Jahangir Khan: A champion who lived up to his name

August 29, 2021

A legend in his own time, the frail child from a modest background who became an awesome sportsman and a global icon, his story is one that dreams are made of.

Jahangir Khan: A champion who lived up to his name

The word Jahangir means ‘Conqueror of the World’. The Pakistani squash legend Jahangir not only conquered the world but then held onto his empire for an unprecedented five years and eight months, during which he won 555 consecutive matches without a single defeat. This is a record unmatched in the annals of any sport, and it puts Jahangir in the rarefied air of a shortlist to choose the greatest sportsman that Pakistan, or perhaps the world, has ever produced.His domination was complete and relentless. Week after week he would put his reputation on the line testing it against all comers and overcoming them. Jahangir had all the classical 6 S’s required to be a squash champion, strength, stamina, style, sense, suppleness and speed. When, to this mix, you add an unquenchable desire to win and a huge sense of pride in his family’s record and tradition, you create an unbeatable superstar, ‘unsquashable’ was the epithet used by his coach and mentor Rahmat Khan. In his prime it was said of Jahangir that he would simplify the travel arrangements of those who came up against him in the draw of any tournament for they knew that they would be heading home after playing him.

Jahangir did not start out as a likely champion. He was a sickly child, born with a bilateral or double hernia. He was advised to refrain from strenuous physical exercise and like a dutiful son he obeyed parenteral instructions.

Jahangir’s father was the great squash champion Roshan Khan and he was the squash professional at the Pakistan Navy’s Fleet Club. His elder brothers Torsam and Hassan were both keen and budding squash players as well. Jahangir had his first hernia operation when he was five and received a squash racket with a shortened shaft as a gift toy from his father on his eighth birthday. However, the young boy saw it differently, he used the racket to practice his grip for various squash strokes and learnt how to execute them. It became his constant companion, cementing his love affair with the sport.

When Jahangir turned ten, Roshan started taking him to the Fleet Club for a short weekly playing session. The doctor still wanted him to be cautious and no one really thought that he would have a career as a sportsman, and that too in a sport that required extreme physical fitness. However, unknown to Roshan, on returning from school Jahangir would sneak back to the Fleet Club when it was closed for the afternoon break, and then again after dusk. Ignoring his doctor’s advice, he pushed himself hard, practicing the strokes he’d seen his father play. At the age of twelve, after a successful second hernia operation, Jahangir soon began to train with greater rigour, building his strength and stamina. Seeing his interest and committment, Roshan was also won over and started tutoring Jahangir himself.

Jahangir made rapid progress, honing his skills under his father’s tutelage. In November 1978, at the age of just fourteen, he became the Pakistan National Junior Champion defeating the title holder Ramshaid Gul in the final in Peshawar. A few months later he made waves in the National Open Squash Championship in Karachi, where he ousted the top seed Mohammad Saleem, before bowing out to Saleem’s brother Maqsood Ahmed in the quarter finals.

Jahangir was chosen to tour the Scandavian countries with the National Juniors team. At the tour’s conclusion he flew to London to visit his brother Torsam and cousin Rahmat, who were both living there. Torsam persuaded him to stay on and took him under his wing, focusing on toughening Jahangir up mentally and tactically for major tournaments. It was an idyllic time for Jahangir, spent improving his squash, acquiring better English speaking skills and enjoying the company of his brother and cousin.

In April 1979, Jahangir participated in the British Junior Open Championship where his power and speed ensured him a place in the final. Though he lost to the much older Australian Glen Brumby, Jahangir had made a strong imprint in the squash world, confirming a prediction made by the world number four Hiddy Jahan in 1977, that Jahangir “would be dangerous within two years.”

The next tournament was the World Amateur Championship in Melbourne in October 1979. Jahangir, who had been training in England, was called for trials, being held in Peshawar, to select the Pakistan national side. Due to jet lag he was unable to play at his best and could not make the team, though he would still be competing in the individual event. Much to his surprise, on reaching Melbourne he found that his name was not included in the qualifying draw. Fortunately for him, another player withdrew and Jahangir was drafted in to replace him. He progressed through the qualifying rounds to find a place in the main 64 man field.

All his training and hard work now began to pay off. He steadily made his way through the early rounds and straight games victories in the quarter and semifinals over John Leslie of England and Frank Donnelly of Australia landed him in the final.

Jahangir’s opponent in the final was Phil Kenyon of Great Britain, who won the first set 9-2. In response, Jahangir extended the rallies, kept the ball deep, and applied unremitting pressure that sapped his opponent’s stamina and strength. He won the next three sets 9-2, 9-2 and 9-5 to secure an unexpected victory. He was now the world amateur champion at the incredibly young age of fifteen, the youngest ever to achieve this distinction. All through the tournament Torsam had been guiding him on the phone from London, helping him to analyze his opponents and draw up a strategy for each match.

While accolades flowed in to greet this new star on the constellation, tragedy was lurking in the background. Jahangir’s brother Torsam suddenly collapsed and died in Adelaide during a match in the Australian Open tournament.

Jahangir was totally distraught and even contemplated giving up the game but decided to continue as a tribute to his brother’s memory. Rahmat sensed Jahangir’s utter devastation and decided to step in and take over Torsam’s role of coaching his young cousin. Jahangir moved into Rahmat’s house and immersed himself in a punishing training regimen as an antidote for his grief. His day would begin with a 10 mile run in 60-120 minutes, followed by a series of 400 meter laps and short bursts of timed sprints with just a brief respite between each. In the afternoon there would be weight training in the gym before finally cooling down with a swim in the pool. This was his unrelenting routine for five days each week. The sixth day was devoted to match practice, where Rahmat had developed innovative methods to strengthen Jahangir’s backhand and forehand drives, his drop shots, his lobs and boasts, as well as his cross-court play. The seventh day would be one of rest, allowing Jahangir to unwind and recover. Rahmat’s message was unambiguous, concentrate on developing fitness, ball control and the will to win. The effort made Jahangir the fittest sportsman of his time.

In the 1980 season the sixteen year old prodigy turned professional and made it to the final of the Irish Open where he was beaten by the great Jonah Barrington. With mixed feelings, he also entered the World Open, being played in Adelaide on the courts where his brother had died the previous year. Overcoming the sixth seed Maqsood Ahmad, he met the Pakistan number one Qamar Zaman in the quarter final. In a grueling match Qamar had to play at his best to win a close five setter. Jahangir followed this up by winning the New Zealand Open, before facing Qamar again on home ground in the final of the PIA Masters in Karachi. Qamar’s magical strokeplay gave him a two set lead before Jahangir hit back ruthlessly to win the next three sets and the match for the loss of only nine further points.

Jahangir next won the British Under-23 Open and followed it by lifting the Belgian Open. He now fixed his sight on the reigning world champion and legend Geoff Hunt. His first opportunity came in the Canada Club Open held in Munich. Jahangir was supremely fit and confident. Much to everyone’s surprise he beat Hunt 3-1. However, Hunt retaliated almost immediately, overcoming Jahangir in straight sets just ten days later in the 1981 ISPA Smirnoff Masters in Northern Ireland. Jahangir’s third encounter with Hunt was in the final of the Patrick Chichester Festival final. Both men played at their peak form with Hunt using every skill in his vast repertoire to unsettle an opponent half his age. He led by two games to one and was 4-1 up in the fourth game, when the sheer effort of keeping pace with Jahangir’s speed and relentless ball retrieval began to tell. Jehangir won eight points in a row to take the game and soon shot into a 5-1 lead in the fifth and deciding game. A desperate fight back from Hunt brought him level at 6-6, but the effort completely drained him and Jahangir won the remaining three points and the match, which had lasted a record 2 hours and 11 minutes.

Next was the Audi British Open in Bromley and Jahangir fancied his chances. Scything through his half of the draw, which saw him securing wins over Sherren of Zimbabwe, Sohail Qaisar from Pakistan, the Australian Dean Williams and two illustrious Pakistani compatriots Hiddy Jahan and Qamar Zaman, Jahangir reached the final where Hunt awaited him. Hunt won the first two games but Jahangir came back by taking the third and leading 6-1 in the fourth. In his eagerness to close out this game Jahangir became impatient and Hunt pounced with a fierce burst of brilliance to win the game 9-7 and with it the tournament. The match lasted 2 hours and 14 minutes, surpassing the record set at Chichester.

Jahangir was shaken but there was still the World Cup in Canada in November. On the way he won the Welsh Open, where Hiddy Jahan took him to five games, the last time this would happen for many years. This win was also the start of his unprecedented unbeaten run. He next won the Asian Masters in Karachi beating Qamar Zaman in straight games, the German Open, winning 3-1 against Hunt, and the World Masters in Newcastle against Zaman, again in straight games. Toronto was the venue for the World Cup where he sailed through the earlier rounds to meet Hunt in the finals. Incidentally Jahangir had hurt his shoulder during the semis but decided to play the final anyway, which happened to coincide with the second anniversary of Torsam’s death. A brutal opening game took 50 minutes and Hunt prevailed 9-7. However, it sapped his energy and Jahangir coasted ,through the next three games 9-1, 9-2, 9-2. He was the new World Champion having reached the summit at the age of seventeen, the youngest ever to do so in the history of the sport.

Over the next five years and eight months Jahangir would reign supreme in the squash world defeating everyone he met and winning every tournament in sight. His records include winning the World Championship without dropping a game, and also one for the longest squash match in history, when he beat the indefatigable Gamal Awad of Egypt in 2 hours and 46 minutes in the Chichester Festival tournament in 1983.

His triumphant streak, the longest in the history of any sport, was finally ended by New Zealand’s Ross Norman in the World Open in Toulouse, France, in November 1986. Jahangir extracted immediate revenge in the following tournament and went another nine months without defeat. His aura of invincibility had, however, been punctured and a fresh bunch of challengers emerged in the form of the Australians Rodney Martin, Chris Dittmar and a new rising star from Pakistan, Jansher Khan. Though Jahangir got the better of Jansher initially, the latter soon began to prevail and won the World Championship in 1987. Jahangir regained his title the following year but it would be his last world crown. He continued his winning run at the British Open into the nineties, finally retiring from squash in 1993, after losing in the World Open final to Jansher, but helping the national team to win the world team trophy.

The record Jahangir left behind is formidable. His multiple tournament victories included 6 World Open titles, 10 consecutive British Open crowns, winning 13 Pakistan Opens and leading Pakistan to the World Team Championship title on 5 occasions. He also tried his hand at the hardball American version of the game, winning the US title thrice. For 94 months he was ranked as the number one player in the world, 72 of them in succession. On retirement from the game he served as the President of the World Squash Federation from 2002-2008 and has subsequently been its President Emeritus since 2008.

Jahangir was the best player ever to step onto a squash court. He did not merely dominate his opponents, he demolished them, both on the court and psychologically. His arrival coincided with other changes in the sport like the glass court and the graphite racket. It also corresponded with the advent of ‘corporate’ squash and Jahangir was it’s first mega-star. A legend in his own time, the frail child from a modest background who became an awesome sportsman and a global icon, his story is one that dreams are made of.

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

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Jahangir Khan: A champion who lived up to his name