Some things are taken for granted. There was a time not too long ago that if you weren’t Pakistani or a Khan, you might as well not have turned up to play squash. For over five glorious decades, Pakistan ruled squash as the Mughals, in their heyday, ruled over the subcontinent.
But squash would have lived and perhaps died with the Khans of Nawa Kili were it not for the single-minded devotion of Muneer Ahmed — a lesser known figure, who took squash away from the clutches of familial clans as well as elite and military clubs, and brought it to the people.
Ahmed returned to Lahore from the United Kingdom in 1959 and took over as the chief engineer in Pakistan Railways. Himself a keen player of the game, he used to figure prominently on the national circuit in his younger days. Once settled in Lahore, Ahmed visited the squash courts at the Punjab Club for the first time — only to discover that the sport he so loved was left neglected and uncared for: only one of the three cemented courts was fit for play.
This prompted Ahmed to find like-minded people, who felt as strongly about the betterment of the game as he did, and wanted to do something about it. As fate would have it, his two major allies were prominent personalities in their own right: Rafiq Khan, the principal of Lahore’s King Edward Medical College, one of the oldest medical colleges in South Asia; and Raziuddin, director general of public relations at the Water and Power Development Authority (Wapda).
The three men then formed the West Pakistan Squash Rackets Association, collecting various stake-holders from across the country and coalescing their voice on an organised platform. Back then, although squash was being played at the national level in Pakistan but the general public wasn’t aware about the sport. It made sense for the three gentlemen from Lahore to begin their efforts from their hometown.
With a stroke of luck, brothers Hashim and Azam Khan happened to pass through Lahore one week and Muneer Ahmed requested them to play a few exhibition matches while they were in the city. The brothers acquiesced to the request.
Suddenly squash managed to capture Lahore’s, and then Pakistan’s attention. People thronged to see their national heroes in action, with the great Khans extending their stay in Lahore for a few more days to allow more people to watch the game.
Membership at the Punjab Club, especially of squash enthusiasts, increased manifold too. The three existing squash courts at the Punjab Club were renovated, while two championship courts — the first of their kind in Pakistan which could seat 250 spectators — were constructed too.
With momentum building, Muneer Ahmed and his associates took the game to schools — their attempt was at supporting the game at the grassroots level so as to build a reserve of squash enthusiasts and players.
In 1961, circulars were sent to academic institutions of Lahore to send their students to the ‘Come and Learn Squash’ initiative. The response was very encouraging. The opportunity was availed by some 200 students, who were provided rackets, balls and use of courts — all free of cost.
To impart quality coaching, Safirullah Khan — father of Mohibullah — the 1963 British Open winner, was invited to Lahore and paid handsomely to train the colts. After the training camp, a proper competition was held at five different levels on the basis of age groups. Muneer’s son Sajjad was also one of the participants.
The next two years saw Roshan Khan coming over from Karachi for month-long coaching stints in Lahore. All this led to the popularity of the game apart from providing a strong base of young players to the country.
Lahore thus started becoming the squash capital of the country, staging all premier tournaments that were held in the country. The first Hashim Khan Trophy for the Pakistan Open was held in 1963 in Lahore, while the first-ever test series between Pakistan and a visiting team from Great Britain was also played the same year in Lahore. Even the Roshan Khan Trophy for the national team championship had its first edition in Lahore.
The next step was the initiation of the Vice Chancellor Cup in 1964 — a tournament for college teams. Six colleges of Lahore, as well as the Engineering University, Lahore, and the Agriculture University, Faisalabad, participated in the competition. The following year saw the number of teams increasing from eight to 14 with entries not only from unfashionable squash areas like Gujrat and Hasan Abdal but from other provinces as well.
By 1965, the number of courts in the Punjab squash club had increased to seven. They were utilised in a much better and more organised manner too. Two courts each were allocated to the senior members, junior members and the trainees while one was reserved for women. The number of playing girls rose to 20. Muneer Ahmed’s daughter, Azra, was one of them — she would later become Pakistan no 2.
By 1966, efforts to turn squash into university sport in Punjab were consolidated. The following year, universities from across Pakistan participated in the first inter-university squash championships. Muneer’s son Sajjad achieved the distinction of captaining Engineering University, Lahore, to the title. Within five years, squash had become a students’ sport at all levels, from schools right up to the universities.
Ahmed was also quick to realise that while setting up a system for squash was imperative, he could not neglect existing talent either. In the early 60s, as the Khans were bowing out of the squash arena, Quetta-based Aftab Javed emerged as Pakistan’s best hope. But unfortunately for Javed, he was being denied entry to the squash courts in Quetta, which didn’t permit professionals to play.
Muneer Ahmed decided to bring Javed to Lahore, and provide him with the space and the opportunity to flourish. Javed didn’t disappoint: he won the West Pakistan Open in 1961, the British Amateur title three times, and was a British Open finalist thrice.
With Javed providing success, Muneer Ahmed went back to Quetta in 1968 — this time for Javed’s nephew Qamar Zaman. Ahmed arranged a job for Zaman with the Railways in Lahore, thus providing Zaman with the platform to later become a British Open champion,
Another virtual unknown but a star of the future, Hidayat ‘Hiddy’ Jahan also shifted from Quetta to Lahore for better opportunities. In fact, Hiddy became a part of Ahmed’s family — son to Muneer Ahmed and a brother to Sajjad Muneer.
Muneer Ahmed was very particular about discipline. Once, when he overheard his son Sajjad using an expletive in frustration during a practice match, he banned him from entering the courts for one week. All this paid back in dividends. Sajjad won the national juniors in 1965 and the following year.
The same crown was worn by Gogi Alauddin in 1967. The Punjab players representing the Central Zone also won the Roshan Khan Trophy in 1968, dismissing the challenge of the traditional power houses, the North and South zones.
Having created playing facilities and a healthy nursery whose products had started hitting headlines on the national scene, the next target was the international stage. Though, Sajjad and Gogi had represented Pakistan at the first World Amateur Team Championships in Australia in 1967, the real test those days, and even today, was the British Open. That required finances and the task was a bit too much for the Punjab squash officials.
Luckily, the Punjab Sports Board came to the rescue and financed the trip. Sajjad, Gogi and Hiddy, who had also become very close friends, were sent to Britain by the Punjab Squash Federation despite the opposition of the Pakistan Squash Federation. At the same time, they were given a definite target: going past the third round. Sajjad and Gogi reached the quarter finals of the British Open. Then Gogi stunned the squash world by lifting the British Amateur Championships despite being unseeded. Sajjad got into the semis while Hiddy made it to the quarter finals.
Renowned sports writer Rex Bellamy, the squash and tennis correspondent of Times of London, gave the trio of Gogi, Hiddy and Sajjad the title of ‘Three Musketeers’. The highest world rankings achieved by them at the professional circuit were two, four and eight, respectively.
There was no looking back. In the mid-70s, Pakistan came to dominate the world rankings in a manner no other country did before or since; at times there were as many as seven Pakistanis in the top 10.
The platform for this success was provided by Lahore’s squash scene of the 1960s. Even the majority of the top Pakistani players of the ‘70s were either direct or indirect beneficiaries of Lahore squash conceived and directed by Muneer Ahmed, the man who ‘institutionalised’ the sport in Pakistan.