If the Khan story
were made into a television series it would be even more demanding on our
credibility than Jewel in the Crown or The Far Pavilions.The
story starts in that part of India that is now Pakistan when the Raj was at
I: Peshawar and Hashim
In the small town of Peshawar, in the North West Frontier, British army
officers built a club to relieve the boredom of guarding the Khyber Pass.
Despite the tropical climate, they erected squash courts outdoors, without
roofs, open to the midday sun. Even mad dogs would have declined the offer
of a game.
Abdulmajid Khan was
the squash professional at the club and Abdullah Khan the steward and although
not related, they were to be joined by marriage of their offspring into a
web of relationships few connected with the game ever understood completely.
son, Hashim, was born in the city of Nawakille, just outside of Peshawar;
that much is certain. The year of his birth has been subject to great debate
in the world of squash. But Hashim’s birthdate is of no real relevance because
when it came to expectations of age performance, Hashim set his own rules.
I saw him beat Alicia McConnell, American’s number one woman player. She was
22 year old. Hashim was 67. About a year later he played Heather McKay, one
of the greatest players the sport has seen – she ruled the British Open for
18 years – in an exhibition game in Toronto. She was then in her forties but
still a formidable competitor. Hashim beat her too. Conversations I have had
since then suggested that he could be five years older than his accepted age.
Sixty years before
those remarkable exhibitions in Toronto, Hashim the boy used to walk to Peshawar
to watch the English officers play tennis, and one day he decided to investigate
the strange buildings with cement floors and no ceilings. Hashim had discovered
squash – a discovery that not only changed his life but started a Pakistani
involvement in the game that has never stopped growing. It was the start of
a domination of the game by the Khan family such as no other sport has ever
experienced. Along the way, it created a national sport and rallying point
for a fledgling nation.
New Benchmark of Fitness and Agility
More importantly, Hashim changed the game of squash. He started as an
unpaid ballboy, retrieving the balls that were hit out of court by the
officers. When they had finished playing and were sitting with their gin
fizzes, the ballboys would take over the courts, playing until dark and,
when the moon was full, long after. Hashim built up a stamina level hitherto
unknown in the sport. It was this ability to run seemingly forever that
changed the game of squash from one of fine stroke play to one of athleticism
Hashim started his
giant killing reputation when he met the Indian champion Abdul Bari in the
Western India Tournament in Bombay in 1944. He was then 28 and virtually unknown;
Bari was the undisputed champion and the master of the drop shot – in those
days a certain winner.
Bari had never met
an opponent with the speed and anticipation of Hashim. In his book The Khan
Game, Hashim recalls the event, in his own imperfect but insightful English:
“Bari had best soft
shot I see anywhere. This how he makes points. But I am light like a fly,
112 pounds only and never before does he see me run. I watch close. When I
see him start with wrist to make that drop shot, that moment I am on way to
front. He thinks I am never in time, he relaxes. Abdul Bari is relaxing when
I reach and stroke and put that ball away.”
The game of squash
had taken a leap, from one of elegant shot-making and racket skills to one
of extreme fitness. The drop shot had been reversed from a winner to a vulnerability.
Britain’s Jonah Barrington
testifies to this. In 1966 when preparing for the British Open, then regarded
as the world championship, he had Nasrullah Khan as coach and Azam Khan, Hashim’s
younger brother, as matchplay strategist. Barrington faced the Egyptian, Aboutaleb,
in the quarter-finals. Aboutaleb had already won the title four times and
was expected to win again. Azam’s instructions as quoted by Barrington, were:
“Taleb will hit winner, you will hit winner: Taleb will hit tin.” Barrington
wore Taleb down in four games and went on to win the first of his six titles.
Hashim, in the 1940’s,
beat Abdul Bari at each meeting, but then came Partition and he settled down
to the secure job of squash coach at the Royal Air Force club with no thoughts
beyond the Pakistani borders. In 1950 Pakistan were anxious to have a representative
at the British Open, the foremost tournament which was always played in a
London club. This was 30 years before professionalism, when the British Open
was regarded as the world championship. Despite misgivings about his age,
Hashim found himself in Scotland taking part in the Scottish Open, always
a warm-up event for the southern event. Once again there was an “unbeatable”
champion, the elegant Egyptian Mahmoud El Karim, four-time winner of the Open.
Hashim astonished the squash world by not only beating Karim, but by doing
it in three games allowing the champion just six points.
The experts described it as a flash in the pan, and said: “Just wait until
the British Open: things will be different.” Well, they were: Karim only
won five points, and those in the first game. Hashim had zipped the champion
in two out of three games.
He went on to win
the British Open seven times, from 1950-55 and 1957. During this time, he
had brought his younger brother Azam into the game, as well as his “cousin”
Roshan and his nephew Mohibullah (the elder).
The British Open
became a Khan family monopoly: of the 26 finalists in the 13 British Opens
between 1950 and 1962 they occupied 22 places. Hashim reached the final eight
times, his much-overlooked young brother Azam, seven times.
Azam, who owns the
New Grampian Club in London, is still regarded as the supreme shotmaker and
strategist. Even Hashim never beat a British Open final opponent in the way
Azam beat Roshan Khan in the 1959 final: 9-1, 9-0, 9-0. Azam, possessed of
the same twinkling humorous eyes of his elder brother, recalls that final
and its strange consequences. “I was going for the kill shots, looking always
for the nick. Roshan was a good player, but he couldn’t get to the ball and
I won the final very quickly. The spectators in the gallery were angry, thinking
something was wrong.”
He alludes to the
many rumours that the Khan tribe had their own rules of ascendancy and
that the younger ones took their turn not when they were better, but when
it deemed that their time had come. Although Azam won the title four times,
there was talk that he “carried” his elder brother in at least two finals.
The consequences of that very short final and an unhappy gallery was that
the Squash Rackets Association introduced a play-off for third place to
make sure of a satisfactory amount of squash for the ticket buyers. More
importantly Azam’s victory marked the end of the historic Hashim era of
the British Open.
to THE KHAN STORY. PART TWO From Softball to Hardball in 12 months]