How do you define sporting greatness? Is it the ability to believe above all else when others are constantly doubting themselves?
It was a question which remained a recurrent theme during research into the great Jahangir Khan’s career. It spanned 14 years and not only handed Pakistan a plethora of world and British titles, but also transcended squash into the mainstream.
It was Jonah Barrington, the Anglo-Irishman regarded as one of Britain’s finest players, who had initially given Jahangir the platform thanks to the former’s global travels with Pakistan International Airlines in the 1970s which first popularised and then ushered in much-needed sponsorship into the game.
And when Jahangir, aged 15, won the World Amateur title in 1979, so a superstar was born. He simply took on Barrington’s work and lifted the game to new heights through his on-court theatrics and ad man’s perfect client: clean cut and gentlemanly.
I grew up as a young boy in the UK reading Daily Telegraph reports of Jahangir’s title after title. Yes, he was occasionally on television in the UK, but he remained a sort of mythical figure as far as I was concerned as I never did see him play live.
So when the opportunity arose, along with co-author and fellow British journalist Alan Thatcher, who did see him play live, to bring his career to life, we grasped the opportunity.
On November 11th 1986, New Zealander Ross Norman finally beat Jahangir to halt the Pakistani’s five-and-a-half-year unbroken run. The 30th anniversary of this rare win was a chance to publish our book, the chance – although on the back of a defeat – to highlight the Karachi ‘Conqueror’s’ career as a true sporting great, given his dominance from 1981-1986.
Jahangir’s story is surely a one-off, too, especially considering his humble upbringings.
A shy boy, he was hampered by a childhood hernia and appeared to suffer from learning difficulties. Having overcome these handicaps, he began playing regularly and after winning several junior tournaments showed signs of becoming another leading light in the Khan squash kingdom.
By the age of twelve, Jahangir’s father, Roshan, was sufficiently impressed by his son’s progress that he predicted that he would one day become a World Champion.
At the age of fourteen, Jahangir moved to England to train with his elder brother Torsam and his father’s prediction came true when Jahangir won that World Amateur title. But he was struck a devastating blow weeks later when Torsam died on court during a tournament.
Jahangir was devastated. A light went out in his life and he considered giving up the game.
Discussions about the young prodigy’s future extended beyond his squash-loving family. Because Jahangir’s achievements brought such pride and prestige to the country, the Pakistani government and military figures were also involved.
Jahangir was under pressure to return home to train in Pakistan but his cousin Rahmat, who was based in London, offered to take over the challenge from Torsam. After much soul searching, Jahangir’s father, Roshan, himself a former British Open champion, relented and agreed to Rahmat’s proposals. Their partnership produced unparalleled success as Jahangir dedicated his career to Torsam’s memory.
Who was to know that he would go on to rule the squash court in such style?
Jahangir and Rahmat began to set an awe-inspiring template to the top. Their training regime soon usurped Australian Geoff Hunt’s own methods and once Jahangir had beaten Hunt at the 1981 World Championships in Canada, the path was clear.
We spoke to a raft of Jahangir’s fellow professionals at the time and their insights proved revelatory. Many spoke of how once the glass door was shut, they felt as if they were already on the back foot. The power and ferocity in Jahangir’s racket work left them with little time to think. He dominated the ‘T’ and he dominated their minds.
Jahangir soon accumulated unbreakable records. There was no stopping him until, of course, Norman finally ended the stranglehold and the emergence of his compatriot and rival, Jansher Khan, came onto the scene.
There was a lively squash media travelling the world back in the Eighties and it’s thanks to those journalists and sports editors who made space for reportage, that we were able to bring this period to life once more.
And in an age where fitness and physique plays a vital role in dealing with the emergence of more sporting nations vying to be the world’s best, Jahangir’s record is unlikely to ever be matched.
‘It was a battle to achieve the higher place,’ says Jahangir, thirty years on. ‘There were so many talented players, but they were all at the same level. Only one or two guys were edging to the top. It must have been frustrating for sure.
“Myself and Jansher, we dominated for sixteen years. That’s not a short period. I’m not saying that they were not all good players. They were the same standard but only a few were getting something out of it.”
The pressure to exceed by the Pakistan Squash Federation and an expectant nation, must have been immense. But Jahangir never seemed to show it, on or off court. And only once in our research do we come across signs of any pressure when, in 1990, he admitted that every time he went on court, ‘it felt like I was playing one hundred people’.
Of course, he beat many more than that. His legendary record of 555 matches is well known (although we do question the authenticity of this figure), but few will know the extent of his final tally.
In the early part of the 1980s, there were no squash statisticians as such, but by the time Jahangir did hang up his racket in 1993, we were able to offer that he played over 900 matches with just 29 defeats. Quite staggering!
So, what does Jahangir make of the exact figure? ‘If you calculate it, it could be more. I played invitational, exhibition and challenge matches,’ he tells us. ‘The 555 figure should only be my tournament matches. But it could be between six to seven hundred matches if you include the others. Because I wasn’t losing those either!
“I used to play a lot of matches in those days. I took two months off per year. I remember during those years that to take one single day off was lucky for me. Either I was playing a tournament or I was playing exhibition matches and travelling as well.”
The toll of playing so many matches in this era was lessened by virtue of the fact that he was never given a proper examination. It is a quite remarkable statistic, then, that between 1981 and 1987, only eight players were able to steal a game off Jahangir.
He thus dominated in a sport, at the highest level, which is a mixture of skill, speed, tactical awareness, and requires a wide range of shots incorporating power and touch, using each when called for.
Players need to possess the nimbleness of a dancer to master difficult footwork patterns around the court, the fitness and stamina of a marathon runner, and the ability of a boxer to soak up the punishment and push through the pain barrier in matches that can often last more than two hours. To achieve all this requires hours of training every day.
“Squash at the very highest level is probably one of the most perverse exercises ever devised,’ Barrington once said in the Eighties. He also coined the phrase ‘boxing with rackets’.
Jahangir had a simple but all-consuming motivation. Honouring the promise he made to his family in memory of his late brother, he was prepared to put in more work than any other squash player in history. Everything he did, he dedicated to Torsam. He willingly absorbed the workload as he learned how to master every challenge thrown his way.
Although still a teenager, Jahangir bestrode the game of squash like a colossus, living up to the name bestowed upon him at birth.
His gentlemanly conduct and unbeaten streak continued unabated, as bludgeoning success in the early Eighties turned him into a one-man brand marketing machine. Jahangir endorsed countless products and he became the sport’s first – and only – squash millionaire.
Tellingly, his quiet, humble manner remained the same.
Some may differ but many players of the time paint Jahangir, or ‘JK’ as he is also known by friends and former professionals, as the best squash player of all time. Perhaps sportsperson, too. His record, his story and history he created, go some way towards reflecting this.
Throughout his record breaking career, Jahangir Khan used and was synonymous with only one brand: UNSQUASHABLE.
INSPIRED BY JAHANGIR KHAN