Today, one of the greatest sportsman Pakistan has ever produced is celebrating his 49th birthday. I’m talking about Jansher Khan, the squash legend who won a record eight World Open titles during an illustrious career.
Born on June 15, 1969, Jansher is one of the most accomplished sportsmen in the history of Pakistan, having won a total of 99 major international titles that included six British Opens. He was the world’s number one for over a decade and some regard him as the best player in the history squash, even better than the mighty Jahangir Khan.
Whether he was better than Jahangir remains debatable but I’m certain about one thing: He is by far the greatest squash player that I have even seen in action. That’s because when I started covering squash back in the early nineties, Jahangir was in the twilight years of his international career while Jansher’s star was still rising.
Back then, I travelled with him on the Professional Squash Association (PSA) Tour for various major international events including a series of British Opens. I witnessed his rivalry with Britain’s Peter Nicol, the man who finally ended Jansher’s unbeaten run in the British Open back in 1998.
I remember the 1997 British Open final in Cardiff when Jansher, already suffering from a knee problem that finally ended his career, tamed a younger and fitter Nicol in a five-game thriller.
The very next year, however, I was there to witness the beginning of the end of Jansher’s era. The venue was the National Indoor Arena in Birmingham where despite all odds, Jansher cruised into the final, looking for his seventh British Open title in a row. Before the final, he confessed to me that his knees were hurting “too bad” and it showed when he gave up after losing a gruelling first game 16-17 against Nicol.
After that defeat Jansher couldn’t win any major title though he continued trying till 2007 when he made his last comeback at the age of 38.
I’ll always remember Jansher as the man who, in his heyday, was way ahead of his rivals. He was the sort of champion, who commanded respect even from his biggest rivals. Nicol, himself believes, he was lucky to have played against Jansher during his career.
“I was lucky to play Jansher Khan during my career, not that I always thought that at the time,” he says. “Jansher was an amazing athlete, with the ability to understand the court, game and his opponent with what seemed like relative ease.
“I remember playing Jansher in the final of Hong Kong (1994), and it was a lesson I’d never forget.
“I’d come to the final beating Rodney Eyles and Brett Martin in the process so I felt good about my chances. Prior to going on court I saw the glass boxes with ticket stubs - a chance for the spectators to win a ticket with Cathay Pacific if they guessed the winner correctly - and my side had 90% of the tickets! Going onto court Jansher was a very different beast, he looked fit and focussed, although that didn’t bother me in the slightest.
“The next 31 minutes did though! Jansher systematically took me apart on court. His line and length were almost perfect and then he would finish the rallies off with ease. He was so much better than me it felt embarrassing. I was humbled and Jansher took the time to shake my hand for an overly sincere length of time whilst looking into my eyes, he was saying, ‘I’m the champion here and you’ve been given a lesson, that’s what I can do to you,’. I was deflated but within a few days had renewed energy to try and challenge this great player. The beating he gave me spurred me on as it showed what I still needed to learn,” Nicol remembers.
Jansher shot to international fame when he won the world junior title in Singapore in 1986. He didn’t waste much time in becoming a full-time professional and became the number one opponent of the previously invincible Jahangir Khan.
For years, the Jahangir-Jansher rivalry made international headlines. Their partnership, meanwhile, earned great laurels for Pakistan with the 1993 World Team Championship triumph in Karachi being the last one.
Jansher beat tJahangir in the semifinals of the 1987 World Open before conquering Australia’s Chris Dittmar in the final to win his first World Open crown. He is the only player in squash history to have won both the senior and junior titles in the same year.
Jansher went on to win seven more World Open titles to create a record. He clinched his last World Open in 1996 but was forced to stay away from the 1997 edition which was held in Kuala Lumpur because of a pending court order in Malaysia relating to maintenance payments for his son, Kamran Khan, following his separation from his Malaysian wife.
Jansher, who hails from a family of world-class squash players, stayed as the world’s number one squash player for almost ten years, also a record. In all, he won a total of 99 PSA World Tour titles. A nagging knee injury forced him to retire in 2001.
Six years later, Jansher decided to make his international comeback and featured in a Professional Squash Association tournament in London in October 2007 at the age of 38. Far from his brilliant best, Jansher lost in the opening round of the event to England’s Scott Handley 11-9, 6-11, 6-11 11-0. After that, he finally gave up.
“One of my biggest regrets in life is that I didn’t take my knee injury as seriously as I should have,” he told me after retiring for the final time. “There was plenty of squash left in me but my knees were a hurdle. I could have easily won my 100th title but it wasn’t meant to be.”