The recently-concluded Asian Games in Jakarta and the upcoming FIH World Cup in Odisha have managed to evoke a good deal of interest in field hockey from the dwindling yet passionate fan base in India and Pakistan. The rivalry between the two countries has produced some thrilling contests since it began post-Independence, with Pakistan having a better overall head-to-head record. Fans from the two countries may not see eye-to-eye on many matters, but there is one player who is held in high esteem amongst hockey connoisseurs on both sides of the Radcliffe Line –Ali Iqtidar Shah (AIS) Dara.
Born in what was then Lyallpur in 1915, Dara took up hockey right from his school days. His skills were first noticed when he as a college student. He represented Punjab in an inter-provincial tournament in Calcutta.
The match, which Adolf Hitler watched from the VIP stands, is one of the most celebrated sporting victories in India
Dara went on to join the British Indian Army, where he would meet and cultivate a lifelong friendship with India’s greatest hockey player, Dhyan Chand. The two played hockey together for the Punjab Regiment. By 1936, India had become a major power in the sport that it was introduced to by the British. The country had won the Olympic gold in 1928 and 1932 and looked like favourites to win in the controversial Berlin Olympics, which the Nazi regime wanted to use to showcase its achievements to the rest of the world.
Gold in Berlin
Media reports suggest that Dara was not selected for the team to represent India in Berlin since his army unit refused to grant him leave! After India lost a practice match to Germany, Indian manager Pankaj Gupta sent an urgent request to have Dara sent to join the team.
An article published by the Times of India celebrating the success of the 1936 Indian Hockey Team praises “goalpoacher” forward Dara’s role in helping India win the gold medal.“In the final, he (Dara) tore the German defence to smithereens with deft passes and nasty stickplay,” the paper wrote. The match, which Adolf Hitler watched from the VIP stands, is one of the most celebrated sporting victories in India.
Decades later (in 1970), Dara wrote about Dhyan Chand’s magic in the World Hockey Magazine. “During the final of the 1936 Olympic hockey tournament, the Germans decided to play rough after 6 goals had been scored against them. Going for Dhyan, the German goalkeeper removed one of his teeth,” he wrote. “Coming back after receiving first aid, Dhyan instructed us not to score any more goals. ‘We must teach them a lesson in ball control,’ he said.So we repeatedly took the ball up to the German circle and then back-passed to dumbfound our opponents. We ended up beating Germany 8-1.”
Dhyan Chand scored a hat-trick in the final, while Dara scored 2 goals.
His family home still has a photo of Hitler awarding the gold medal to Dara in the victory stand.
With war clouds looming after the 1936 Olympics, the sporting event was not held in 1940 and 1944. Dara fought on the Asian front and was captured by the Japanese in Malaya. He joined Indian National Army (INA) led by Subhash Chandra Bose, which tried to drive out the British Empire from India.
Making Pakistan a hockey power
In 1947, Dara, who hailed from West Punjab, opted to live in Pakistan, where he would play a major role in the development of field hockey.
At the age of 33, Dara captained the Olympic team of the newly formed nation and became the first hockey player to represent two countries in the Olympics. He managed to score 9 goals in the competition, where Pakistan narrowly missed winning the bronze medal and ended up in fourth place.
After the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki, where Pakistan once again ended up finishing in fourth place, Dara joined a committee to look at ways to improve the country’s performance in the sport. He then coached the 1956 Olympic team that won a silver medal and was the manager of the 1960 team that defeated India in the final in Rome to win Pakistan’s first gold medal.
Working in different capacities over the next two decades, Dara became the vice president of the International Hockey Federation (FIH) and headed the Asian Hockey Federations. He was one of the major backers of tournaments like the World Cup and the Champions Trophy.
Pakistan went on to become a major hockey power, winning the World Cup twice in Dara’s lifetime and for a third time in 1982 in Bombay, a year after he died. Pakistan also won the World Cup in 1994. This is in addition to the country’s three Olympic gold medals, and three golds in the Champion’s Trophy along with its success in the Asian Games and Asia Cup.
“Dara was the man who built Pakistani hockey and took it to the highest pinnacle,” Niket Bhushan wrote in his book Dhyan Chand: The legend lives on. “Whenever Pakistan would win, Dhyan Chand would say, ‘Dara is doing a good job for Pakistan hockey.’”
The respect remained mutual with Dara calling the Indian player “the all-time great of hockey.”
Dara remained a well-wisher of India and Indian hockey. In a book published in 2016 titled My Olympic Journey: 50 of India’s Leading Sportspersons on the Biggest Test of Their Career, Dhyan Chand’s son Ashok Kumar, who is best known for scoring the winning goal in India’s lone World Cup triumph, narrates how Dara was involved with the Indian team in the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City.
The Indian team that went for the Olympics that year had two captains and was deeply divided into two camps. After they lost to Australia in the semi-final, Dara called on the Indian team.
“India was to play Germany in the bronze medal play-off and the divided team would have continued to play as it had throughout the tournament, but a timely intervention from an unexpected source saved the day,” Ashok Kumar wrote. “It came in the shape of Colonel Ali Iqtidar Shah Dara, the then head of the Pakistan Hockey Federation… He was sitting with my father and Ashwini Kumar, the head of the IHF (Indian Hockey Federation). He was determined to see the superiority of Asia over Europe continued in hockey. He suggested a few changes in the team that played the bronze medal playoff against Germany and it worked and India won the play-off for bronze. What Colonel Dara actually did was eliminate the divide in the team by telling Kumar to shift a few players out of position.This was Dara’s small contribution to his former country.”
Dara also played an instrumental role in reviving sporting contacts between Pakistan and India after the 1971 war. Three years after the war, Dara helped organise an Asian All Stars event. Niket Bhushan wrote that Dara invited Dhyan Chand, who then lived in Jhansi, to watch the event in Delhi, where the two reminisced about old times.
Dara passed away in 1981, two years after the death of his old friend
While both countries have shown flashes of brilliance in field hockey in the recent past, neither has come close to winning an Olympic gold or World Cup in decades. It would only be a fitting tribute to Dara if they were to rise to the heights of yesteryear and make Asia the hockey powerhouse it once was.
Ajay Kamalakaran is a writer, journalist and hockey fan based in Mumbai. His first work ‘Globetrotting for Love and Other Stories from Sakhalin Island’ was published in 2017