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The greatest Khan

Updated August 19, 2014

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Squash champion Hashim Khan (right) shakes hands with M.A. Karim after winning his first British Open in 1951. -Photo courtesy Squash Films
Squash champion Hashim Khan (right) shakes hands with M.A. Karim after winning his first British Open in 1951. -Photo courtesy Squash Films

“What he did back then, it’s impossible for that to happen now. An unknown showing up at the biggest tournament and winning at an age when most players retire? It’s incredible. Can you imagine how good he would have been in his prime?” James Zug, author of “Squash: A History of the Game” marveled in an interview. He was talking about Hashim Khan, undoubtedly, the greatest player the world of squash will ever see.

Khan, who got his first taste of the game as a voluntary ball boy at the British Officer’s club in Peshawar, had only himself as an opponent in Hashim vs Hashim matches until his teens when his father, who worked as the chief steward at the club died in a car accident. From that point onward, Khan dropped out of school and devoted himself completely to the squash club, first as a ball boy and then a coach, making enough money to support the family.

 Hashim Khan
Hashim Khan's inspirational tale was made into an award-winning feature length documentary by Squash Films.

A match with a professional player from Bombay would then change the course of squash history. The player, who had come to club looking for a game, mocked the challenger, who now in his 30s gave the pro a 5-point cushion. At the end of the match, Khan had brushed aside the pro 9-7, becoming a local celebrity and being invited to the All-of-India tournament in Bombay in 1944. He won three consecutive titles in Bombay before partition in 1947 meant he was ineligible to participate in the event as Khan moved to the newly-created state of Pakistan. But the wonders did not stop there.

Pakistan, looking for an identity and national heroes after partition, pinned its hope on Khan, who now at the age of 37 was to represent the country at the British Open. Like a wily wizard, the 5ft 5in, seemingly out of shape man, stunned the squash world by beating Mahmoud El Karim of Egypt 9-5, 9-0, 9-0. He captured six more British Open crowns, the last one coming when Khan was 44.

In between, Khan, who settled in United States in the 1960s after being offered a well-paid coaching job at the Uptown Athletic Club in Detroit, won three Canadian Open and US Open titles as well, the last one coming when the squash king was in his late 40s. The city of Denver in Colorado, which was to become Khan’s next destination, also experienced the Pakistani player’s magic, so much so that the then mayor of the city John Hickenlooper made July 1 ‘Hashim Khan Day’.

Hashim was undoubtedly the greatest of Khans to have ruled the squash world and, few will disagree, is the game’s grand master as well.

Herbert Warren Wind, who 'transformed sports writing into literature', put it aptly: “The more I think about it the more convinced I am that the greatest athlete for his age the world has ever seen may well be Hashim Khan.”