LONDON: Azam Khan, who is regarded as one of the world’s best squash players, passed away at the age of 95 in London after a week-long battle with coronavirus.Khan tested positive for Covid-19 last week and breathed his last at London’s Ealing Hospital, family sources said on Saturday.
Azam Khan, the younger brother of the legendary Hashim Khan, won the British Open four times between 1959 and 1962. One of his victories was over Roshan Khan with a dominating 9-1, 9-0, 9-0 scoreline that forced the Squash Rackets Association to introduce a playoff for third place to make it worthwhile for the audience to buy tickets.
Azam was at the peak of his career when he last appeared on the professional circuit in 1962. The same year he clinched the most important hardball tournament, the US Open, for the first time. Azam then retired from competitive squash due to an Achilles tendon injury. Although his injury healed nearly two years later, he never returned to the professional circuit.
“Yes, the Achilles healed but another wound never healed. I completely lost interest when my 14-year-old son died in 1962. Thereafter, my squash activities were confined to my club,” he said in a past interview.
Khan never played the game until he was 26
Khan stopped playing squash altogether a little over a decade ago due to osteoarthritis. Born in Nawakille, a small village outside Peshawar, Azam had settled in the UK in 1956.
There he established and ran the once-popular New Grampians Squash Club in Sheperd’s Bush, London. After 50 years in operation, the club closed down a few years ago due to climbing overheads and dwindling memberships.
In a profile about the celebrated sportsman, British-Pakistani journalist Ijaz Chaudhry wrote: “The least-acclaimed of all the great squash Khans, Azam might have been the greatest of them all.”
He added: “A member of the most successful family the game has ever seen, Azam Khan was also directly involved in the grooming of world champions from his adopted land as well as the country of his birth. He was a great champion in his own right. But for two factors — first respect for his brother and later mourning for his son — Azam Khan might have been the greatest squash player of all time.”
In a conversation with Ahmed some 14 years ago, Azam Khan described how his career began: “I was a tennis coach at the officers’ club of the Pakistan Air Force. My elder (and only) brother, Hashim, who had won the last two British Opens, told me to switch to squash. I was 26 at the time and had never played the game.”
When asked why he left Pakistan, Azam said: “Although I was a coach in the Pakistan Air Force, I’d been employed as a porter, with a monthly salary of 60 rupees. In 1953, when I reached the semi-final of the British Open on my maiden appearance, I was promoted to ‘electrician’ and my salary rose to 100 rupees per month. But the following year, when I finished runner-up, far from being promoted I was demoted back to the level of porter. The reason given was that the post of electrician no longer existed.”
Azam added that in 1956, he played an exhibition match against Hashim Khan at the New Grampians Club in Shepherds Bush. “After the match, the owner of the club approached me and offered me the job of coach. The offer included a salary as well as accommodation. I had no option but to accept it.”
Published in Dawn, March 29th, 2020