Air Marshal Nur Khan: Administrator Par Excellence who took Pakistan sports to new heights

April 21, 2024

A dynamic administrator, a brilliant organiser, and a man gifted with sharp intelligence and foresight, he always sought to bring Pakistan to the world’s forefront in every endeavor he pursued

Air Marshal Nur Khan: Administrator Par Excellence who took Pakistan sports to new heights

The truly gifted have the ability to make every task look easy.


Each profession has such people who stand out because of their natural aptitude and talent in their own selected domain. It is, however, rare to find an individual whose expertise spans a vast terrain of very different spheres of varying interests. Air Marshal Nur Khan was one such person, an administrator par excellence, whose prowess extended across an extensive array of diverse disciplines. The Air Force, running a commercial airline, politics, national governance, sports management, were all areas where he excelled, displaying great innate directorial flair and finesse.

Air Marshal Nur Khan: Administrator Par Excellence who took Pakistan sports to new heights

Malik Nur Khan Awan was born in February 1923, in the town of Tamman in the Chakwal district of Punjab. His father Malik Mihr Khan had served in the British Indian army, initially as a Subedar-Major, and subsequently as an honorary Captain. His family roots linked him to the Nawab of Kalabagh, Amir Mohammad Khan. After initial schooling at Aitchison College he joined the Royal Indian Military College at Dehradun, from where he graduated with a degree in military administration. Showing an early interest in flying, he obtained a pilot’s license from the Lahore Flying Club. He was officially inducted into the Royal Air Force as a Pilot Officer in January 1941.

Air Marshal Nur Khan: Administrator Par Excellence who took Pakistan sports to new heights

During World War 2 Nur Khan flew combat missions on the Burma front, and at the conclusion of the war, the squadron that he commanded was stationed in Japan as part of the British Commonwealth Occupation Force there.

Very early in his Air Force career, Nur Khan earned a reputation as an ace pilot. One of his contemporaries, Air Chief Marshal Idrees Latif, who subsequently became the Chief of Air Staff in India, recalled how Nur Khan would sometimes showcase his supreme flying skills by approaching the runway for landing with his plane in an inverted position, then just at the last minute would do a roll over and touch down. Nur Khan was a true flying buff and all through his career would always be one of the first officers to fly and master any new aircraft inducted into the Air Force.

At partition Nur Khan opted for Pakistan and was posted as the base commander of the PAF Base at Lahore. For brief periods he also served as the air attaché of the Pakistan High Commission in Britain, and commandant of the Pakistan Air Force Academy in Risalpur. He rapidly rose through the ranks becoming an Air Vice Marshal by his mid thirties, and successfully commanded PAF operational bases at Mauripur, Chaklala and Peshawar.

Air Marshal Nur Khan: Administrator Par Excellence who took Pakistan sports to new heights

In 1959 Nur Khan was deputed to the Pakistan International Airlines, PIA, as its Chairman. Under his leadership PIA became the third Asian airline to acquire jet aircraft. It initiated flights to the USA, and set a record for the fastest travel time between London and Karachi. It also became the first non-communist flag carrier to operate flights to China. Nur Khan made PIA a financially profitable entity and established it as one of the best reputed airlines in the world.

After six years as the head of the PIA, Nur Khan returned to active service in the Air Force. He was promoted to Air Marshal and took over from Air Marshal Asghar Khan as the Commander in Chief of the Pakistan Air Force in July 1965. He was only 42 years old. Under his dynamic command, the performance of the Pakistan Air Force in the ensuing 1965 war with India, was outstanding. Leading from the front, he personally led both bombing and supply missions in support of the army at the front line. His leadership and administrative skills in the heat of war earned him the status of a living legend.

Nur Khan was also part of a Pakistani contingent that volunteered to assist Egypt in its six day war with Israel in 1967, and flew many aerial missions himself, where even his opponents admired his masterly flying skills. Ezer Weizman who was the Deputy Chief of the Israeli Air Force at the time, and would subsequently become defence minister and President of Israel, wrote this about Nur Khan in his autobiography: “He was a formidable fellow and I was glad that he was Pakistani and not an Egyptian.” Indeed he was formidable, as under his leadership his small team of pilots shot down many Israeli aircraft without sustaining a single loss themselves.

When Yahya Khan took over the government and declared Martial Law in March 1969, Nur Khan was appointed as the Deputy Chief Martial Law Administrator and also inducted into the cabinet as the minister for health, labour, communications and science. Later that year he retired from the Air Force and was appointed as the Governor of West Pakistan, where, in a short stint, he introduced major reforms in the educational structure of the province.

In 1973, Nur Khan was requested by the government of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto to resume control of the PIA which was experiencing financial difficulties. His second tenure in PIA saw the introduction of wide-bodied DC 10’s and Boeing 747s into the airline’s fleet. Many new offices and routes were opened across the globe and a new professional management team was appointed to improve operational efficiency and oversee business expansion. PIA also helped Malta to set up its own airline, Air Malta, by providing technical and administrative support as well as aircraft and equity. Air Malta pilots, flight engineers and maintenance crews were all trained by PIA, which deployed the most modern technical and operational facilities of the time.

As head of PIA, Nur Khan also displayed personal courage of a different sort. A PIA Fokker plane carrying 22 passengers was hijacked by a gunman who asked to be flown to India. Nur Khan personally boarded the aircraft to negotiate with the hijacker. While trying to disarm him with his bare hands he sustained a bullet injury to his shoulder but still managed to overpower him and thus bring the crisis to an end.

Nur Khan’s entry into the domain of sports administration began in 1967 when he was first appointed as the President of the Pakistan Hockey Federation. It was during his tenure that Pakistan won the gold medal at the Olympic Games in Mexico City in 1968. Nur Khan also mooted the idea of a hockey World Cup and conveyed this to the game’s ruling body, the FIH (Federation Internationale de Hockey), via Patrick Rowley, the editor of World Hockey Magazine. FIH approved the idea in its next meeting in October 1969, and decided to hold the inaugural event in Pakistan in October 1971. Sadly, due to political disturbances in Pakistan at the time it was re-located to Barcelona in Spain. Nur Khan also commissioned the trophy for this event. It was designed by Bashir Moojid and was made out of 895 gms of gold, 6,815 gms of silver, 350 gms of ivory and 3,500 gms of teak wood. It weighed 11.56 kg and stood 65 cm tall when mounted on its base. It is unquestionably the most resplendent trophy of any sporting event in the world.

His first stint at the PHF ended in 1969, but in 1976 he was reappointed to this position. During his second term of office Nur Khan took some further initiatives to change the face of international hockey. He now advocated the holding of a Champions Trophy, a biennial tournament between the top ranked teams in the world. His proposal was accepted by the FIH and the Champion’s Trophy became a regular feature until 2018, when it was replaced by the FIH Pro league. The trophy for the Champion’s Trophy was also designed and donated by Pakistan.

During Nur Khan’s second term Pakistan won the hockey gold medal in the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles, won the World Cup in 1978 and 1982 and the Champions Trophy in 1978 and 1980. They also triumphed in the inaugural Junior Hockey World Cup that was played in Versailles in France in 1979. This tournament was also Nur Khan’s brainchild. Hockey was a sport Nur Khan liked and supported all his life. In his key role at the helm of Pakistan hockey from 1967-69, and again from 1976-84, he not only furthered the sport nationally, but also left a big impression on the international stage. He promoted Pakistan’s status as a prime mover of events in the game and left a mark that no administrator has matched before or since.

As the PIA supremo, Nur Khan also played a key role in developing the game of squash. This had been a sport in which Pakistan had dominated the world for a decade and a half, through the 1950’s and early ‘60s, but its influence was now in decline. Nur Khan set about reviving Pakistan’s position in this sport through sponsorship by the airline. In 1976 a quality PIA Sports Complex was built in Karachi whose squash courts were the best and the biggest in the world at the time. Individual and team tournaments with lucrative prize money were started and attracted the world’s leading players. Nur Khan had also initiated the PIA Colts scheme in 1974, that took responsibility for training and sponsoring a whole bevy of exciting young squash players who would go on to reign over the international squash world for the next 10-15 years. Those who performed well on the international circuit were given permanent employment in PIA and major successes were rewarded by bonuses and departmental promotion. The list of the top ten players in the world was soon flooded with Pakistani names. One of the young protégés that Nur Khan and PIA invested in was Jahangir Khan who would become the greatest squash player of all time and would earn unparalleled honours for his country.

Nur Khan provided leading squash players free travel facilities on the national carrier and the Pakistan Open became a leading event of the annual squash calendar. An extensive itinerary of events was organized to create an international circuit for the sport along the lines of tennis, golf and other games. Squash became a TV sport and it’s leading exponents acquired popularity and financial security.

Cricket was not a game that Nur Khan was particularly enamored of. However, when he was appointed as the the Chairman of the Pakistan Cricket Board in 1980, he approached his assignment with the same vigor and determination that he had used in his stewardship of other sports bodies.

His tenure started with a delicate problem. Pakistan had just lost an away series to India under the captaincy of Asif Iqbal. Mushtaq Mohammad had, controversially, been omitted from the touring side for this tour despite having led Pakistan successfully for the preceding five years. There was a feeling that his omission was motivated by reasons other than merit. Asif retired after the tour and there was great clamour to restore Mushtaq to his rightful position at the head of the team. Nur Khan acknowledged the public sentiment but felt that Mushtaq was already 37 years old and it would be better to appoint a younger man who could lead the team for many years to come. He decided to go for Javed Miandad, but did not want to hurt Mushtaq who had a strong case for re-instatement. Using his much acclaimed ability to come up with out of the box solutions, Nur Khan created a new post of coach-manager, with a better remuneration package than the captaincy, and offered it to Mushtaq. It was an offer that Mushtaq readily accepted.

His selection of Miandad ran into problems when after a few series the senior players in the team had reservations about playing under him. Nur Khan’s choice of a replacement, against orthodox wisdom and advice, was Imran Khan. It turned out to be an inspired pick.

Nur Khan’s list of achievements as the country’s cricket head are many. At the national level he re-structured the BCCP, (the precursor of the PCB) to make it financially viable. He appointed Arif Abbasi as the secretary of the BCCP and arranged financial sponsorship from major corporations like Pakistan Tobacco Company and Pepsi Cola. Ferguson & Co. were asked to do a financial audit of all the major grounds to maximize potential income from matches held there. Contracts were signed with PTV and the Pakistan Broadcasting Corporation for national telecast of matches. Similar, lucrative deals were negotiated for international telecast of Pakistan’s cricket.

The domestic season was expanded to provide more opportunities for the players, and cricket branched out from the major cities to smaller towns as well. An Under-19 tournament was established to groom upcoming talent. John Maley, the curator at the Western Australia Cricket Association, was asked to lay new pitches at the National Stadium Karachi, and to train groundsmen at other centers on how to prepare quality wickets. An eight year schedule of Test matches for the national side was announced.

On the international stage Nur Khan was instrumental in setting up the Asian Cricket Council and in the establishment of the Asia Cup, moves that led to the creation of an Asian bloc within the ICC to challenge its traditional domination by England and Australia. He bore the cost of the pure silver trophy for the Asia Cup from his own pocket. He vigorously fought the case for neutral umpires and for better umpiring standards. Four neutral observers, the forerunners of match referees, were invited for Pakistan’s home series against the West Indies in 1980-81, Intikhab Alam was sent to observe Test matches in the Caribbean as a neutral observer, and three umpires, namely Mahboob Shah, Shakoor Rana and Khizar Hayat were sent to officiate on the English county cricket circuit, through an arrangement with the TCCB. Years later, the ICC would eventually be persuaded to endorse his concept of neutral umpires.

Nur Khan successfully pleaded the case for granting Test-playing nation status to Sri Lanka and for the inclusion of Zimbabwe as an Associate member of the ICC. Along with the head of the BCCI, he played a pivotal role in putting up a proposal to to co-host the 1987 World Cup in the subcontinent. As an interesting footnote, when the Pak-India proposal won a 16-12, show of hands vote, at the ICC, the English delegation apparently asked for a recount on the frivolous excuse that the vote of a Pakistani delegate, Justice Naseem Hasan Shah could not be seen as he was too short. Amusingly, the eminent jurist stood up on a table and waved both hands during the recount to avoid any further misunderstanding!!

Nur Khan passed away in December 2011. He was a towering figure with a multifaceted personality. Shaharyar Khan, another icon, and a nephew of Nur Khan’s wife Farhat, said of him that he had the Midas touch, whatever he touched turned into gold. A dynamic administrator, a brilliant organiser, and a man gifted with sharp intelligence and foresight, he always sought to bring Pakistan to the world’s forefront in every endeavor he pursued. A flying ace who truly scaled exalted heights.

Dr Salman Faridi is a senior surgeon, poet, sports aficionado and an avid reader with a private collection of over 7000 books.

Air Marshal Nur Khan: Administrator Par Excellence who took Pakistan sports to new heights