The Khan Family, A Squash Dynasty
by Rob Dinerman. © September2001
COUSIN ROSHAN, NEPHEW MO
Azam's injury, fortunately for the continuity of the Khan domination, came at a time when Hashim's eldest nephew and second family recruit was ready to complete his evolution from talented prodigy to toughened champion. During Hashim's younger years on the outdoor courts at Peshawar, one of his closest friends was a contemporary named Safirullah, son of the head squash coach at the British Club and, like Hashim, an aspiring player. Safirullah would eventually become a British Open semi-finalist (in 1953), but perhaps his greatest contribution to the Khan dynasty lay in his marriage to one of Hashim's sisters, for this union produced a pair of male offspring, Mohibullah and Gul Khan, who would become important figures in the competitive realm.
Gul for many years held a top-ten ranking in the North American rankings while the effervescent and lightning-quick Mo would become, ultimately, one of only five men (all Khans, namely Hashim, Azam and Mohibullah, plus Roshan and Jahangir, of whom more anon) to win both the British and North American Opens. After making his inaugural British Open appearance in 1956 at age 17, the crowd-pleasing Mohibullah was runner-up to his uncle Azam three times during the latter's subsequent four-year reign. Therefore, by the time Azam's Achilles snapped in the autumn of 1962, Mo was fully prepared to step into the void and win the British Open, which he did in dramatic fashion several weeks later in mid-December, rallying from a multiple-match-point 8-1 fourth-game final-round predicament against Abdullah Taleb to rescue that game 10-8 and roaring through the decisive fifth 9-6 to garner his first and only British Open title.
Shortly thereafter, Mo met President Kennedy in a ceremony at the White House that accompanied an exhibition at the Pentagon. This meeting was fateful---in a famous story many times related by Mo, he secured the President's assistance in coming to America to become the squash pro at the Harvard Club of Boston (a position he held for the rest of his life, which abruptly ended, in fact, in 1995 at age 54 when he suddenly collapsed and died right in the club after giving a lesson that ended mere moments before) and spent most of the subsequent year playing and teaching squash's North American (i.e. hardball) game. This he speedingly mastered to the point of being runner-up to his uncle Hashim in the 1963 North American Open, whose 1964, 1965, '1966, and 1968 editions (as well as five straight North American Pro events from 1965-69) Mohibullah would subsequently capture.
Though this change of both environment and emphasis would exact a price in the form of Mo's straight-set semi-final loss to Michael Oddy in the 1963 British Open, it was undoubtedly a smart career move for this volatile extrovert, whose exceptional shotmaking skills were perfectly tailored to the North American game. While the formidable records of both Hashim and Azam were predicated on solid error-free play and relentless retrieving, Mohibullah evinced a crowd-pleasing flair for the spectacular reminiscent not of his pair of famous uncles but rather of his second cousin Roshan, husband of Safirullah's sister and an extremely stylish shotmaker who as both player and parent would hold an absolutely crucial position in the championship genealogy of the Khan dynasty.
In addition to breaking Hashim's six-year hold on the British Open and winning the event in 1957, Roshan won two Canadian Opens and took the U. S. Open three times during the four-year stretch from 1958-61, even though he was one of the few squash-champion Khans who never left Pakistan, and hence had little opportunity to familiarize himself with the hardball game.
Although Roshan was less fit than Hashim, Azam, and Mo (his three competitive contemporaries, with this foursome filling the slots in the semis of the 1959 British Open) and although his suspect conditioning level was further sapped by a nagging knee injury incurred in 1957, he was renowned for his smoothness and racquet artistry, and there were many respected observers of that era who contend that Roshan at his best played the North American game at the highest level of all during his brief but incandescent prime.
This incandescence Roshan would pass on to his talented sons, the star-crossed Torsam and the superstar Jahangir, on whom we will focus later in this chronicle. The brevity of Roshan's career, on the other hand, was a less welcome feature whose genesis is a source of some bitterness for Roshan and some unease within the family spectrum.
Roshan's competitive excellence, in retrospect, should have been clear by 1949, when as a precocious teenager he became runner-up to Hashim at the inaugural Pakistan open, which Roshan then proceeded to win for three straight years from 1951-53. Yet throughout the early 1950's, he languished in Peshawar while others were granted trips to England and other prestigious competitive opportunities frequently denied him.
A series of tournaments and exhibitions arranged mainly to showcase Roshan's skills repeatedly fell through, causing an embittered and discouraged Roshan to accuse the others of "ducking" him and to seriously consider quitting squash. Even when that trio of consecutive Pakistani titles finally guaranteed him an invitation to the British Open in 1954, Roshan never quite escaped from the "outsider" status he had by then internalized. This distance was no doubt part environmental (he came from the relatively urbane Rawalpendi rather than the exacting Peshawar), part familial (he was a family member only by marriage), and part a natural and universal outgrowth of interacting personalities.
Though Roshan drew
his own unhappy inferences from the way Hashim, Azam, and Mohibullah Khan
tended to practice exclusively with each other, for example, and rarely
if ever with him prior to a big tournament, it seems less likely that
this trio was "practicing to beat me," as Roshan once complained, than
that these brothers and their free-spirited nephew simply felt more at
ease in each other's company on and off the court than they did with others,
including Roshan. it seems plausible to interpret this entire phenomenon
as being borne more of misunderstanding than enmity, a misunderstanding
whose roots are probably deeply ingrained in the depths of Pathan culture.
So too is the probable basis of another phenomenon engendered during that late 50's era, namely the "elder relative" code that some felt "allowed" Hashim to defeat Azam, and Hashim and Azam to defeat Mohibullah, for a few years beyond the point when the aging process and laws of natural selection might have otherwise ordained. In scrutinizing the draw sheets of that period, one does come across a number of instances --- as when Hashim "out- lasted" the much-younger Azam 9-7 in the fifth of the 1955 British Open final, or when Azam "rallied" from 1-2 down against Mo in the finals of the British Opens of both 1960 and 1961 --- in which one could possibly divine the workings of such a principle.
Yet to this writer, at least, it seems both untrue and ungenerous to reach this interpretation, at least in its overt form. Respect for one's elders has always been a powerful tenet of the Pathan culture and an important unifying element in community interaction; what therefore seems most plausible is that this theme was operating, though on a subconscious level, in those memorable squash matches among family members as they vied for the sport's most treasured trophies.