Squash legend Azam Khan, the last survivor of the four Khans of Pakistan who kept the British Open among themselves for 13 consecutive years, from 1951 to 1963, is no more. Another casualty of the dreaded Covid-19, at 95.
Winning the British Open four times, and that too consecutively, is no mean feat. But Azam`s victories (1959-62) came when the British Open was already Pakistan’s, rather the Khans’, own domain. At the time, winning the title as many as seven times before him, his elder brother Hashim Khan had already raised the benchmark. And after Hashim, only those who attained comparable achievements — such as Jahangir Khan, Jansher Khan, Geoff Hunt and may be Jonah Barrington — are mentioned in the same breath. Azam, with his mere four victories, was not seen in the same light.
Still, many regard Azam as the greatest wielder of the squash racket the world has seen and there are reasons for that. Like all the squash Khans of that era, he too came from a humble background. Azam was a tennis coach at the Pakistan Air Force’s Officers Club in Peshawar when his brother Hashim told him to switch to squash. He was 26 at the time, and he had never played the game before. But within two years of Hashim’s bidding, Azam was ready to take on the best in the world.
In 1953, the Pakistan Air Force raised funds for his trip to Britain by holding exhibition matches in various bases. Azam’s first competition was the British Professional Championship, where he surprised everyone by reaching the final. He lost to his brother. Despite this, he was pushed into a trial match against the British No 1 to enter the 1953 British Open. He dispatched the fellow in straight games. That was how the unseeded Azam progressed to the British Open semi-finals, only to lose again to elder brother Hashim.
Still, Azam Khan had arrived on the world squash scene. The very next year he reached the final of the British Open for the first time, losing to … who else … Hashim! And the 1955 final was a replica of the previous year.
Four-time British Open winner Azam Khan, who passed away on March 28, was always under the shadow of his elder brother, the great Hashim Khan. But could Azam actually have been the greatest squash player of all time?
British newspapers started running headlines such as ‘Family Affair’. So in the next two Opens the brothers were kept in the same half of the draw, forcing them to come face-to-face in the semi-finals. A ‘just draw’ was restored in 1958 and Hashim beat him again in the final.
But the following year, the ‘crown prince’ took over. In 1959, Azam won the coveted title for the first time, beating his nephew Mohibullah in the final in straight games. He went on to win the title four times in succession after.
The most memorable of those four triumphs was that of 1960. He trounced Roshan Khan, a distant relative and the legendary Jahangir Khan’s father, 9-1, 9-0, 9-0 in the final. It’s still the shortest final in the history of the tournament, lasting just 19 minutes.
It had another repercussion. The paying public felt short-changed, so the organisers decided to introduce a play-off for third position for losing semi-finalists before the final.
Azam was at the peak of his game when he last appeared on the professional circuit in 1962. That year he had won not only the British Open and British Professional titles but also the most important hardball tournament, the US Open, for the first time.
But then Azam had to abstain from competitive squash due to an Achilles tendon injury. The injury healed in 18 months but there was another wound that he sustained and which never could be healed. He completely lost interest in competition when his 14-year-old son died. Thereafter, his squash activities were confined to his club, the New Grampians Club in London. Azam had joined the club in 1956 as a full time coach. Soon, the club’s owner, who was not keeping good health, asked him to buy the club. Azam bought the club by paying him in installments over a period of five years.
New Grampians, the renowned private squash club of London, closed down a few years ago because of financial reasons. But during his more than half-a-century association with the club, Azam oversaw the emergence of many squash stars there.
In fact, the man who halted the Khan era in the British Open history, in 1964, was a product of this club. Michael (Mike) Oddy of Scotland ousted defending champion Mohibullah Khan in the semi-final to also become the first Briton since 1953 to reach the final.
The club is also linked with the development of arguably the greatest squash player Britain has ever produced. Young Jonah Barrington, a mill worker, joined the club in 1966. He used to come early in the morning for squash training from Azam before he could leave for the mill. Despite this ‘hurried’ training, Azam prepared Barrington for the very next British Open, in 1967.
One day before it started, Barrington played a match against Azam and could take only one point in three games. After that Barrington was so depressed that he wanted to withdraw from the tournament itself but Azam knew the prevailing standard and encouraged him to go ahead. And the rest is history. Barrington not only won the 1967 Open, he went on to win the title five more times. After winning his first title, he again played against Azam, only to lose in the same manner as before.
So why did Azam remain under the shadow of the other great Khans? This intriguing question alludes to the numerous rumours that the Khans had their own rules of ascendancy: that the younger ones were allowed to rule the roost not when they were better, but only when the elders decided that their time to step up had arrived. It is certainly ‘suspicious’ that in the three British Open finals Azam lost, his opponent was his brother Hashim.
Azam neither confirmed nor denied the rumours, but simply said: “Respect for an elder brother is very much ingrained in Pushtun culture. Bhai Sahab [respected brother] meant everything to me. He was more than my coach and mentor. Older to me by 11 years, Hashim was like a father to me.”
Azam could have won at least 12 British Open titles if he had wanted to. Had it not been for two factors — first, respect for the elder brother and, later, mourning his son — Azam Khan might have been the greatest squash player of all time.
Perhaps he was.
Published in Dawn, EOS, April 5th, 2020