This story was told to me by a friend over drinks. I have no reason to believe that it is untrue. For conveniences sake I will tell this in first person, as told to me.
We were living in Pune at that time, and had a small bungalow with a nice garden. My wife, a keen gardener, had made a great job of the garden, and attracted the attention of neighbours. One of them, a keen gardener herself, became good friends with her, and they started visiting each other. Soon, the day came around when we were called over for dinner to their place. My wife assured me that I would get along fine with the gentleman, as he was jolly, outgoing and enjoyed a tipple.
In their drawing room my attention was drawn to a hockey stick lying in a corner. I instinctively picked it up and weighed it in my hand, checking the balance. I had played hockey for Bhopal, as their goalkeeper, and played the nationals. In ’78, we reached the finals, and dreamt of trying out for the national side.
That final was against a very good Bombay team, and we were a depleted side due to injuries, and had a strategy of playing rough to take out their star players.
The match was later abandoned, when our strategy worked too well and irate fans invaded the ground, resulting in the mounted police coming in, and ending in a mini riot.
I was the main culprit, having tackled their ace forward and captain rather brutally when he was about to score a field goal, which led him to being carried out unconscious, my getting the red card, thus sparking off the fan riots and end of match. My suspension meant I could not go for the national trials, and soon economic realities made me abandon the game and seek remunerative employment.
I did follow instructions and took out their ace forward, but could not rid myself of the guilt, and still remember the sickening crack of wood meeting bone when we clashed.
When my host joined us and with a hearty halloo invited us to the garden where drinks and barbeque had been set up, I had this strange sense of déjà Vaux. After the initial pleasantries and toasting our friendship, our host asked
“Sir, did you play hockey?”
My heart skipped a beat. Add about fifteen kilos, recede the hairline and sprinkle some gray, wasn’t he that ill fated forward? The voice too rang a bell. I had last heard it swearing vengeance and hurling expletives before passing out in pain. And he did seem to have a limp!
“No, not really, not much” I muttered.
“Come on, sir, I saw you weighing that stick, only a player would do that! “He responded.
“It wasn’t anything serious “I mumbled, thanking my stars that goalkeepers wore a mask, and my identity was a secret to him.
“Did YOU play sir?”I queried, trying to get out of the spotlight.
“Of course I did man! “He exclaimed, “Captained Bombay! Played in three nationals! Was the ace striker! Would have made India cap too! But for one dammed bastard…..”
“What happened?”I barely whispered, wanting desperately for the conversation to end.
“It was in the ’78 national finals. We were playing Bhopal. A good team, but no match for us. They started playing dirty, the *****! The worst was the keeper, a runt of a guy! Safe behind his mask and pads, he kept rushing our forwards! And the bloody bugger went for my shins with his stick! It ended my career! Would have killed him then, but I couldn’t move. My Bandra buddies were going to teach those #@#@s a lesson, but the bloody cops intervened. I have been looking for that man ever since. If I find him, his mother won’t recognise him again!”
Mine host was red in the face, and his voice was raised, which made the ladies come over.
“Has Freddie been talking of that match again?”The LOH exclaimed, “How many times have I told you, don’t talk about it. It shoots up your blood pressure. This man is hockey mad you know, please don’t mind him”
I hastily gulped down my drink and tried to make an excuse to get away, muttering about engagements, but my genial host would hear nothing of it.
“Nonsense man, no work on weekends! Have a few more, then there’s the whole chicken i will grill with my special masala. Would have loved to grill that goalie though! Skewered on his stick! Wouldn’t he look pretty, HA HA”
“Ha ha” I whispered, mopping my brow.
“Oh! Did you play hockey?” my wife decided to chip in. “So did my …. You will have lots to talk about then, won’t you? Reliving the old days. I’m sure you will be such great friends.”
“I knew it! Always know a player from the way he handles the stick! Come on man, tell me, where did you play, which position?”
“It was nothing, really….”I tried to wriggle away but my bitter half was not to be denied her boasting rights.
“He’s trying to be modest, “she cooed, “He played the nationals, may have even got India cap”
“What man! Trying to hide this! Whom did you play for? Position? We must talk shop man, I miss talking to a player”
“He played for Bhopal, was the keeper, played the ’78 finals, but some stupid referee gave him a red card and he missed the national trials “the love of my life kept gushing on heedlessly, enforcing her bragging rights.
There was an awkward silence. My darling wife couldn’t figure out what went wrong. My host stood up. He was a tall and bulky man. So did I. I was short and squat. He took a few steps towards me. I nervously measured the distance to the gate, thinking of a quick dash. My hostess nervously tried to move between us. Our host raised his ham like hand and roared………….
With laughter, slapping me on the back, a trifle too heartily, I thought.
“So you were the blighter! Plucky guy, I must say! Only YOU stood between us and the cup! You did your job man! No hard feelings. It’s all in the game. Glad to have someone around who can talk of the old game. Come make a large one!”
We remained good friends, meeting frequently over drinks, talking shop about the old times.