Sunday, July 30, 2017

Shahid Hussain: Hockey beyond the turf

If the recent past is anything to go by, we have a lot to catch up on when it comes to our national squads, whatever the sport. We know this is as true for cricket as it is for every other activity: a cycle of promise followed by defeat and then ignominy is what has characterised us for quite some time now. For what reason, we can’t really tell. All we can tell is that unless we do away with this curse of unpredictability which has besmirched our squads, we can’t move ahead. Not by a long shot.

There’s something I like to tell doomsday prophets when it comes to this issue, though. None of us take to cricket, rugby, or football as professionals. We either are inspired by seeing friends and elders graduate to the First XI, or take to it through our family. In Sri Lanka, despite the manifest lack of amenities for any sport (and this includes cricket and rugby), there’s a culture of professionalism which still exists in a particular segment. Our schools. Obviously, that has to do with the thrill of flaunting your talent in the name of that enchanting thing called “school colours.”

Shahid Hussain was born to a family of hockey players. His father, Kuthubdeen, played for Isipathana College and captained the National Team somewhere in the eighties. Even his extended family had taken to the sport. Given this it wasn’t much of a surprise that his own brother would start practicing from an early age, and that having seen his brother practise, Shahid himself would want to follow suit. To be honest, his story has more, much more, that could have unveiled and should unveil. But in that story, there’s something we can take out. So here goes.

Like I said, it was seeing his brother perform which had spurred him to follow. “I started playing when I was in Grade Three. At Royal College, my first coach was Ashok Peiris, who taught me for three years before passing the mantle to Rohan Dissanayake in 2006.” Apparently the two of them had differed when it came to their job: Ashok was more concerned about fitness and building up his players, while Rohan emphasised on practices. Shahid’s first match had been under the former: in 2004, when he was in Grade Four, the Royal College team had him in as a fullback (defensive) in a match against Mahanama College. “We won that day. Soon enough I graduated to playing as a right half-back and eventually as a midfielder.”

Obviously, that had not been his only significant match. There had been a great many others, the most memorable one of which (according to him) was the Lennie de Silva Trophy Match in 2010, played against Kingswood College at the Peradeniya University Grounds. “I was in Grade Nine at the time, shortly before my O Levels. What I remember about that tournament, which we won 4-3, was how people looked at me afterwards. They saw me in a different light, though for what reason I can’t say. In any case, it became my epiphany. From then on, every match I played, I put in more sincerity and enthusiasm.” These had not debarred him from other pursuits: “I was in our school’s Islamic Society, ending up as its Secretary in 2011, along with the Tamil Dramatic Society and Commerce Society.”

Not surprisingly, Shahid found his way to both school and national squads. In 2010 and 2011, he led the Royal College team to a series of victories, in particular with their Big Match against S. Thomas’ College, Mount Lavinia and the Under 18 National School Games, the latter of which saw them emerge as champions after five years and against the best school teams in the country with just one week of practices.

“I was facing my A Levels then. It was difficult, because hockey is an intensive sport, but I opted not to desert my team. I then wound up representing the country at the Under 16 Hockey Asia Cup in India at the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium, proceeding on to Singapore at the Under 18 Cup in 2011, to Malaysia at the Under 21 Cup in 2012, and after leaving school, to Bangladesh at the Under 21 Cup.”

So what are the matches he remembers the most from all these? “I would say the 2011 and 2012 Asia Cup Championships. Especially the latter, since we pulled it off against Japan pretty decently, though they won 3-1. Given that they were better than us in terms of training, fitness, and of course facilities, it was a relief to see how our team could reckon with them, regardless of the final score.” Not surprisingly, these encounters had emboldened him to look beyond regional and age-based tournaments.

Being chosen for the national squad for the Asian Games in 2015 was certainly a corollary to these triumphs, but unfortunately for Shahid an injury forced him out of what might have been. “I was asked to rest for six months. For a hockey player, particularly one who’s aiming for the top, that’s a long time. But it wasn’t just the doctors who discouraged me from playing. Even my parents scolded me whenever I said I wanted to go back to the turf. But when I reflected on what I had done, I was depressed. In a way, that has a lot to do with my personality. I don’t like to quit. I always tell myself, ‘Train harder, work harder, and get back to where you were before.’ In this case, sadly, I couldn’t do that. So I had to do what I had to do. Let go.”

He had by then “moved on” in other respects. Having returned to school for a year as a Prefect, he left to focus on his higher education in 2014. He began following a CIMA course at Achievers Business Campus, moving to BCAS for a degree in Mechanical Engineering and (this year) a degree in Business Management at IIHE. He also moved up his career, starting at Hatton National Bank in 2014 and leaving it for MAS three years later. It was his career, incidentally, which spurred him back to hockey, when, having recovered from his injuries, he started playing for HNB at the Mercantile Championships (A Division).

Playing for HNB had apparently opened his eyes to the world of hockey in Sri Lanka’s commercial sector. “There are about 50 companies which engage in the game. In the A Division we have Commercial Bank, Sampath Bank, and of course HNB. When I shifted to MAS earlier this year, I moved to the B Division, which got me playing against entities like Nations Trust. Forget the companies though. I was more impressed by the players I reckoned with, including Damith Bandara, who was the Coach in the squad that reached the finals of an international tournament, for the first time in our history, at the 5th Men’s AHF Cup in Hong Kong last year.”

These encounters, divergent as they are, could not have gone to him overnight. There were years spent nurturing his love for the game. Which shows, I should think, particularly since he’s aiming at a return. Having played as a defender and an attacker (“I can fit into every position on the turf, to be honest”), he has obviously realised how tricky a sport involving a stick to manoeuvre a ball to the opponent’s goalpost can be, wherever the player may be. “I believe I owe that to my coaches, particularly Mr Ashok and Mr Rohan. I owe it also to my parents and extended family, all of whom were avid enthusiasts of the game. Without them, I wouldn’t really have recovered from those injuries to return or even think of a return.”

For some odd reason though, I had to coax Shahid (even with all those achievements) to remember and to reflect. Perhaps that shows how confident he is about what he’s done, so confident, in fact, that it takes effort to rake up the past. And perhaps that explains why he’s particular about using his past as an index for his future. “Like I said before, I don’t like to give in. When I have nothing to do, I want to go back to the turf. It was tough to get to that, and I’d be a simpleton to contend otherwise, so I suppose that has given me a moral base, some light, to guide me. I am glad.”

Photos courtesy of ThePapare.com, TheScore.lk, and the Photographic Society of Royal College

Written for: The Island YOUth, July 30 2017