One family’s 50-year reign over the game of squash
The title of Greatest Sportsperson of All Time is not bequeathed lightly. There’s a fairly short list of names that come to mind: Ali, Federer, Didrikson, Steven Bradbury. But have you ever thought about legendary squash players? I’m going to guess no, but here’s why you probably should.
Although now largely and regrettably left in the veritable trashcan of sporting history, squash once shone brightly atop the podium of Popular Sports. Through the back half of last century, squash was seen as a game of skill, cunning, and moustachioed finesse. Cousin to tennis, the game plays out on a 32 by 21–foot court: two players battling through intense rallies, frantically bouncing a tiny rubber ball off all four walls, vying for control of the court’s centre-T. And for almost the entirety of the sport’s ascendant fame it was dominated by one family name: the Khans. Nowhere else in the history of sports has a single name reigned so brually.
The astonishing rule of the Khans began in 1940s in what is now Pakistan. Two young brothers, Hashim and Azam Khan, lived in British-colonised Peshawar — one of the region’s most ancient cities. Historically a sport of Brits, the town boasted a pair of open-air squash courts, built for the leisure of Her Majesty’s officers. The boys would invade the courts when it became too hot for everyone else, playing for hours in the 40-plus degree heat.
This early introduction led to an eventual revolution and the family’s total monopoly of the sport. Young Hashim had speed hitherto inconceivable on the court, transforming the classic ‘drop shot’ (where the ball lightly hits the front wall only to fall immediately, and previously irretrievably, to the ground) from a sure-winner to a vulnerability. Hashim won the British Open — then considered squash’s ‘World Cup’ — for six consecutive years between 1951 and 1956. His younger brother Azam, initially dismissed as Hashim’s lowly sparring partner, would go on to win the Open a further four times from 1959. Incredibly, of the total 26 British Open finalists between 1950 and 1962, the brothers occupied 22 places. For over a decade, squash became entirely a fraternal battle.
The brothers’ only loss throughout this 10-year reign came at the racquet of another Khan: their more muscular relation, cousin Roshan. But Roshan only briefly occupied the №1 spot before his momentary success would be completely overshadowed by his sons’.
After retiring, cousin Roshan focussed on cultivating his two sons’ prodigious talent in the game. In 1979, the wiry-built eldest, Torsam, impressively rose to be World №13 at age 21. In November that year his career and life were proven tragically and spectacularly short — on court in Australia, Torsam suffered a fatal heart attack, falling dead mid-play.
With a newfound determination to fulfill his brother’s dream, young Jahangir Khan — then 15 and largely seen as the sickly ‘runt’ of the Khan litter — applied to join the Pakistan team to compete in the world championships. Both father Roshan and their world champion of a cousin Rhamat decided to help Jahangir on his quest, together vowing to make him World №1 within two years. Retrospectively seen as an almost comedic oversight, the Pakistani selectors rejected young Jahangir on the basis that his health and form weren’t up to scratch.
Rebuffed, the Khan team decided instead to independently enter young Jahangir in the 1979 World Amateur Individual Championships. Breezing through the early rounds and finals he was soon crowned the youngest ever winner of the tournament. Over the months that followed, Jahangir gradually revealed his true mettle as a virtually unbeatable and indefatigable player. His game was not one of hitting big winners—though he certainly could and did—but one of stamina: he was simply the fittest player on the court, and scores of 9–7, 9–1, 9–0 became a hallmark.
Exactly two years to the day after his brother Torsam’s death, Jahangir made and convincingly won the World Open final—edging out Australian squash legend Geoff Hunt—to instantly snatch the World No. 1 ranking. He was just 17 years old, and the youngest squash champion in the history of the sport. But this was just the beginning of Jahangir’s achievements. From that game, he did not lose a single match for five consecutive years. He was clear victor for five hundred and fifty five matches in a row—a winning streak that has not even been approximated by any other person, in any other sport. For this reason he is often considered the indisputable GSPOAT.
In the meantime, however—and perhaps by now predictably—another impressively-moustachioed Khan was edging on the horizon: Jansher Khan. With a relentless and single-minded determination, Jansher trained to outplay Jahangir at his own game: fitness.
Although Jahangir maintained dominance for their first few encounters, in 1987 Jansher achieved his lifelong goal of beating the seemingly untouchable Jahangir, winning convincingly across straight sets. From there, squash—once again—became a game of two Khans. They would meet in almost every major tournament final, going tit-for-tat for the titles, and producing absurd displays of sportsmanship. In the 1988 World Open final, for instance, they opened the game with a rally lasting an incredible six minutes and 15 seconds, only to end anticlimactically in a no-point let, caused by court interference.
For the whole of the 80s the two vied for superiority, and across the total 37 times they met in tournament, Jahangir led by just a single match. However it soon became clear that Jahangir’s glorious reign had come to an end. And when he finally retired to pursue his career in Bollywood, Jansher established himself as the sole dominating force in squash. Finally, in 2002, Jansher—after maintaining the No. 1 ranking for ten straight years, winning a total of 99 professional titles, including a record eight World Open championships—also turned in his racquet.
Like the Genghis Khan Empire of Mongolia, and after spanning almost half a century, the legendary Khan Dynasty came to an end. It seems unlikely that another family will ever dominate any sport quite so comprehensively as the Khans, and for this they should be remembered.