On Sunday night, Pakistan's Arshad Nadeem set a new Commonwealth Games record in javelin, crossing the elite 90-metre barrier. He blew away a world-class field in Birmingham to win his country's first athletics CWG gold in 60 years with a throw of 90.18m.
In the mixed zone, Arshad spoke about what he was missing at the scene of his triumph. “Neeraj ki mujhe kami mehsoos hui hai. Woh hote toh aur bhi mazaa aata (I felt Neeraj's absence today while competing. If he were competing today, it would have even more fun),” he told reporters.
India's Olympic champion Neeraj Chopra skipped the CWG due to an injury he suffered at the World Championships in Oregon in July. Neeraj won silver in Oregon, while Arshad finished 5th.
“We are really good friends. Injuries are a part and parcel of the sport. I wish the Almighty gives him good health, too. I want to use this occasion to wish him luck for the upcoming events,” Arshad said.
Neeraj delivered his compliment in a few hours. “Congratulations Arshad bhai for gold medal and crossing 90 mtr with new games record. Aage ke competitions ke liye all the best (All the best for the competitions in the future),” he wrote on Instagram, replying to a post by Arshad.
The two javelin throwers share much in common, beyond the territorial divide of their countries and frosty ties. Both have a rural background and their careers have followed a near parallel path.
The 2016 South Asian Games in Guwahati was the first international competition for both. Neeraj made heads turn with a throw of 82.23m to win gold, while Arshad set a new national record for Pakistan, winning bronze with 78.33m. They competed again in 2018 at the Commonwealth Games (where Neeraj won gold and Arshad finished 8th), and the Asian Games (where Neeraj won gold and Arshad got bronze). At the Tokyo Olympics, Neeraj won India's first ever medal in athletics, while Arshad finished fifth.
Both athletes also have a cricket connect, though a very contentious one in Neeraj's case. As a youngster, Neeraj had a penchant for bowling bhatta (chucking) in cricket. Arshad, according to his coach Faiz Bukhari, however, had real talent as a fast bowler.
Seven years before he stunned the javelin world in Birmingham, Arshad had batters scurrying for cover on the pitches of Mian Channu in the south of Pakistan's Punjab province. “In 2015, we were conducting sports jobs trials for WAPDA (power distribution system) in Lahore. There was this very tall and powerfully built boy who had come to throw the javelin,” said Bukhari, a former javelin thrower.
That boy, Arshad, was a fast bowler at the school and club level in Mian Channu, but had participated in local javelin throw competitions. The son of a building contractor, Arshad wasn’t poor, but he was looking for a permanent job. “We induct youngsters on scholarship and once they are 18, they get employed,” said Bukhari.
Arshad didn’t have a throw in the job trials that would make people take notice. “Around 54m,” Bukhari recalled. But what stood out was his build. “He was this bada tagda ladka (very strong lad). He had some idea how to throw. He was a fast bowler at the club level, so he could throw.”
Within a few months, Bukhari knew he had found a special talent. “Arshad improved from 54m to 60m, then 66, then 70, then 80. He kept improving.”
While Arshad kept getting better, he needed a goal. While Pakistan had some history in the javelin throw – Muhammad Nawaz and Jalal Khan won silver medals at the 1962 and 1958 Commonwealth Games, those days were long gone. “In countries such as India and Pakistan, which don’t have a lot of support or infrastructure, you need to have a powerful goal. Unless you have a goal, you can't go anywhere. Unless you have a goal, you won’t even know what to target,” said Bukhari.
One help, Bukhari said, was that a goal was being set by a thrower right across the border. While Arshad was getting better, did the fact that Neeraj was making history provide the motivation? "Of course, it did," said Bukhari, who competed in New Delhi in 1990. “Of course, we were seeing what Neeraj was doing. Arshad jaise hamara bachha hai, Neeraj bhi hamara bachha hai. Dono ek hi family se hain na – javelin wali family (Arshad is my child and the same way Neeraj is also my child. They are both from the same family – the javelin family).
"We also look at throwers from Kenya and Germany, but Arshad is friendly with Neeraj. Ek dusre ko hello hi karte rehte hain (they exchange greetings). He often watches Neeraj’s videos,” said Bukhari.
While Arshad looked at Neeraj’s achievements for motivation, he had to progress his way. Both have very different throwing techniques. “Neeraj is a springy thrower, Arshad is more of a strength thrower. He’s bigger, so, he has to use that,” said Bukhari. Arshad is 6'4 and weighs 100kg, while Neeraj is nearly 6ft tall and weighs 86kg.
Over the years, Arshad’s technique has caught up with his natural strength, and his throws have improved. He had a personal best of 80.75m in 2018, improved it to 86.29m to qualify for the Tokyo Olympics. After finishing fifth at the Olympics, he registered a throw of 86.38m at the Islamic Solidarity Games in 2021. Then came Sunday night's whopper in Birmingham.
Arshad's powerful arm, coach Bukhari said, has invariably drawn the attention of scouts in cricket-loving Pakistan. Despite the thrower's experience with the cricket ball, Bukhari has no worries. "Arshad got a friendly feeler from (Pakistan Super League team) Lahore Qalandars after the Olympics. But he wasn't interested. When you can make your country's name shine at the world level in athletics, why would you return to cricket?"
But there is one worry. Arshad's very physical throwing style has invariably resulted in injuries. He clutched his right elbow after his early throws in Birmingham. He might consider surgery to treat his throwing elbow. He has also been carrying a knee injury.
Bukhari is confident Arshad will return even stronger. “Even in the throw he’s done now, his technique still isn’t good enough. He can probably improve his technique by some 25 per cent. There is still work to be done,” said Bukhari.
Will Arshad still look at Neeraj, now that he has thrown further than the Indian – 24cm more? “He still has a long way to go. Look how much Neeraj has achieved. Inshallah, hamara ladka bhi kar sakta hai (God willing, my boy can also do it),” says Bukhari.
At the moment, Arshad has Pakistanis delirious with joy. Some are even insisting on social media that his 90.18m feat is probably a greater sporting achievement than Pakistan's cricket world cup win in 1992. This is debatable, Arshad's quality isn't.