The writer’s a sucker for nostalgia. Listening to well-narrated anecdotes from athletes of an era bygone, he considers, is one of the underrated perks of being a sports journalist. So, when Aslam Sher Khan, a member of the 1975 World Cup winning team, tells him the story of how he scored an equaliser off a penalty corner against Malaysia just five minutes before the finish, the writer’s heart is gladdened.
There’s a hint of glint in Mr Khan’s eyes when he says, “My mother had given me a tawiz (locket) and there was a mini Quran inside. But she never told me what was inside. She said ‘Whenever you see any crisis, as a last resort, kiss the tawiz and, inshallah, whatever you want to be do will be done.’ So, I kissed the locket and was ready for my shot.”
He adds, “I was a little confused as to which corner I should beat the goalkeeper. The left or the right? I thought right corner was very difficult. It had to be precise. In the left, I felt, there was a little more chance. In the middle, was the goalkeeper. Then something sparked my mind and told me to hit it in right. It occurred at the last moment. And, I hit right… and goalkeeper went left.”
Mr Khan’s lips stretch into a wistful smile as he completes the last sentence. A little silence follows, the smile stays. There is nothing like the joy of reminiscence, is there?
The art of drag-flicking
The fan village erected a several hundred meters outside hockey arena is the second-best place to frolic within the Kalinga Stadium (the press-box, of course, is the best). Indian coach Harendra Singh, clad in a bright blue India t-shirt, black shorts and customary black shades, is spotted by many in the village. The kind man waves at the people he knows, obliges several selfie requests. Malaysia’s technical director and former India coach Terry Walsh isn’t ambushed by selfie-seekers as he quietly buys World Cup special edition stamps from the India Post kiosk.
The village has, among other things, an inflated slide, a trampoline, two mini hockey fields – one, with two nets opposite each other, big enough to play a two-on-two match; the other, with two nets placed parallel to each other, to attempt drag-flicks.
“The one who flicks the ball into the net at 100 kph gets a prize,” announces a board next to the drag-flick mini-field. “Bring it on!” say the writer and a couple of his friends from the media. The writer had learnt from some of the senior journalists that drag-flicks in international hockey travel at 120 kph to 130 kph.
Having watched Argentina’s Gonzalo Peillat, owner of one of the most lethal drag-flicks, execute the shot just a few days ago, the writer is inspired to go first. The writer keeps his body low, knees well bent, hands holding the stick nicely stretched back. In a split second of flourish, he unleashes a flick, which the volunteer holding a radar gun says travelled at a speed of 19 kph. The fan village must stop using faulty equipment.
The writer witnesses two contrasting matches on the tournament’s fourth day. In the first, the Dutch wallop a helpless Malaysia 7-0 to register this World Cup’s biggest win-margin. The second is a high-strung episode, wherein erstwhile powerhouses Pakistan go down 0-1 in a dogfight against the Germans, ranked seven places higher at sixth. But the clash that prompts the writer to abandon his cosy seat in the press box and exit the air-conditioned room is of a larger scale, involving millions of lives: the war that the tournament organisers have waged against the different species of insects, millions in number, invading the Kalinga hockey stadium.
The tiny winged creatures, attracted to the stadium’s floodlights, inadvertently irked the players, spectators and journalists, including the writer, on the tournament’s first day. But the bug population drastically reduces within half an hour’s treatment of insecticide-smoke. Is it not callous to carry out a chemical holocaust just so a sporting event can be hassle-free? The morality of this matter, the writer wants you to mull over.