Home » History of Legends » Untold: The extraordinary stories of Pakistani legends
Aug
22

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With 2013 rolling out legendary tales from the world of sports — Rush, about one of Formula One’s greatest rivalries, Class of 92, a documentary about rise of Manchester United’s six modern-day superstars and Bollywood’s take on India’s Olympic sprinter Milkha Singh — Pakistan too, in the midst of a cinema upturn, presented it “first sports film”, inspired by the career of the enigmatic Shahid Afridi, albeit not a biopic. With a hungry audience already looking forward to the cinematic treatment of football legends Argentina’s Lionel Messi and Brazil’s Pele in 2014, could the celebration of the country’s exceptional sports figures on the big screen also be in the offing? Here are some of the characters who would inspire again.

The Greatest Khan?

“What he did back then, it’s impossible for that to happen now. An unknown showing up at the biggest tournament and winning at an age when most players retire? It’s incredible. Can you imagine how good he would have been in his prime?” James Zug, author of “Squash: A History of the Game” marvelled in an interview. He was talking about Hashim Khan, undoubtedly, the greatest player the world of squash will ever see.

Khan, who got his first taste of the game as a voluntary ball boy at the British Officer’s club in Peshawar, had only himself as an opponent in Hashim vs Hashim matches until his teens when his father, who worked as the chief steward at the club died in a car accident. From that point onwards, Khan dropped out of school and devoted himself completely to the squash club, first as a ball boy and then a coach, making enough money to the support the family.

A game with a professional player from Bombay would then change the course of squash history. The player, who had come to club looking for a game, mocked the challenger, who now in his 30s gave the pro a 50-point cushion. At the end of the match, Khan had brushed aside the pro 9-7, becoming a local celebrity and being invited to the All-of-India tournament in Bombay in 1944. He won three consecutive titles in Bombay before partition in 1947 meant he was ineligible for participating in the event as Khan moved to the newly-created state of Pakistan. But the wonders did not stop there.

Pakistan, looking for an identity and national heroes after partition, pinned its hope on Khan, who now at the age of 37 was to represent the country at the British Open. Like a wily wizard, the 5ft 5in, seemingly out of shape man, stunned the squash world by beating Mahmoud El Karim of Egypt 9-5, 9-0, 9-0. He captured six more British Open crowns, the last one coming when Khan was 44.

In between, Khan, who settled in United States in the 1960s after being offered a well-paid coaching job at the Uptown Athletic Club in Detroit, won three Canadian Open and US Open titles as well, the last one coming when the squash king was in his late 40s. The city of Denver in Colorado, which was to become Khan’s next destination, also experienced the Pakistani player’s magic, so much so that the then mayor of the city John Hickenlooper made July 1 ‘Hashim Khan Day’.

Hashim was undoubtedly the greatest of Khans to have ruled the squash world and, few will disagree, is the game’s grand master as well.

Herbert Warren Wind, who ‘transformed sporting writing into literature’, put it aptly: “The more I think about it the more convinced I am that the greatest athlete for his age the world has ever seen may well be Hashim Khan.”

The Kings of the Akhara

If ever the God-father-like treatment were to be reserved for a local biopic, the Indo-Pak kushti (wrestling) dynasty would be the subject of it.

From Muhammad Aziz, the Great Gama, to Imam Baksh and Manzoor Ahmad aka “Bholu Pehelwan”, and in between them many other family members who were part of the golden period which sowed fear in the hearts of wrestlers around the world; their journey was well and truly legendary. Their status was such that if they were champions in India and Pakistan, they were considered world champions.

The “Bholu Brothers” of Pakistan, all sons of Imam Baksh and the last in the line of these great wrestlers, are all worthy of an honour unto themselves. The most celebrated of these brothers was, however, Manzoor Ahmad, the “Bholu Pehelwan” who was born in 1927 in Amritsar. He was the eldest son of Imam Baksh and was Gama Pehelwan’s nephew. After the creation of the new state of Pakistan in 1947, there was much debate as to who was “Rustam-i-Pakistan” or Pakistan’s greatest. In 1949, after defeating Younis Pehelwan, Bholu became the first “Rustam-i-Pakistan”, the king of akharas in the country. His reputation around the world grew to such an extent that wrestlers had to first take down five of his brothers before they could earn the right to fight Bholu. At times, talk of their equally legendary diets and workout routines were enough to put doubts in the minds of opposition wrestlers.

In 1963, Bholu was chosen as the heir to Gama’s throne and was presented the silver mace that was awarded to his great uncle by Edward IV. In the mid to late 60s, Bholu travelled across England with his brothers taking on one wrestler after the other and raising Pakistan’s flag. Bholu was awarded Pride of Performance, the highest civil award conferred by the Pakistani government in 1962 before being declared “Rustam-i-Zaman”, Pakistani World Champion in 1967.

As kingdoms faded, the effect on these prized men, was slow but lasting as an AFP feature read: “For decades, their practice ring honed the talent of Pakistan’s most famous wrestling family. Today, it is their graveyard, a fitting symbol of the decline of the sport traditionally known as ‘kushti’.

The Bholu brothers are buried next to a centuries-old Banyan tree to the side of their former ring. Sweepers clean the mausoleum, but otherwise, the compound of a mud court, abandoned gym and small decayed garden is eerily quiet.

Government neglect and poverty has helped consign the glorious feats of Pakistani wrestlers, locally called ‘pehelwan’, to fast-fading memory. Only a handful carry the torch for the next generation and few command the thousands of spectators of days gone by.”

A Tale of Two Shahs

As Abrar Hussain Shah walked out of his office to head home on June 16, 2011, he couldn’t possibly have imagined the fate that awaited him. This was a man who had spent his entire life taking knocks both inside and outside of the boxing ring that he so devoted himself to. According to some accounts of his early days as an up-and-coming fighter in the late 70s, Shah dreamed of the day he would stand proudly at the centre of the ring, victorious, and head bowed to Pakistan’s national anthem. His international debut came in 1983, and although ‘that day’ was to come a little later, Shah announced his arrival with a bronze medal at the Asian Boxing Championship in Japan the same year. His stock rose so quickly that the proceeding year he earned the honour of representing Pakistan at the Los Angeles Olympics. Several local and international events followed before finally at the 1985 South Asian Games in Dhaka, Shah experienced the moment he had been waiting for ever since he first put his gloves on. His win over Manjit Pal Singh of India in the 71kg bout gave him gold and glory but he was far from done yet. The Quetta-born fighter once again put on national colours at the 1988 Olympics, won another South Asian gold in 1989, before realising the crowning achievement of his career — a gold medal at the 11th Asian Games in Beijing in 1990. Another Olympic berth would follow in 1992 but his moment in Beijing would shine the brightest.

He remained attached to the ring even after stepping out of it and besides training young pretenders, Shah worked in administration. He could have settled for a comfortable job in the capital “but he was never like that — he always wanted to work where he could make a difference,” the boxing legend’s wife told BBC after her husband was brutally murdered on June 16 outside the Ayub Stadium in Quetta where he worked as the deputy director of the Pakistan Sports Board.

The countless hours in the gym, the damaged bones, the medals, the undying spirit to succeed and love for the country — all counted for nothing. “His only crime was that he was a Hazara — a Shia.”

Hussain Shah’s story, fortunately, did not end with the kind tragic hopelessness that Abrar’s murder left the nation with. It was, nonetheless, another tale of a Herculean man left on his knees and eventually cast away. Hussain was fighting around the same time as Abrar, someone who he looked up to as not only a ‘fighter but a great human being’, but the Lyari-born pugilist took Pakistani boxing to the next level. He struck gold on his international debut at the 1984 South Asian Games before embarking on a winning streak that would well and truly put him atop the boxing hierarchy in Asia. The light-heavyweight boxer fought his way to a podium finish at the 1985, 1987, 1989 and the 1991 South Asian Games, his five consecutive gold-medal winning performances a record. He also won the President’s Cup Boxing tournament held in Jakarta in 1996 and the 13th Asian Boxing Championships in 1997.

Hussain’s life-changing moment had come in between these wins. It came in 1988 at the Seoul Olympics and when Pakistan faced the prospect of returning empty-handed after competing in six sports. Martín Amarillas of Mexico, Musungay “Serge” Kabongo of Congo and Zoltán Füzesy of Hungary all went down to the might of Hussain and it was only Egerton Marcus of Canada who stopped the Pakistani boxer’s quest for gold. The semi-final bout of the middleweight division on Sept 29, 1988, in Seoul did not end the way Hussain Shah had hoped for but it would bring about a boxing revolution of sorts in Pakistan and put up the country as a contender on the world stage. His bronze medal and welterweight wrestler Mohammad Bashir’s bronze at Rome 1960 to date remain the only individual medals Pakistan has won at the Olympics.

Hussain received a warm welcome upon his return to the country after fulfilling his “personal ambition” but was soon forgotten by officials and fans alike. The boxer, who turned professional in 1992, was promised the world by government officials, but after being given the run around moved to Japan where he got a ‘bit more respect’ and was given the task of training local boxers.

The Korangi Queen

“I know you can beat all odds through your determination, and I have done that in Dhaka,” Naseem Hameed had said upon her triumphant return to Pakistan from the 2010 South Asian Games held in Bangladesh. The ‘sprint queen’, as she was being referred to in the local media, was hitherto unknown to all the politicians, administrators and coaches, who clung to Naseem’s side in her moment of glory.

This was Pakistan’s first female athlete to win the 100-m sprint in the South Asian Games’ 26-year history and the massive achievement had come out of nowhere. Prior to Naseem’s win, the only other gold medals a female competitor from the country had secured in the South Asian Games athletics discipline were snapped up by Shabana Akhtar in 1993 and 1995.

But the Karachi-born track star’s tale was special for many more reasons. Mobbed by hundreds of fans upon her arrival at the Karachi airport, an unusual show of reverence for a female star in the country, Naseem’s overwhelmed face masked the strain of what had come before the momentous day in 2010. Growing up in an impoverished Korangi neighbourhood of Karachi, running barefoot because her family could never afford proper running shoes, facing up to societal pressures and being the breadwinner for her family; the distance she had covered in life despite these circumstances was Naseem’s real achievement.

“I asked my coach Maqsood Ahmed to pinch me so I realise it’s not a dream,” she reminisced after the Feb 7, 2010, race.

“For the first 30 minutes, it felt like a dream and what followed is also a dream.”

Unfortunately, for Naseem it seemed for a while that it was all actually just a dream. The rewards, the promises of a secure future, and even her achievements were all but forgotten by those who mattered. The lack of support and an injury meant she retired well before her time but Naseem, who still lives in her old neighbourhood, rallied back. She has now set up her own academy and dedicates her time to coaching the underprivileged.

The Legendary Greenshirts

The Pakistan hockey team was so good from 1948 to 1994 that several reels of film could be dedicated to the stars. It is the current state that team is in, that will put their legacy in perspective.

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