Unsquashable

June 12, 2016

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ALL IN THE FAMILY:  (L-R) During the 1973 Pakistan’s National Championship with brother Maqsood and cousin Qamar Zaman
ALL IN THE FAMILY: (L-R) During the 1973 Pakistan’s National Championship with brother Maqsood and cousin Qamar Zaman

The British Open of 1974 was something different; especially for Pakistanis. Hashim Khan had won the title seven times in the 1950s, and the record had remained unbroken for a very long time. Between 1966 and 1973, Jonah Barrington an Irish/Englishman had amassed a total of six titles. And in 1974, he was not only the top seed but also an overwhelming favourite. Hashim’s record was very much threatened. After a barren period of almost a decade during which only Aftab Jawaid (three times British Open finalist) managed to keep the Pakistan flag flying, a number of talented Pakistanis emerged on the international squash scene in the early 1970s.

Still, Barrington was unstoppable and he reached the quarter-finals quite easily. As many as five Pakistanis joined him in the last eight. Meanwhile, Pakistanis everywhere hoped Hashim’s record to remain intact. Mohammad Yasin, at number eight, was not only the lowest seeded among those five Pakistanis but at 34 he was also the oldest, faced Barrington in the quarter-final. He was not given much chance. When he lost the first game 1-9, the match seemed to be following the script.

Yasin narrates his story: “I was quite surprised to concede that first game so easily since I was in pretty good form that year and had lost only one game on my way to the quarter-final. However, I managed to gain my rhythm and equaled the tie with a 9-4 win. I vividly remember that there were a number of Pakistanis among the crowd who supported me vociferously. Perhaps that upset Barrington, who was accustomed to home support. A great fighter, he came back strongly in the third game. A huge battle ensued and it went to the wire. I prevailed 10-8 in the end. Though, known for his fitness, Barrigton appeared a bit tired. Tiredness was also creeping into my limbs so I decided to go for my strokes rather for long rallies. Luckily, it went well for me and I managed a good lead.


Mohammad Yasin’s professional career spanned two decades during which he rose to number two in the world, played with four all-time greats — Hashim, Barrington, Hunt and Jahangir — and mentored Jansher


At 6-2 I upped the pace even more and it ended 9-2.”

Yasin became an instant national hero. He won the semi-final against his compatriot Qamar Zaman but in the process injured his ankle and couldn’t contest the final; the only walkover in a British Open final.

But it won’t be right to remember him just as the one who stopped Barrington from equaling the record of the great Hashim. Yasin was one of the finest players on the circuit for a very long period. In world rankings, he reached as high as number two. Apart from reaching the 1974 final, he appeared in the British Open semi-finals thrice. At 41 and being one of the fittest players there in 1980, he reached the third round.

Settled in London for the last 40 years, and looking much younger than his 76 years, Yasin says that he was lucky to have been born in squash environs.

“I originally hail from Nawakali [near Peshawar], where many Pakistani squash stars come from, my father Mohammad Amin was a coach at the Karachi Gymkhana Club. I started playing at quite an early age. The legendary Hashim Khan was a close friend of my father. Whenever in Karachi, he always called on my father. He watched me playing and appreciated my talent very much while also suggesting to my father to make me work more on my game. I was lucky to even play a couple of practice matches against the great man — when he was at his peak — during my teenage years.

“My cousin Aftab Jawaid, Pakistan’s finest squash player during the 1960s, meanwhile, moved from Quetta to Karachi. Playing with him helped me improve my game. I had already started playing on the national circuit. In 1963, I won the national championships for the professionals. My acquaintances wanted me to appear in the British Open but I lacked the resources to make the trip. Then members of the Karachi Gymkhana came forward and pooled in money. Thus I was able to reach England for the 1964 British Open. There were wooden courts at London’s Lansdowne Club while in Pakistan we played on concrete. The ball bounced more on the wood. Then 95pc of the crowd comprised local whites, something which also made me a bit nervous. Despite this, I managed to reach the quarter-finals where I ironically lost to my cousin Aftab Jawaid. That was also the year when Pakistan’s 13-year-old hold on the title ended.”

In spite of a promising debut in the world’s most prestigious tournament, Yasin couldn’t figure in the next two editions of the British Open. “Financial constraints were again the reason. Aftab Jawaid was employed by the Pakistan International Airlines [PIA] which enabled him to regularly figure at the British Open. I had no sponsors. Once again, the generosity of Karachi Gymkhana members made it possible for me to feature in the event,” he says, adding that in 1967, he went even better, reaching the semi-final.

Collecting his trophy from Air Marshal Zafar Chaudhry
Collecting his trophy from Air Marshal Zafar Chaudhry

“I was in good form and had conceded just five points in winning the quarter-final. In the semis, I again confronted Aftab Jawaid. It was a memorable encounter which went to the full distance. In the decisive game also, the pendulum repeatedly swung to either side. I even held a match point but unfortunately lost 8-10.”

Yasin played next in 1970. The Pakistan Squash Federation (PSF) by then had itself started sending the players to international events. Now, his trips to the British Open became regular. Still, Yasin couldn’t get the much needed practice essential for top competition in a sport as grueling as squash.

“My job at the Karachi Gymkhana entailed me to coach and train members. That left very little time for my own training plus it made me quite tired as well. But I had to earn a living for my growing family.”

Pakistan Air Force (PAF) has had a long association with squash in Pakistan. Almost all the presidents of PSF have been the sitting chiefs of the PAF.

“In 1972, Air Marshal Zafar Chaudhry, the then chief, saw me in a tournament in Karachi. Impressed, he offered me a job in PAF’s sports department. I moved to Peshawar. There, I could devote all my time and energy to the game. I practiced along with the up and coming Qamar Zaman and Mohibullah Junior at the PAF Squash Complex.

“Those five years, 1970-74, were my best. In world rankings, I went as high as number two. In the British Open, I twice played the semi-finals and capped with that qualification for the final in 1974 where I had the misfortune of handing the walkover to Geoff Hunt. In the semi-final, I came across Qamar Zaman, also a relation, who at 22 was 12 years younger to me. I accidentally stepped on his foot which damaged my ankle. At the time, I didn’t feel much pain, continued playing and won the semi-final. I even had a good night’s sleep. It was only when I woke up the next morning that I felt the pain and noticed a huge swelling. My shoe wouldn’t fit. I rushed to the hospital in Sheffield. The x-ray revealed that two of the three ligaments supporting the ankle had been completely torn off from the bone while the third one was also damaged. Still keen to play my first final, I enquired if I could take pain killers and play?” Yasin narrates.

The doctor told him that he may manage for around 45 minutes but if the third ligament also came off completely then an operation would be inevitable and even that would bring a 50/50 chance of playing squash again. “Squash was my bread and butter and I couldn’t take any risks there. I had to swallow the bitter pill. I conceded a walkover to Geoff Hunt; my great chance was gone,” he says.

The injury took its toll. The rehabilitation process was long. “I was completely off the game for more than six months. When I restarted my training at Peshawar’s PAF Squash Complex, it was fine when I ran straight in a line but I felt pain whenever I turned on that ankle. After a while, I began playing practice matches. Prior to that, I had been winning all the time against my training partners, Qamar Zaman and Mohibullah Khan Jr but not anymore. It was a gradual process. I didn’t feel 100pc fit at the 1975 British Open. However, I managed to reach the third round where Barrington sort of avenged his defeat of the previous year. But he himself was beaten in the quarter-final by Gogi Alauddin. The year 1975 was also when the British Open crown returned to Pakistan after 12 years, courtesy Qamar Zaman.”

Advancing age also caught up with Yasin. He was past his prime, and he never went beyond the third round. But determination and passion for fitness saw him competing in the main rounds of the British Open till as late as 1983. He was 44 then. Meanwhile, he had already moved to England.

“After Air Marshal Zafar Chaudhry’s retirement, the attitude of the PAF people changed also. They wanted me to work as a regular ‘soldier’ employee of the PAF. I contended. I was recruited in the sports pool. My job was to play squash and bring glory to the PAF and Pakistan, which I think I did quite satisfactorily, and I was hopeful to bring more laurels. My young training partners Qamar Zaman and Mohibullah were also rapidly rising in world rankings.”

Yasin today at his London home
Yasin today at his London home

Pakistan’s former cricket captain Imtiaz Ahmad, an officer in the PAF, was working in their sports department. “He was sympathetic towards my cause. Still, others thought otherwise. Since squash was an essential part of my life, I had no option but to look elsewhere. After playing in the British Open of 1975, I stayed back in England and looked for opportunities here. Luckily, I was offered a coaching job at the Wembley Squash Centre. My last fling with competitive squash involved a few appearances in the Master’s category of the British Open as well as the World Open where I won over 45 titles. The most memorable of these was the five-game win against Ken Hiscoe in the 1985 British Open Masters,” Yasin shares.

His next innings in squash as a coach was equally eventful, and arguably more rewarding in terms of achievements. “During my stint at the Wembley Squash Centre, I coached the Great Britain team which won the World Team Championships in 1979.

All this was overshadowed by Yasin’s mentoring of one of the game’s all-time greats. “Mohibullah Khan Jr got a jail sentence in the early 1980s for carrying cannabis into UK. I used to visit him in prison He mentioned his teenage brother Jansher, who, according to him, was making rapid strides in the game. He requested me to take Jansher under my wing. I saw Jansher play in a competition and realised how talented he was. He also posessed that all-important hunger,” says Yasin.

That was when he told Mohibullah that he will look after his brother though it would be hard work 24/7. Jansher was to live with Yasin, too. “Jansher moved into my London home. I worked on his game and fitness. His rapid progress surprised me even,” says Yasin.

And the goodwill and hard work paid off. In less than a year, Jansher had won the World Junior Championship (1986). The following year, seeded only 11th, he reached the final of the British Open, and there was no looking back. “I was with Jansher from 1985-89. I always accompanied him on his pro tour assignments. Other than that he also spent all his time with me in London for training. During this period, I was contracted by the PIA for the sole purpose of Jansher’s training. I wasn’t paid anything; the only facility was free travel. Jansher himself was rolling in prize money and endorsements. Eventually, I had to talk to him about my financial problems as I had a family to look after. I told him that I would love to stay with him but it would be appropriate, as is the common practice in professional sports, that I get some percentage from his earnings from squash. Jansher didn’t agree and we parted ways,” Yasin explains.

Still, Yasin’s role in the most vital phase of Jansher’s career is comparable to that of Rehmat Khan’s training of Jahangir Khan. “I already had quite a few coaching offers, and joined Qatar Squash Federation. There I found out that I had to work under an Egyptian, who was designated as the national coach. Never, a world ranked player, he was also being paid more than me. Hence, I left Qatar to start coaching at London’s Streatham Squash Club. Here, I coached from 1989-97. That was my last full time coaching job,” he says.

“It is very unfortunate that Pakistan’s squash has hit the rock bottom. I offered my services to the PSF when I went to Pakistan in 2000. The PSF wanted me to work on as many as eight players simultaneously. I tried to hammer in the point that champions are prepared by working one on one; like Rehmat Khan with Jehangir Khan and myself with Jansher. I even suggested starting with those eight that the PSF wanted me to work with, then I could gradually short list them to eventually come to the one with the best potential. But it didn’t work out,” he shares.

Yasin has played against or watched all the great players of the last half century. “My favourite among them was Qamar Zaman. Though he won just one mega title, the British Open in 1975, I admire him a lot. He had such a wide array of strokes, was very wristy and a joy to watch,” he recalls.

“The game was tougher in our time. One could only get a point on his/her own service; it was hard as compared with the present point-a-rally. After doing away with this, there was another development that made the game even softer: reducing it from 15 points to 11. Then the tin height was lowered from 19” to 17”. These days, matches are over in a much shorter time. Spectators also don’t see many memorable encounters,” he concludes.

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, June 12th, 2016