Pakistan winning an Olympic medal is now a distant memory. The last, a bronze, came in 1992 while the last gold was won way back in 1984. Both were gained through hockey. But who was the last sportsperson of ‘Pakistani origin’ to win an Olympic gold? Interestingly, he was a hockey player.
In 1988, Great Britain were the Olympic gold medallists in men’s hockey. It was their first — and last — Olympic gold in this sport since 1920. Imran Sherwani was one of the mega stars of the victorious campaign. The speedy left winger’s two goals in the 3-1 victory over the erstwhile Germany in that pulsating final enshrined Sherwani’s name in the British hockey’s folklore.
After delving into a variety of professions, he is now associated with what he loved the most. For last few years, Sherwani is the director of hockey at Denstone College, a prestigious public school in Staffordshire.
“My father was born in the undivided India in Bhopal, one of the biggest hockey centres of the time. He was a teenager when his family moved to Karachi following partition. There he played along with the greats like Anwaar Ahmed Khan. Later, another migration came and the family landed in England where I was born.”
Love for hockey was carried into the land of adoption.
“My father played for North Stratford Club and I watched him in action from the age of three. Soon, I was playing with my brother on the sidelines. My first competitive game came when I was 11. It was a 5th team match. One side was a player short and I was entered. My family couldn’t afford a public school and the state school, I attended, lacked a hockey ground. North Stratford Club didn’t have a junior team so I had to play with the grownups. At home, I practiced on the concrete backyard where father coached.”
Despite all the handicaps, Sherwani made rapid strides. First representative selection came for the Staffordshire County under 16. Next step was Midlands under 16 in 1976. He won the first national colours with the England under 18 and there was no looking back. It was followed by the national under 21 selection.
“In my early hockey days, Pakistan and India were ruling the international scene. So when an Asian boy picked up a hockey stick, he was expected to deliver some magic. There were quite a few Asians on the junior scene during my period including future Olympians Kulbir Bhaura and Soma Singh whose stick craft was envied. As I mainly played with the non-Asians at the club so also had a good speed to go along with my stick skills.”
All this led to Sherwani winning the senior national selection for England, at the age of only 21.
“It was a Home Nations tournament (involving England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland) just before the Euros ’83. I was played centre forward instead of my original position of left wing. However, I managed to adjust and also scored a few goals. That earned me a berth in the team for the high profile Euro Nations”
Then onwards, he remained an automatic selection.
“I consider myself lucky that my career coincided with the golden period of the Great Britain/England hockey. Though, I was unfortunate to miss the first success, the bronze medal at the 1984 Olympics. I had been named in the squad and had received the team blazer and the tracksuit. Two weeks before we were due to fly out, my knee blew up. Since, this Olympic medal came to British hockey after a wait of 32 years; I had the feeling that I might have missed my great chance.”
Four knee operations later Sherwani was back in his rightful place on the left flank and the English hockey saw greater glories. In 1986, England had its first ever podium finish at the World Cup — a second place.
“I had a very good World Cup. Apart from making quite a few assists, also scored vital goals: against Holland (only goal of the match) and in the 2-1 victory over Argentina. Australian coach Agiss flattered me, ‘you are the most dangerous forward of your team’. Our success story continued. Next year another first was waiting for England. We made it to the final of the Euro Nations in 87; lost to Holland only on penalty strokes.”
At the 1988 Seoul Olympics, British hockey basked in its finest hour. A much-cherished gold medal was won for the first time since 1920; only four nations had competed then.
“1988 was the peak of that squad. Still, we struggled initially. After going 2-0 up, we drew with the lowly-rated Korea and then lost to Germany. Team manager Roger Self psyched us out of the gloom. We won the next two games to make it to the semis against the formidable Australian side.”
Great Britain achieved a hard fought victory over the favourites to set up the final against Germany, who had defeated them in the pool.
“Our confidence was at the all-time high”.
That showed as Britain dominated and came out winners 3-1 after leading 3-0. And Sherwani distinguished himself in no uncertain terms- scoring two goals.
“Memories will last forever. That gold brought hockey into limelight in the country, at least for some time. It began as soon as the team had arrived at the Heathrow airport. We were told, ‘you have to be taken out through the back door as there are thousands of people waiting for the hockey team.’ We won the BBC ‘Sports Team of the Year’ award and had an attendance with the queen at the Buckingham palace. “
Personally, as well, he enjoyed the celebrity status which continues till today.
“I appeared in the TV shows including ‘A Question of Sport’ with Ian Botham who remarked, ‘I watched all the hockey games’. He also asked for my autograph.”
The 1988 Olympic final also turned out to be his last international appearance.
“I was running a news agency but from 1984 to 88, because of my hockey engagements, family had to take care of that. It was time to relieve them”.
“Till to date, I am the only Olympic gold medallist from Stoke on Trent. Still invited at many functions in that capacity and also enjoy VIP status with the Stoke City Football Club.”
The present state of Pakistan hockey hurts him.
“When I started hockey at the top level, my idols were all Pakistanis: Samiuallah, Kalimullah and Hasan Sardar. Now, legendary Shahbaz Ahmed has taken over the affairs of the PHF, I hope he brings about a turnaround. I only played a few times against him but Shahbaz remains my favourite all time player. He possessed incredible skills,” Sherwani signed off.