Soon after winning his first British Open title in 1951, Hashim Khan started preparing his kid brother Azam Khan to succeed him. And he succeeded as Azam went on to win the coveted crown on four occasions
Its 2001 and Hashim Khan, the founder of Pakistan's squash empire is 86 years old. But age is just a number for the legend, who is in Birmingham to feature in the British Open Over-60 championships.
It's exactly 50 years after winning the first of his seven British Open titles back in 1951. In what turned out to be an epic encounter, Hashim takes on Englishman John Shaw, who is 25 years younger than him. A full gallery is present to watch the legend in action. Among them are some of the world's top squash players including Malaysian world number one Nicole David, Simon Parke, Paul Johnson and Martin Heath.
Hashim doesn't disappoint them. Every now and then he would play a shot that would leave the audience in awe. Hashim eventually loses 9-3, 9-3, 3-9, 9-0 but everyone present gives the grand old man a standing ovation.
Also present in the gallery is a diminutive, elderly gentleman, who had come to Birmingham from London to witness the British Open Over-60 championships. He is the owner of the New Grampians Club and is himself considered a legend in the land of his ancestors, Pakistan. He is the celebrated Azam Khan, revered as one of the greatest squash players of all time.
Azam's story is almost as interesting as the life of his elder brother Hashim Khan, who played a key role in shaping the career of his younger sibling.
Azam was 11 years younger than Hashim, who was almost like a father figure to him. Ever since their father's demise when Azam was still an infant, Hashim had taken him under his wings. However, while Hashim was making a name in the world of squash, Azam was making his bones as a tennis player.
But Hashim knew that if there was any future for Azam it was in squash.
"How does playing squash sound to you," Hashim asked his kind brother one day. Hashim's wish was Azam's command.
From that day onwards, Azam gave up tennis and took up squash. But switching from one sport to another wasn't easy. Azam had to really work hard and Hashim was there to guide him.
Within a short span of eight months, Azam established himself as a world class squash professional. It was a miraculous transformation.
Happy with Azam's progress, Hashim started planning his international debut. In 1953, he took the youngster to Britain with him. Azam had been training hard for months but had little match practice when he landed in Britain.
He got his first taste of real competition soon after arriving in London when he played for the professionals against the amateurs. He got a match against the best player of the rival team, Roy Wilson. Azam lost that match but not before stretching Wilson to full five games. This defeat did not deter Azam in the least. In fact the good show in the match boosted is confidence and just days later he was able to reach the final of the Professionals Championship where he lost to none other than his big brother, Hashim.
The Professional Championship was followed by the all-important British Open. Hashim had brought Azam to feature in this prestigious event. But at that time, the British Open, which was the most prestigious event in world squash, was limited to the top 16 players. Since Azam was a newcomer, he was denied entry to the event.
In those days there were no qualifying rounds. However, one thing went in Azam's favour. He had featured in the final of the Professionals championship and thus deserved to take part in the British Open. It was decided at the last minute that he would get a shot at earning a place in the draws of the British Open. A trial match was arranged at the London Club against leading British amateur, Brian Phillips. Azam defeated him to get an entry in the tournament.
He made it into the semi-finals of the tournament. The other three in the last four were defending champion Hashim Khan, his brother-in-law Safeerullah Khan and Roy Wilson. Unfortunately, Azam was pitted against Hashim while Safeer faced Roy. Safeer fell to the Briton while in the other semi-final Hashim defeated Azam 9-6, 4-9, 9-7, 8-10, 9-4 to enter the final.
Azam may not have featured in the British Open final but everyone in the squash world knew that Hashim has managed to prepare a worthy successor. After his loss to Roy Wilson in the Professional vs Amateurs match, Azam was never beaten by a non-Pakistani player in his entire career. Most of his defeats came at the hands of Hashim either in the finals or semi-finals of major international tournaments.
Azam continued to feature in all major events and his first British Open title finally came in 1958 when Azam was forced to pull out of the tournament because of an injury. Azam went on to win three more British Open titles but was forced to call it quits after snapping an Achilles tendon in 1963. He was still young enough and could have made a successful international comeback but a great tragedy struck when his eldest son died. After his son's death, Azam lost interest in life and gave up any plans he had of returning to professional squash.
During an illustrious career, Azam featured in seven British Open championships and was regarded as one of the world's best shot-makers and strategists. Even the mighty Hashim Khan could never beat a British Open final opponent the way Azam routed compatriot Roshan Khan in the 1959 finale. He won 9-1, 9-0, 9-0 to the dismay of an angry gallery which was left astounded by the quick outcome of the title match.
Azam's squash talent was inherited by his son Wasil, who was a British junior champion during his schooldays. But squash wasn't a passion for Wasil, who today is a successful businessman, based in London. While Wasil didn't pursue squash as a profession, his daughter Carla, did carve a successful professional career. Carla rose to become a top-20 player in the world and won several international titles including the Pakistan Open, El-Salvador Open, Ottawa Open and the Iranian Open.
Khalid Hussain is Editor Sports of The News and can be reached at [email protected]