The tragic hero

March 29, 2020

Squash legend Roshan Khan, who won the coveted British Open title in 1957, could have claimed more crowns but was deprived because of a lack of opportunities in the earlier years of his professional career

It was on a pleasant March morning back in 2002 that I last sat down with Roshan Khan for a detailed interview.

Roshan wasn’t a very happy man during those days. In fact such was his anger that he had politely refused my earlier requests for an interview which I wanted to line up for my book on the history of Pakistan squash. When we finally sat down for a chit-chat all he could talk about initially was how PIA, an organisation that had shaped the international career of his illustrious son Jahangir Khan, was “shabbily” treating the legend.

Roshan was frustrated because Jahangir Khan, who had been working as a General Manager in PIA, was sacked by the top management of the national carrier as part of its austerity drive in 2001. PIA was in neck-deep crisis and needed to shed its weight. For the Khan family, it was an unthinkable happening.

“This is not the way you treat your heroes,” he lamented.

PIA’s unprecedented move wasn’t just a big shock for Roshan alone but the entire family.

For Jahangir, who was regarded as a demigod in Pakistan because of his unmatched heroics in international squash, it was the first experience of its kind. However, Roshan had known a lot of pain and agony in his life, first as a player and later as a father.

Roshan was an accomplished player as a young man. A master with a distinctive style, that was yet to be seen in his village, Nawakilli.

Though Roshan only has one British Open title tagged with his name, he is an important member of the Khan dynasty. He was a player, who should have won a lot more titles but that was more than compensated for by a bagful of British Open crowns won by his youngest son, Jahangir.

Roshan’s father Faizullah Khan was a rackets player of repute, who worked for the Army in Pachmari. Roshan’s mother was a daughter of Abdul Majeed Khan, who was the true founding father of squash in our land. Faizullah had two sons, Nasrullah and Roshan. The two boys always travelled with their father, who used to play every rackets tournament that took place near his home in Rawalpindi.

The two brothers had a searing passion for sports. Be it rackets, tennis or squash, Nasrullah and Roshan had the flair for it. But it was the game of squash for which the two brothers, especially Roshan showed an exceptional talent.

Roshan’s first agonising jolt came along with the partition of India in 1947. Nasrullah at that time was working as a professional in New Delhi. He was separated from the family following Independence. Roshan, who had always been very close to his brother, missed Nasrullah, also his playing partner in squash.

However, he continued playing the game with the same zeal he showed during childhood and was good enough to reach the final of the Pakistan Professional Championship in 1949 where he lost to Hashim Khan. Roshan was not discouraged and kept trying hard, finally winning the title in 1951 and retaining it very next year. Deep within he wasn’t satisfied as his top rival, Hashim, hadn’t participated in the two successive events as he was busy playing in Britain. “The two brothers (Hashim and Azam Khan) for some reason avoided playing against me,” Roshan told me.

“I used to look forward to playing against them because I knew there wasn’t much of a difference between us. But for the world, they were the world champions and I was a nobody.”

Lack of work forced Roshan to move to Karachi from Rawalpindi in 1951. As luck would have it, Nasrullah had already reached Karachi from New Delhi and the family was finally reunited.

As a player those were very frustrating years for Roshan and he did not know how to get through that trying period. He was jobless, homeless and was almost penniless. His only salvation was his love for squash and that is exactly how he passed his time playing with Nasrullah, who also became his coach and trainer. Despite all his skills and talent, Roshan needed that lucky break which was nowhere in sight.

“I have really seen misery in the real sense of the word. Now when I tell people about those days they don’t believe me. When I tell them that I used to sleep on the sidewalks of Karachi and used to eat cheap food from roadside vendors till just months before I started winning international titles in Britain they don’t believe me,” said Roshan with a smile. “They think that I’m just exaggerating but I’m just stating the truth.”

Finally, it was an opportunity of a lifetime provided by the Pakistan Navy that ended Roshan’s days of misery.

Broken but not beaten: Roshan with older brother Nasrullah Khan

Though Roshan was at that time a national squash champion, Navy offered him a lowly job as a messenger. But Roshan was so desperate that he was more than happy to grab it. He was married by then and already had a son and the family was in desperate need of a decent shelter and means of livelihood.

It may not have been a very respectable job but his affiliation with the Navy finally lead to the realization of his fondest dream — to get a chance to play Hashim Khan, who by then had garnered an aura of invincibility.

It was because of Navy that Roshan got a chance to travel all the way to Britain as by then it had become obvious that Hashim was in no mood to give Roshan an opportunity to flex his muscles against him in Pakistan.

The PN chief was directly involved in giving the go-ahead to Roshan’s British trip but even then he hardly managed a measly five pounds as allowance and a ticket to England.

For years he had been waiting for this moment and now that it was finally here he was all wet to go. He had no proper clothing, no professional kit and only five pounds in his pocket.

So dressed in a used, oversized coat that came from the Navy store, Roshan landed in London in 1954. Like divine help, Nasrullah also managed to join him which was a great relief for Roshan, who was finding life difficult in a foreign land.

Money was scarce in the first couple of weeks but Roshan managed to overcome this hurdle by winning the Dunlop Championship, one of the richest squash events in Britain at that time. Roshan defeated Azam Khan in the semis and in spite of a foot injury outplayed Egypt’s Mahmoud El Karim 9-6, 9-1, 9-0 in the final. The title win enhanced Roshan’s status as a contender for the British Open final where Hashim and Azam were already installed as the favourites. But Azam took sweet revenge of his defeat to Roshan in the Dunlop championship by beating his compatriot in the semifinals of the 1954 British Open.

By then Roshan had untangled himself of the jinx that made him an angry man in the earlier days of his professional career and he was now shuttling between Karachi and London for both competition and coaching. Roshan came back for the British Open in 1955 and was this time beaten by Hashim but not before a tough battle in which Roshan once led 2-1.

Roshan was still sure that he was good enough for the British Open crown and finally proved himself right by winning the coveted title in 1957, his best year as a squash professional. He started the year with a victory in the Dunlop championship but not before a final against Azam Khan that left Roshan with broken teeth. It was a tough battle in which both Roshan and Azam played with a vengeance. Roshan took a two game lead and in the third one Azam’s racket got him full in the face shattering his teeth. The match was allowed to continue on Roshan’s insistence with Azam leveling the scores by winning the third and fourth games. The fifth game went to Roshan giving him the title that came as a morale-booster ahead of the British Open.

Roshan was at his peak in the British Open that year. He defeated debutant Mohibullah Senior, Hashim’s nephew in the semi-finals, and finally managed to realise his most cherished dream - defeating the mighty Hashim in the final. Though Hashim won the opening game 9-6, Roshan was not ready to give up as he made a forceful recovery to win the next three games 9-5, 9-2, 9-1 to become the new British Open champion.

However, Roshan’s downfall began soon after his first and only British Open title. He injured both his knees which made him so vulnerable that he could not defend his title in 1958. In spite of his painful knees Roshan reached the British Open final after a two-year lay-off but was butchered mercilessly in the final by Azam Khan. The scores read 9-1, 9-0, 9-0.

Diring the rest of his career Roshan mostly figured in the semi-finals of major international tournaments. He, however, made his mark on the North American circuit where he won the US Open three times. Roshan had to bear the worst tragedy that can befall a man when his eldest son, Torsam, died on court while playing a match in Australia in 1979. “My heart still bleeds for him,” the grand old man told me. Four years later, Roshan passed away, closing a golden chapter of Pakistan squash.


Khalid Hussain is Editor Sports of The News

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Squash legend Roshan Khan, the tragic hero