Mir Ranjan Negi has lived his worst nightmare time and again. That Black Wednesday of 1982 was the darkest day of his life. The rest of India’s hockey team recovered from a humiliating 7-1 loss to Pakistan in the Asian Games final in Delhi. They continued with their careers and their lives; Negi, the goalie, was dubbed the villain, accused of treachery and dumped into oblivion, his life shattered.
Yashraj Films’ Shah Rukh Khan-starrer Chak de India depicts the story of Negi, who was accused of taking money from the Pakistanis to concede goals. Although unsubstantiated, the allegations ensured he never played for India again. Chak de India is inspired by how Negi fought those allegations and redeemed his honour by helping India win the men’s Asian Games gold in 1998 at Bangkok and the women’s team to gold at the Manchester Commonwealth Games in 2002.
So what actually went wrong on that fateful day? "Everything," says Zafar Iqbal, captain of that squad. “The entire team was to blame; we forwards missed chances, the defence left huge gaps that the Pakistanis exploited. Despite making great efforts to cover the gaps, poor Negi became a sitting duck and the Pakistanis scored at will,” says Zafar. “He was blamed solely, but every player was to blame.”
Says ace forward Mohd Shahid: “The team succumbed to nerves... everyone from Indira Gandhi to Rajiv Gandhi and Giani Zail Singh was there.” Soon after the loss, the whispers began, that Negi had “fixed” the match. “It was ridiculous,” says Shahid. But the allegations continued. “The atmosphere was vicious. I remember someone claiming that he had seen Negi come out of the Pakistan High Commission on match eve,” says Zafar. “Some even enquired whether Negi, with his first name Mir, was Muslim."
A devastated Negi got no support from the Indian Hockey Federation, which dumped him. “He was destroyed,” says Mukul Pandey, his Customs teammate. “I remember a report in the Blitz, claiming he had taken Rs 7 lakh to lose. We wanted Negi to sue the paper, but he refused. He just wanted to blank out the incident."
Negi kept away for many months. Finally, his friends cajoled him into returning, and over the next few years, says Pandey, he played better than ever, representing his employers and Mumbai hockey with distinction. But he never played for India. But, as Zafar says, “You can’t keep a good man down forever”. His success as a coach finally gave Negi the strength to put those dark days behind.