Think India-Pakistan hockey matches and if there’s one name that instantly comes to the mind, it’s that of former Pakistan striker Rehan Butt.
If India and Pakistan matches evoke a huge sense of enthusiasm, passion and unadulterated joy of watching sub-continent hockey, this man almost always gave it a distinct flavour.
In the early 2000s when India and Pakistan had legendary players like Dhanraj Pillay, Waseem Ahmed, Gagan Ajit Singh, Jugraj Singh, Deepak Thakur, Sohail Abbas besides many others, it was Butt who managed to steal the limelight on many occasions.
The two matches, in particular, at the Champions Trophy in 2002 and 2003 are often remembered for Butt’s remarkable goal-scoring abilities under pressure and changing the complexion of the games within a matter of few minutes. Pakistan claimed the bronze on both occasions riding on Butt’s winning goals.
As India and Pakistan gear up for yet another high-profile face-off at the 21st Commonwealth Games at Gold Coast on April 7, Butt — who is now a coach with the Pakistan team — takes us down the memory lane.
It was September, 2002 and I still cannot forget that day. We were playing India in the bronze medal play-off of the Champions Trophy at Cologne. It was an intense fight and India were leading 3-2 and there were just eight minutes to go for the hooter.
We were tensed and there was a lot at stake. I was playing with full intent, all out as they say. I created space and managed to find two goals within two minutes and Pakistan won 4-3. What a match it was! I still get goosebumps thinking of that game… I think it was the best of my career.
We have had some great rivalry with India and it brings along hockey at its best. We play with such similar styles and open hockey that it helps creates gap and leads to high-scoring matches.
You can hold India vs Pakistan matches at any place in the world and at any time, and the stadium will always be full. There are emotions, tension, huge adrenaline rush and nerves just take over… it just becomes something very different and if you ask me why, I do not know. Honestly, despite having played so many of these matches and having experienced that high intensity, none of us can explain why or how things change.
The atmosphere is charged and fans are so animated, I believe one has to experience it to understand it. A day before the match, you plan, strategize, tell yourself that you will remain calm… but step on to the pitch and something just switches on inside you on a different level.
People have been asking me what is it that I will tell the Pakistan players for their match against India on Saturday in the Commonwealth Games. I am a coach now and my role has changed, but believe me, I still want to pick up that stick and play against India! I miss those days! It’s not easing sitting outside and just watch.
‘Don’t think too much’
For our Commonwealth Games match, I would tell my players just one thing: Don’t think too much and create pressure on yourself.
Matches against India are more about nerves than anything else. There have been occasions when I have seen the best of players go blank because they get overwhelmed by the enormity of the situation.
When we leave for a tournament, fans back home wants us to beat India. I am sure that’s the case with Indian players as well, and that creates pressure. “Bhaijaan, India se haar kar mat aana chahe trophy aye ya nahi. (Brother, please don’t lose to India whether you win the trophy or not). Such are the scenes when we leave for any tournament. So, I would just tell my players not to take any such pressure, approach the match with calm heads and play with a lot of heart.
Memories of visiting India
I have some great memories of playing in front of Indian crowd who have always showered me with immense love. When I visit Punjab, I feel at home. I have had some great friends in the Indian team in the 2000s… we play with immense intensity on the field but off the field, we are like a big family. Gagan Ajit Singh and Arjun Halappa from India have been among my closest friends.
I have visited their homes and have had delicious meals. We exchange gifts and our families have visited each other, such is the camaraderie and respect. This is what this sport has given us…. brothers beyond enmity and borders.
Facing an angry Indian fan
An untoward incident happened during the 2003 Champions Trophy match in Amstelveen, the Netherlands. It was again the bronze medal match and we were leading 4-3 with just three minutes remaining. An elderly Indian gentleman in the crowd got very angry and started to abuse the Indian players. He tried to get on the pitch as he could not see his team losing and was very vocal.
Play stopped for sometime and the situation became quite bad with players of both teams getting involved. I walked up to that gentleman and said, “Bhaijaan, ye sirf ek match hai, Jung nahi. Kabhi hum jeet the hain, kabhi India, ye sab to chalta rehta hai. (Sir, this is just a match and not a war. Sometimes we win, and sometimes India. All this goes on).”
Finally, the matter resolved and the match was completed.
I think it is very important for fans to understand that we need to appreciate the amazing hockey that these two nations exhibit and support them whole-heartedly. Only one team can win and it is important to back the players at all times.
Matches between India and Pakistan are a delight for everyone around the world and are a great advertisement for the sport, which is a huge spectacle. Let us preserve this and appreciate the winners be it from any team.
I also want to urge the governments of India and Pakistan to revive the bilateral hockey series between the two countries. They can chose neutral venues but we cannot let this brilliant spectacle come to an end.