayside suburbs while the club season in Victoria is on, try and make time to go to the City of Bayside or City of Kingston. Those are homes to the two hockey grounds of Southern United Hockey Club (SUHC). And if the home side is playing, you might be able to witness what world hockey misses today — the old Pakistani flair.
Question: What connection does it have with crockery, Banaras and sarees?
Advice: Just hang in there for another paragraph or so. The opening credits have just started rolling.
Back in the subcontinent, up north in India, in Jalandhar, a bone china crockery set used to rest nicely in a Punjabi household, until it moved to the US with the family. It was a gift from just about 500 km away, but a different country, Pakistan. The pieces of that crockery set haven’t made many trips to the dining table. They are more a mark of friendship that is divided by borders but united by hockey.
This friendship developed when an India-Pakistan match didn’t require a neutral ground; when the Pakistani team would come, play and savour butter chicken at a famous dhaba in Chandigarh; when an Indian team could go to Lahore, play, dig into the street food and come back saying ‘Jinne Lahore ni vekheya oh jammeya ei nai’ (one who hasn’t seen Lahore isn’t born).
It was before the steadily deteriorating political ties between the two countries also had a big impact on the sports played between the two nations.
Winning and losing mattered in those days as well, but friendships mattered equally, if not more. Even if bruises from a close defeat lingered, the result was soon left for the history books to take care of, and camaraderie off the pitch took over.
One such friendship, between former Pakistan captain Waseem Ahmed and India’s former attacking midfielder Baljeet Singh Saini is full of anecdotes and interesting stories — the warmest of which brings Peshawar crockery and Banarasi sarees into the mix.
(Waseem Ahmed and Baljeet Singh Saini – Getty Images)
Ahmed, the player with the most international caps (410) for his country, is nowadays the source of that old Pakistani flair for the SUHC. He moved to Australia in 2015 and for the last two years is a player-cum-assistant coach for the club.
Saini, the current coach of the Indian junior women’s hockey team, keeps shuttling between India and the US, where he moved with his family.
“Our fiercest rivals on the pitch are Pakistanis and our best friends off the pitch in international hockey are Pakistanis as well,” Saini set up the nostalgia with a nicely-phrased statement.
“Badi dosti hai (we share a strong friendship),” said Waseem over the phone when Timesofindia.com rang him.
The story both of them recalled is from India’s tour of Pakistan in 1998. Tahir Zaman was leading Pakistan and Ahmed was cementing his place in the midfield after his debut in 1996. It was an eight-match home-and-away series, with four Tests in Pakistan and four in India.
Pakistan won it 4-3 on Indian soil, after their home leg ended 2-2.
“Dilip Tirkey (Man of the Series) and Baljeet Saini were youngsters like me. We had Shahbaz senior and junior with us, and Tahir Zaman. We won the first two matches in Peshawar and Rawalpindi. In Lahore, they defeated us, and then in Karachi as well. Public started throwing stones at us,” Ahmed recalled.
In Peshawar, Saini wanted to take home a memento. That’s when he stepped into the Pakistani camp.
“Saini came and said I want to buy a dinner set. It (crockery) is quite famous there (Peshawar). It was about a 70-80 piece dinner set,” Ahmed told TimesofIndia.com.
The running joke at that time was that the entire Indian team had to take care of the crockery over the next three Tests in Pakistan before flying back home.
“Yes, that was just a joke,” said Saini while taking Timesofindia.com down memory lane.
“He (Ahmed) must not have told you that he gifted me that,” Saini revealed to add more warmth to the story, as Ahmed never mentioned that it was a gift from him. “Our friendship grew and we have stayed in touch ever since.”
“It was a huge box, quite heavy, made of bone China. It’s like antique crockery with stones embedded. I still have it.” Saini told TimesofIndia.com.
A few years later, when Ahmed’s sister was getting married, the Pakistani midfielder contacted Saini as he was looking for some Banarasi sarees — a traditional Indian attire that is famous in Pakistan as well.
“We had a team-mate at that time, Anurag Raghuvanshi, who was from Banaras. I reached out to him to get the sarees and then sent those to Waseem,” said Saini. “After that, he even visited me in Jalandhar.”
Ahmed went on to play till the 2012 London Olympics, having come out of retirement in 2006.
Interestingly, he made his international debut in India, during the 1996 Champions Trophy in Chennai as a 19-year-old teenager.
India and Pakistan played the concluding group fixture with a place in the final at stake. Pakistan edged India 3-2, and Ahmed distinctly remembers the few minutes he got to go on the pitch.
“India had a great team at that time, very experienced. We had a young team and we were lucky (to win the match), you can say. We had the same number of points (7) going into the match . It was home ground for India. Mukesh (Kumar), Pargat (Singh), Dhanraj (Pillay), (Mohammad) Riaz, all top players were playing for India. We won 3-2 to reach the final.
“I played only for the last 5-7 minutes and didn’t get a single touch, just loitered around (laughs). But one move between Dhanraj and Mukesh has always stayed with me.
“They started from their 25-yard line and cut through our midfield and defence. The entire Pakistan team was beaten. Dhanraj took the shot at goal but it went wide. He threw his stick and it crashed on the sideline boards. I always remember that.”
Ahmed recently made an appearance on the Pakistan coaching bench late last year, when the team toured Netherlands for its two-match Olympic qualifying event. The team was playing an international game after almost a year, but the inputs from Pakistan’s most experienced player clearly had an effect.
Pakistan drew the first game with a thrilling 4-4 scoreline but couldn’t maintain the same tempo in Game 2, in which the visitors were thrashed 6-1.
“Asif Bajwa, the Pakistan Hockey Federation secretary, asked me ‘if we call you, will you come?’ I said, ‘why not’, because what I am today is because of hockey. So I joined the team in Holland,” recalled Ahmed.
“I was there with the team for three weeks, but how much can you prepare in such a short time? Despite such little preparation, we managed to surprise Holland in Holland in the first match. It means talent is there, we just need to groom and educate it.”
What experience can do shows in what Ahmed has done with his current club SUHC.
It was at the bottom of Men’s Premier League when he joined, and in his first year with the club, the team finished in the top four and entered the play-offs. For the last two years, they have been the champions.