A UnresoTHE KHAN FAMILY DYNASTYlved Journey
PART I: Hashim the Pioneer
IMPOVERISHED IN PESHAWAR
The province of Peshawar, in Pakistan's northwest frontier, is the last area one traverses before passing into Afghanistan, and now a focal point for Afghani refugees fleeing the Taliban-led nation. It is on several levels a rocky region, ruggedly mountainous and home to the Pathan tribe, a fiercely independent race of herdsmen, farmers and warriors known for their keen eyesight and steady hands, and reputed to be among the finest marksmen in the world.
It was this tribe that ferociously and successfully defended the Khyber Pass - prized as a gateway to India and its lucrative markets - from British attempts to control it, this tribe that provided the spirit that allowed used old muskets and obsolete equipment to repulse a vastly superior Russian army, and this tribe that spawned probably the greatest extended-family dynasty in the history of competitive sport.
This latter phenomenon traces its roots to 1916, or thereabouts, when the wife of Abdullah Khan, Head Steward of the Club (a favorite outpost for British officers stationed to guard the nearby Khyber Pass), gave birth to their first son, Hashim by name, in the tiny village of Nawakille. The Peshawar Club offered a wide range of sports for the officers' amusement (from lawn tennis, Abdullah's favorite game, to hard racquets to billiards) but the roofless squash courts commandeered the youngster Hashim's primary attention when he was just eight years old, for it was there, perched on the back wall while the officers played, that he could make a few rupees returning errant shots.
When the oppressive sun became too onerous for the officers to bear, or when the onset of evening drew them back to the club-house for dinner, the courts would empty out and Hashim, playing barefoot on cement floors often in temperatures exceeding 100 degrees F, would knock a broken or over-used squash ball around. Who would Hashim play? As he said in his autobiography, it was "Hashim versus Hashim."
His father Adbullah met an untimely death in an auto accident when Hashim was only 11, but by then Hashim's dedication to squash was so firmly embedded that he quit school one year later to pursue his dream of becoming a squash professional.
Eventually, in 1942, he was given a coaching position at the Air Force Officers' Mess and in 1944, at age 28, he participated in (and won) the first All-of-India Championship in Bombay. He successfully defended this title each of the next two years but sports were then suspended for several years due to the widespread fighting caused by the creation of a new state, Pakistan, out of those areas of India that were predominantly Moslem.
THE WORLD STAGE FOR PAKISTAN
The partitioning of India and establishment of Pakistan were complete by the turn of the decade (with Hashim being appointed squash pro at the Royal Pakistani Air Force and winning the first Pakistani Championship in '49), and when Abdul Bari, playing for India, advanced to the final of the British Open in 1950, some Pakistani government officials decided that Pakistan should also be represented in this Wimbledon of squash. Pakistan was a new and poor country, and it fell to a private citizen to fund the trip to England. Though nearing his 35th birthday, Hashim was selected to play in the 1951 British Open, which he won in a one-sided 9-5, 9-0, 9-0 final against four -time winner and Egyptian great, Mahmoud El Karim, whom he also decisively beat in the '52 British Open final en route to six straight Open titles and seven overall, the last of these occurring in '58, when Hashim was an unbelievable 41 years old.
LOTS OF SILVERWARE
In addition to his septet of British Opens, Hashim won the US Open (later renamed the North American Open and now again called the US Open) in '56, '57 and '63 --- at age 48! --- as well as three Canadian Open and five British Pro championships. All this from a man who didn't enter his first major championship until just months before his 35th birthday, when most top-flight players in this most grueling of sports have long since passed their prime. Yet for all the superlatives that deservedly describe the exploits and longevity of this soft-spoken and seemingly ageless protagonist, Hashim's greatest legacy arguably lies not in his own competitive record but rather the role he would come to play as patriarch of the Khan clan and progenitor of the Khan dynasty.
PART II: Azam, Roshan, Mo
BROTHER AZAM, COUSIN ROSHAN, NEPHEW MO
The first family member to follow Hashim into the top-echelon ranks was his younger (by ten years) brother Azam, a tennis enthusiast like their late father, whom Hashim recruited during the summer of 1952, when they practiced every day under the broiling Peshawar sun. Azam progressed so quickly under his older sibling's tutelage that he became Hashim's co-finalist in the 1953 British Open. Though Azam came up one step short both in that match and in a pair of subsequent five-game British open finals, he would go on to a sparkling career highlighted by a pair of Canadian Open crowns, four consecutive British Opens during the period from 1958-61, and the North American Open in the spring of 1962, just months before a ruptured Achilles tendon effectively ended Azam's career.
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.
PART III: Sharif and Jahangir
Mohibullah Khan's mid-sixties' domination of the North American game was abruptly terminated by the arrival onto the competitive scenario of Sharif Khan, the eldest of Hashim's 12 children, who bore the double burden of being both the first of Hashim's seven boys and of having to deal with the pressure of being sent at age 11 to England's Millfield Prep School, 12,000 miles from his native Nawakille, and with no knowledge of the language or multi-front challenges that awaited him.
Sharif eventually grew into this formidable environment, becoming both a fine student and a standout squash player, as evidenced by his victories in both the Drysdale Cup (considered then as now the unofficial World Junior Championship) and the Somerset County Men's A title, which Sharif won at age 13, thereby earning for himself and his classmates a day off from school in celebration.
Sharif's main celebratory achievements, of course, would come more than a decade later, and on North American soil, where he won the North American Open (NAO) a record 12 times in the 13-year period from 1969-81 (with 15 straight NAO finals from 1968-82) and added nine WPSA Championship titles, both of which far eclipse the totals reached by Sharif's closest statistical pursuers.
Sharif's final North American crown, in 1981, came at the last-round expense of his younger brother Aziz, who along with another brother Liaqat (whose name was Americanized to Charlie) held a WPSA top-ten ranking throughout the late 1970's and early 1980's. A fourth brother, Gulmast, always possessed sharp racquetwork, and with the improvement in recent years of his conditioning level he has thrived in age-group North American softball competition, reaching in fact the final of the World Masters 45 -and-over competition in Portland Oregon in the summer of 1999, where he met brother Charlie.
Probably due more to fortuitous happenstance than meticulous orchestration, it was just as Sharif's long supremacy atop the North American game was coming to a close that across the Atlantic another product of the Khan family, and quite possibly the greatest of them all, was rising to the fore. Jahangir Khan was Roshan's youngest son and, early on, a sickly child who needed several hernia operations and lived in the shadow of his charismatic older brother Torsam. Roshan, who remained in Pakistan after his playing days were over, brought up his own two sons and also became a surrogate father to Rehmatullah and Amanullah, whom Roshan's older brother Nasrullah left behind when Nasrullah moved to London, where he is credited with coaching Jonah Barrington to the six British Opens Barrington won.
All four of Roshan's young charges developed swiftly (in Jahangir's case after he outgrew his boyhood maladies) and by autumn of 179 Torsam had attained the # 13 world ranking and been elected to the ISPA Presidency. That November, at age 27 and seemingly in the flower of health, Torsam suffered a fatal heart attack during a tournament match, sending a devastated 15-yr-old Jahangir into a period of extended mourning. When the shattered youngster had somewhat recovered, his father Roshan (whose own older brother Nasrullah had passed away two years earlier) decided to entrust his further development to the hands of Jahangir's 29-year-old cousin Rehmatullah (better known as Rehmat), who graciously agreed to sacrifice his own career and took Jahangir into his home in London.
If the unequalled greatness Jahangir would ultimately attain was presaged right at birth.by his name (Jahangir being the Urdu expression for "Conqueror of the entire World"), then it must be said that a number of other factors were brought to bear as well in the evolution of this darkly handsome paragon. Rehmat's coaching --- the result of both his father Nasrullah's coaching of Barrington and some coaching Rehmat had received in return from a grateful Jonah---was unquestionably a critical and often under- rated element, as was the friendly nurturant home environment that Rehmat and his English wife Josie provided for Jahangir, who trained at the Wembley Squash Centre, where Rehmat was the head professional.
Barrington's influence on the methods Rehmat applied to Jahangir's development were especially evident in the areas of conditioning and off-court training, a well-known Australian custom heretofore eschewed by the Pakistani players, who had always relied on simply playing squash to reach their top form. Rehmat's ability to meld these different approaches gave Jahangir the stamina base his father Roshan had always lacked complemented by the Roshan-like racquet skills he inherited, which praiseworthy parlay was powerfully fuelled by an overwhelming motivation derived of the memories of both his deceased brother (to whose memory Jahangir dedicated his entire career) and the lingering frustrations of his father's partially thwarted aspirations, which Jahangir swore he would redeem.
The results of this marvelous medley of motifs were, in a word, awesome. During the decade from 1982-91, Jahangir won all ten British Opens (eclipsing Geoff Hunt's record of eight and shattering the mark of six, held by three men, for consecutive titles); played in a pair each of Canadian and North American Opens, winning all four of these major hardball titles; went five- plus years without losing a single match; and in 1985 matched Hashim's 1957 feat of winning both the North American and British Opens in the same season.
In fact, Jahangir's "double" in the spring of 1985 was all the more astonishing for occurring in a virtually irreducible time frame; less than 24 hours after thrashing Chris Dittmar in the British Open final, Jahangir was on court in midtown Manhattan for his first-round North American Open match (against as it happens, Hashim's second son Gulmast,) having Concorded across the Atlantic during the brief interim, in what has to have been the single most ambitious project in the history of squash.
Within one extraordinary six-day stretch in early May, Jahangir symbolized his double domination of squash by winning both finals, a transcontinental accomplishment that required him to rise superior not only on his highly talented opponents but also to such obstacles as fatigue, letdown, jet lag, and the adjustment problems implicit in so speedy a switch between these highly differing games.
PART IV: Towards the Future
Although Jahangir finally relinquished his ten-year British Open grip to Jansher Khan (also a Khan and from Nawakille, though not related to the family we have been discussing), it was due to a back injury that required his withdrawal rather than an on-court defeat, though by this time the extraordinary conditioning effort expended by the last and greatest of the Khan family standard-bearers had made him increasingly vulnerable to this kind of attritional condition.
By this early 1990's juncture, the remarkable warriors of this extended clan had between them won a total of 23 British Opens, 11 Canadian Opens, 22 North American Opens and 19 WPSA Championships. Through several family generations and extending over nearly half a century, they had banded together, passed the mantle with exquisite timing and produced a run of major championships that, barring an absolute miracle, will never even be approached, much less equalled.
Unfortunately, by this time as well, the next generation, almost all of whom had been born in America, had become so Americanized that the squash grind that their forbears had embraced so passionately did not seem nearly as appealing to them.
Mo's oldest son, Sakhi, did manage to win the '96 WPSA Teaching Pro event, and became the pro at the Cambridge Racquet Club near MIT (setting up a website, Khansquash.com, that sells a racquet line with the family name), but throughout the past decade no one has really arisen to carry on the family tradition in PSA competition.
Similarly Pakistan as a whole, no doubt spoiled by the success enjoyed by Jahangir and later by Jansher Khan (whose total of six British Opens and nine World titles nearly matches Jahangir's tallies of 10 and 6 respectively), completely abdicated their long-standing commitment to encourage junior development, with the almost unbelievable result that, once Jansher's run ended in the late 1990's, there wasn't a single Pakistani ranked in the top 50 of the PSA standings!
Jahangir, who had seen this situation looming and been uncharacteristically critical of the Pakistani squash federation as it became imminent, was recently named Sports Minister in an attempt to right matters and develop some world-class talent. His efforts in this regard have already borne recent fruit with the good progress in the 2001 Qatar Open of Shahid Zaman (son of the great Pakistani shotmaker Qamar), who defeated World #6 Australian star Paul Price in the first round, and his run in the 2001 World Challenge in Melbourne
Zaman's younger brother Mansoor is also starting to emerge as a notable talent, as is Azam's grand-daughter Carla Khan, 22, whose ranking is starting to rise on the WISPA women's professional tour, which Moslem women had been discouraged from competing on until recently. These recent developments are an encouraging sign, but nothing that happens henceforth will be able to emulate the family run begun by Hashim in the late 1940's and extending all the way through the ending of Jahangir's playing reign in the early 1990's. Bonded by the gritty roots of their Pathan past, that Khan dynasty prospered and perpetuated itself with a degree of excellence and continuity that deserve to be admiringly remembered as one of the most extraordinary extended achievements in the history of professional sports.
(This article first appeared on SquashTalk.com)