Pakistan’s squash legend believes that sheer hard work is the only way our players can reach the top of the world rankings
There was a time during his early post-retirement days when Jansher Khan won’t stop talking about Pakistan squash. He used to have a theory about everything, about why our players were unable to make it to the top, about why despite trying everything the Pakistan Squash Federation (PSF) was unable to reach its goals. But when we met at his residence in Peshawar last month, Jansher didn’t bring up the subject. It was only after I broached the subject that he started talking about it.
“It really makes me sad seeing the sorry state of Pakistan squash,” he says. “I mean for so many years we produced the world’s best players and now we can’t even produce players who can make it to the top-20 in the world?”
In the past, Jansher would mostly blame the PSF bosses over their failure to help Pakistan regain its lost glory in the world of squash. But now he blames the country’s current crop of players over their inability to give their hundred percent.
“The federation is certainly responsible (for the downslide) but perhaps the bigger culprits are our players. I don’t think that they work hard enough which is why it’s hardly surprising that we don’t have any presence at the top in international rankings.”
Jansher believes that in an endurance sport like squash, there is no room for players who are unwilling to sacrifice the good life and devote all their energies towards the game.
“It’s a tough sport because it isn’t just about skills and flair. You have to give it everything. You have to really, really work hard. With that I mean hours and hours of practice, running, exercise on a daily basis. Only then you can think about winning internationally. Unfortunately, I don’t see a single youngster in our country, who is willing to work with such dedication.”
Things were completely different when Jansher was a kid.
Back in the seventies, Jansher grew up watching his compatriot Jahangir Khan ruling the world of squash. Jahangir was regarded among the fittest sportsmen in the world. He would wear out any opposition. It was in 1985 when Jansher made his presence felt in an international event for the first time by reaching the semi-finals of a junior tournament as a 15-year-old. He lost to a more established Umar Hayyat Khan in the event in Hong Kong but that experience was enough to give the youngster a lot of confidence.
“Even at 15, I had this feeling that I will become the best in the world,” recalls Jansher. “Then my role model was Jahangir and my biggest target was to beat him.”
Beating Jahangir back in the mid-eighties was seen as an impossible task. At that time Jahangir was in the middle of his unbeaten run which lasted for more than five and half years.
“I never thought he (Jahangir) was unbeatable,” says Jansher.
It wasn’t just a brash teenager believing he could dethrone the king.
Jansher had his reasons to be confident. By the time he was 16 Jansher was already a complete player of international calibre. He took up the sport when he was eight and had been obsessed with it since then. He would fight with his mother who didn’t allow him to play squash. “She wanted me to excel at studies. All my brothers went into squash so she wanted me to do well in school. But my mind was made up. I wanted to be world champion.”
Jansher backed his dream with the sort of hard work that was even surprising for the hard-working, squash-playing folks of Peshawar.
“He was simply mad,” remembers Qamar Zaman, another squash legend. “I’ve never seen anyone working harder than him. He would train all day whether it was boiling hot or freezing cold. You could see from the determination of this youngster that he was destined to be a world champion,” adds Qamar, a former British Open champion.
In 1985, Jansher played in a couple of international junior events losing in the quarter or semi-final stages.
Following the losses, he knew that he needed to work harder. His normal working day would be matches against a series of players followed by solo training. He would also run for miles without taking a break.
“Having lost my matches in Kuala Lumpur and Cairo (in 1985) I knew I had to be fitter. The work I put in after that was the hardest in my entire career.”
And it paid off.
In 1986, Jansher was selected to represent Pakistan in the World Junior Championships in Adelaide. The event would change his life.
When Jansher landed in Adelaide, he was a complete nobody. Hometown favourite Rodney Eyles was supposed to win the world junior title. But Jansher, in top gear after all the hard work in Peshawar, was in ruthless form. He just tore through the draws of the championship and reached the final without much fuss. Despite his excellent run, the form book suggested that Eyles will win the crown. “I beat him 9-2, 9-0, 9-0 in the final, he remembers.
Jansher could have played on the international junior circuit for a few more years. But, unlike our players today who are happy to stay on the junior circuit as long as possible, he had greater ambitions.
After winning the world junior title, Jansher joined the professional circuit by becoming a Professional Squash Association (PSA) member. He spent a few months with coach Mohammad Yasin in London and was ready to take on the world. He qualified for the 1986 World Open in Toulouse and ousted Englishman Phil Kenyon in the opening round. He fell in the second round to Chris Robertson.
A few months later, Jansher made his maiden appearance in the prestigious British Open. And for the first time since Azam Khan’s stunning run in the 1954 edition an unseeded player reached the final of the tournament.
Jansher’s giant-killing act began with the scalp of Rodney Eyles in the first round. He won a marathon second round against compatriot Zarak Jahan Khan. He beat Gawain Briars to set up a quarter-final date with Ross Norman, then the reigning world champion. He came back from 1-2 down to topple Norman and then stunned Australian Chris Dittmar to set up an all-Pakistan final against the great Jahangir Khan.
“It was like a dream come true,” says Jansher. “Here I was, an 18-year-old facing Jahangir in a British Open final,” he recalls.
Jahangir used his vast experience to tame Jansher 9-6, 9-0, 9-0 to extend his unbeaten run in the British Open.
It was a comprehensive win for Jahangir which is why Jansher was ridiculed a few weeks later when he claimed that he was ready to dethrone Jahangir as the world’s number one player.
“Everybody laughed when at a press conference in Hong Kong I claimed that I’m going to beat Jahangir within the next six months. All of them found it to be ridiculous. “Though I took a bit longer, seven-and-a-half months to be precise, but I did go on to beat Jahangir not just once but on many occasions.”
It was at the 1987 Hong Kong Open that another legend was born.
Jansher reached the final as an unseeded player and faced Jahangir in the title clash. “It turned out to be one of the finest days of my squash career,” says Jansher, who stunned the world of squash by beating Jahangir 10-8, 9-2, 9-2 in the final.
The Hong Kong Open triumph ushered in a new era in squash history, the reign of the mighty Jansher Khan.
When the squash scene shifted to Karachi, Jansher beat Jahangir again to become the new Pakistan Open champion. Then in Birmingham, the two met again in the World Open semi-finals. They fought like gladiators for 108 minutes before Jansher won 3-9, 9-4, 9-7, 9-7. He then went on to conquer Dittmar in an epic final to become the new World Open champion. He became the only player in squash history to hold the world junior and World Open titles at the same time. Jansher went on to win seven more World Open titles, a world record.
“I was blessed,” he says. “Also, I worked hard. My message to our young squash players is to know the importance of hard work and dedication. You have to give it your hundred percent because there can’t be any shortcuts on the way to becoming a world champion.”
Khalid Hussain is Editor Sports of The News