SQUASH: THE STROKE MASTER

June 09, 2019

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Although he won the British Open in 1975 and remained World no. 1 for three years, Qamar Zaman is often remembered as the best man/bridesmaid on all outings. He was the runners-up at the British Open four times and lost the same number of finals at the World Open.

Nicknamed the ‘Stroke Master’, Qamar is, nevertheless, widely regarded as one of the most exciting players in the history of the game.

Just like so many other squash greats of his country, Qamar came from a humble background.

Pakistan’s former number one squash player and currently one of its top sports officials Qamar Zaman recalls his eventful past and explains why his sport nosedived in the country

“My father was a tennis coach at a Quetta club and that is where I also picked up the tennis racket,” says Qamar.

“My father’s coaching helped. I reached the final of the junior Shahanshah-i-Iran Tournament in 1967 where I lost to Pakistan’s future number one player, Nadir Ali Khan. During those days, I played squash only as a leisure sport. My uncle Aftab Javaid, a three-time British Open squash finalist, had seen me play tennis. He told my father, ‘Qamar plays tennis like squash; he drop shots from the back of the court. He should concentrate on squash’.”

That was when Qamar switched to squash and appeared in the national juniors where he lost in the first round. Still, he focused on squash. But it was tough going for him. “We were 11 siblings. My father told me that he earned 150 rupees per month from his job as the tennis coach and if I used one ball daily, it came to 60 rupees monthly. It would be a burden on the family,” he says.

“But I continued with my squash within those limited resources. I used to rent a bicycle to get to the squash court in the freezing early mornings of Quetta. When the ball I played with was torn, I would bring it home for my mother to stitch. But since that stitched ball didn’t bounce off the court, I could only practice drop shots. Later, during my professional career, my drop shots became the envy of the circuit players,” he says.

Still, Qamar got his first job through tennis. “I was paid 66 rupees for playing tennis with the members of the Railways Club. I even went to Lahore to represent Quetta in the Railways Interdivisional Tournament. Those days, I played tennis during the day and squash I played early morning and during evenings.”

The major breakthrough in squash happened for Qamar in 1968. “When I won the national junior under-18 squash title in Lahore, the then Railways Chief Engineer Munir Ahmed, who is credited with the renaissance of Pakistan’s squash fortunes, was greatly impressed. He arranged for my accommodation at Lahore’s Railways Stadium. But after around six months, I felt homesick and returned to Quetta,” he says.

From then onwards, it was squash only. After road running in the mornings, it was the first lecture of English in college for Qamar before playing hooky to enter the squash court.

“In 1971, I appeared in the trials in Karachi to select Pakistan’s senior team for the world team championships in New Zealand. I did well to gain selection. But we were told that the tour had been postponed and I would be called whenever fresh dates are announced. I returned to Quetta but later came to know that the team left for New Zealand without me. In sheer depression, I burnt my squash kit and vowed never to play again,” he says.

Khurshed Marker of Quetta’s affluent and influential Parsi Marker family encouraged him then. “If they don’t send you the next time, I will bear your travel expenses,” he says.

Meanwhile, in the nationals of 1972, he defeated all those who had gone to New Zealand. “Hence, I was sent for the British amateur championships of that year where I entered the qualifiers with a 10-rupee racket and the shoes also of the same value. I not only made it to the main round but even reached the final, losing in five games.

“The next year as well, I reached the final of the British Amateur Tournament.”

CAREER WITH PIA

Qamar joined Pakistan International Airlines (PIA) in 1972. “PIA made us travel all over the world for competitions and also took care of the hoteling and daily expenses. For all this, the credit goes to the late Air Marshal Nur Khan, PIA’s chairman, who really looked after the game and the players. We were given jobs in the airline and got promotions on the basis of our success. Once the playing days were over, we were properly incorporated into PIA for which formal training was imparted. I served as the deputy station manager at the Peshawar and Jeddah airports before retiring in 2010,” he says.

TURNING PROFESSIONAL

“Having played the final of the British Amateur for two years, I appeared in the prestigious British Open for the first time in 1973. I progressed to the third round, where I lost to my uncle Aftab Javaid in five games, after leading by 2-1. Some commented that I might have lost deliberately since he was also my mentor in my early days. But that was certainly not the case. His experience prevailed in the end. The following year, I made it to the semi-final. Interestingly, again I went down to an elder relative, Mo Yasin [father’s first cousin],” he says.

The 1975 British Open was memorable not only for Qamar but also for the whole Pakistani nation. Having won the most prestigious squash title for an amazing 13 years from 1951-63 — through Hashim and Azam Khan — the country had been without a champion since then. But the title returned to Pakistan after 12 years courtesy Qamar Zaman.

“Indeed, it was a memorable feat. However, I was relaxed about the title being ours even before the final as I was facing my fellow countryman Gogi Allauddin there. It was a straight games victory,” he says.

Qamar, who was seeded only eighth back then, found the quarter-final to be the toughest. “I went past the defending champion and top seed, the legendary Geoff Hunt in an epic encounter lasting two hours and 17 minutes. I came back after two games down.”

Before the tournament, when questioned about his main challengers, Hunt had named at least five players and Qamar wasn’t among them. When the famous squash and tennis journalist Rex Bellamy asked ‘What about Qamar Zaman’, Hunt had replied, ‘We would handle him.’

But then after the marathon match against Qamar, when asked to comment, Hunt said, ‘I can’t speak.’ The next morning the news headline flashed, ‘We would handle him; I can’t speak.’

“Here, I have to praise Air Marshal Nur Khan again. Ahead of the British Open, he had arranged six week’s training for me and Mohibullah with the four-time British Open champion winner, the legendary Azam Khan in London.”

Qamar was only 22 when he won the British Open in 1975. “Though, I played four more finals at the British Open, last one being in 1984, I couldn’t win any. In all the four World Open finals also, I came off as second best,” he says.

Qamar was one of the most consistent performers on the circuit for a long time (World No 1 for three years and World No 2 for a record 11 years, and won a world title in the last year of his professional career).

“I was a member of the Pakistan team which won the World team event in 1987 in London. Jahangir, Jansher and Omar Hayat were my team mates. But by later that year, I realised that it was time to hang up the racket,” he says.

“First, at the German Open, I lost a qualifier in the first round. Then in Singapore, I couldn’t go beyond the second round. Next was the PIA Masters in Karachi. I told the Pakistan Squash Federation that I was retiring from the game and wouldn’t be participating, but they insisted that it would be a befitting end to my career if I made my last appearance in Pakistan. I agreed on one condition — that Jahangir would play me in the first round. And I announced my retirement immediately after that match. The federation had planned it well. All of the country’s squash stars came to the court one by one and garlanded me. I couldn’t have asked for a better farewell,” he says becoming slightly sentimental.

Throughout his playing career, Qamar remained one of the most popular players and a crowd-puller, not just for his attractive stroke-play, but because he was also known to crack jokes on the court with other players as well as the referees. During a British Open match, when a female referee gave a point against him he walked out of the court, came close to her and asked her to accompany him to dinner, as everyone burst out laughing at his gesture. He was also known to loudly mention the rules of the game during maches. Once during a tense match against Hiddy Jahan, he called out to the referee, ‘Rule no. 22, clause 4’ and the referee changed the decision, much to the annoyance of Hiddy. After the match, when the referee approached him to explain that rule, Qamar replied that even he didn’t know about it as he had just made it up, leaving the referee aghast.

After his retirement, Qamar served as vice president of the Asian Squash Federation (2001-2005). And for the last 20 years, he has been serving the Pakistan Squash Federation as its vice president as well. He has been associated with the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Squash Association also for that long, first as its secretary and then as its president.

“During my tenure as its president for the past four years, the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Squash Association has won the Pakistan Squash Federation’s annual Pride of Performance award, given to an affiliated unit for the best performance during the year, every time.

“Our provincial association has been conducting 20 to 25 tournaments each year for boys and girls in various age groups,” he says. But then the question remains, why then have the fortunes of Pakistan squash nosedived? The country has had no player among the top 25 of the world for many years now.

Qamar says that the players are to be blamed for that. “They have been given all kinds of facilities. They simply don’t have the ‘hunger’ and dedication needed of a champion. My own son Mansoor Zaman is a fine example of this. He was given all the facilities, and he also showed early promise and reached the world ranking of no. 11. But then he lacked the determination to be the best. The same was the case with my nephew Shahid Zaman, whose highest ranking was no. 14.

“In my day I even played with a broken racket and torn shoes at the domestic circuit, but I did it without complaining. In our time, the players strived to be among the best in the world, if not the best. But the goals seem to have changed now. A vast majority just want to spend time on the international circuit so as to be eligible for a coaching job abroad with some club or university.”

Published in Dawn, EOS, June 9th, 2019