It was by sheer chance that I had ventured under the fly-over at NIPA, Karachi to come across a wonderful space which encapsulates a world of its own. Tucked away between the concrete columns supporting the fly-over, surrounded by debris frequented by the homeless, is a unique snooker club catering to the most financially constrained cueists.
Snooker, once the favorite past-time of the elites and until the early 1980s very much confined to prestigious colonial era clubs, took off during the 1980s and 1990s with corporate sponsorship from tobacco manufacturers. With the withdrawal of such financial backing due to legislative restrictions on tobacco ads, snooker once again was lost in smoke. However, here, under the “fly-over” in the open-air space with perfectly diffused sunlight, I enjoyed watching a good frame or two with children from the nearby “kachee abadi”
Coincidentally, just a few weeks later, we were thrilled to hear that one Muhammad Asif, hailing from Faisalabad, had won the IBSF World Snooker Championship! I wondered if the children playing under the fly-over would ever be able to achieve such heights even if they have the talent.
Later, when I read how, a jobless Asif had had to struggle to finance his participation to the event and only managed after the local association collected funds for his participation, that too sans a coach, his achievement became all the more praise-worthy. The children’s future looked just a tad sunnier.
An under-rated and under-reported phenomenon of sports in Pakistan is that often, the players are driven by sheer passion and have to struggle against obstacles which, in most countries, would be non-existent for anyone who has talent.
Pakistan, which has been blessed with an enviable amount of talent and dedicated sportsmen, often loses them for lack of a system of scouting and nurturing in order to achieve optimum international laurels. In recent times, the “driven” ones have also had to cope up with security concerns amongst other issues – an unlucky few even fall victim to terrorism before luck ever shined on them.
And Asif’s case is by no means unique in Pakistan.
Somewhere around 1914 (no exact date available), a boy was born to a Pashtun family residing in a dusty old village named Nawakille near Peshawar. The boy’s father, Abdullah Khan, was the Head Steward at the Peshawar Club where British Army officers, often guarding the rugged Khyber Pass, would come for relaxation and recreation. When the boy, Hashim, turned eight, the open air, cement floored squash courts of the club captured his imagination. He would sit on the walls for hours, watching the British officers play and returned balls that went out of the court for some tips.
At odd hours or when the heat of the sun was unbearable, the courts would be his. He would use overused and discarded balls to practice his craft. But just as it takes two to tango, it takes two to play squash. Unable to find a partner, he would indulge in “Hashim vs Hashim” matches, practicing for hours with all the legendary Pashtun ferocity.
Hashim’s prime years were spent coaching at the Air Force Officers Mess until 1944, when he participated in the All-India Championship in Bombay. He came, he saw, he won – for an additional two more years for good measure. Pakistan did not participate in British Open competitions until 1950, when India’s Abdul Bari, incidentally a relative of Hashim Khan, lost the final there. Pakistan’s first representation and Hashim Khan’s first visit to the British Open came in 1951, at the age of 35, funded privately by a citizen, as the nascent state’s finances were meager. He went on to win the event an astounding seven times, last in 1958, at the age of 41.
Roshan Khan, whose own story is not much different, went on to win the 1957 British Open title interrupting his relative, Hashim’s, reign.
From what I recall from an interview, even his playing racket was borrowed from a British sport goods shop, with a promise that the amount will be repaid after winning the British Open. Hats off to the gentleman who took the words at face value and the one who honored them, though later, the payment was waived as a gift to the champion.
Roshan remained a prominent player in the late 50s and early 60s. However, the world was yet to witness the greatest in the line of these monarchs of squash.
Whereas the elders had fought financial problems and lack of facilities, Jahangir, Roshan’s son, had to fight health issues and personal tragedy early in life. His brother Torsam died on the squash court during a tournament match in Australia. Torsam was to supervise and coach Jahangir but his untimely death was a personal blow to the fifteen year old who converted it into his driving force.