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The Incredible Khans of Squash

by Martin Bronstein. Copyright August 2000

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 its height.

PART 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.

Abdullah's first 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.

A 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 and attrition.

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.

A Devastating Debut
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.

[Go to THE KHAN STORY. PART TWO From Softball to Hardball in 12 months]

 Roshan, Azam and Hashim Khan together. (photo appears courtesy Jahangir Khan and Arif Sarfraz © 2000 SquashTalk )
The Rawalpindi Club, 1932, Faizullah Khan second from left back row, Abdulmajid Khan fourth from left. Hashim Khan, second from right back row. (photo appears courtesy Jahangir Khan and Arif Sarfraz © 2000 SquashTalk )
Azam, Naz, Hashim, Roshan. (photo appears courtesy Jahangir Khan and Arif Sarfraz © 2000 SquashTalk )
 Azam followed Hashim with four British Open victories.(Khan family photo courtesy Khansquash.com)

Roshan Khan, father of Jahangir Khan, won one British Open Championship. (photo appears courtesy Jahangir Khan and Arif Sarfraz © 2000 SquashTalk)

The brothers Nasrullah(Naz) and Roshan Khan.
Mohibullah Khan won one British Open Crown before departing for Boston, USA; here in the USA with Hashim. (photo coutesy Khansquash.com))

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