555: the untold story behind squash’s invincible champion Jahangir Khan

October 19 2016

How do you define sporting greatness? Is it the ability to believe above all else when others are constantly doubting themselves?

It was a question which remained a recurrent theme during research into the great Jahangir Khan’s career. It spanned 14 years & not only handed Pakistan a plethora of world & British titles, but also transcended squash into the mainstream.

It was Jonah Barrington, the Anglo-Irishman regarded as one of Britain’s finest players, who had initially given Jahangir the platform thanks to the former's global travels with Pakistan International Airlines in the 1970s which first popularised & then ushered in much-needed sponsorship into the game.

When Jahangir, aged 15, won the World Amateur title in 1979, so a superstar was born. He simply took on Barrington’s work & lifted the game to new heights through his on-court theatrics & ad man's perfect client: clean cut & gentlemanly.

I grew up as a young boy in the UK reading Daily Telegraph reports of Jahangir’s title after title. Yes, he was occasionally on television in the UK, but he remained a sort of mythical figure as far as I was concerned as I never did see him play live.
So, when the opportunity arose, along with co-author & fellow British journalist Alan Thatcher, who did see him play live, to bring his career to life, we grasped the opportunity.

On November 11th 1986, New Zealander Ross Norman finally beat Jahangir to halt the Pakistani’s five-&-a-half-year unbroken run. The 30th anniversary of this rare win was a chance to publish our book, the chance - although on the back of a defeat - to highlight the Karachi ‘Conqueror’s’ career as a true sporting great, given his dominance from 1981-1986.

Jahangir’s story is surely a one-off, too, especially considering his humble upbringings.

A shy boy, he was hampered by a childhood hernia & appeared to suffer from learning difficulties. Having overcome these handicaps, he began playing regularly & after winning several junior tournaments showed signs of becoming another leading light in the Khan squash kingdom.

By the age of twelve, Jahangir’s father, Roshan, was sufficiently impressed by his son’s progress that he predicted that he would one day become a World Champion.

At the age of fourteen, Jahangir moved to England to train with his elder brother Torsam & his father’s prediction came true when Jahangir won that World Amateur title. But he was struck a devastating blow weeks later when Torsam died on court during a tournament.

Jahangir was devastated. A light went out in his life & he considered giving up the game.

Discussions about the young prodigy’s future extended beyond his squash-loving family. Because Jahangir’s achievements brought such pride & prestige to the country, the Pakistani government & military figures were also involved.

Jahangir was under pressure to return home to train in Pakistan but his cousin Rahmat, who was based in London, offered to take over the challenge from Torsam. After much soul searching, Jahangir’s father, Roshan, himself a former British Open champion, relented & agreed to Rahmat’s proposals. Their partnership produced unparalleled success as Jahangir dedicated his career to Torsam’s memory.

Who was to know that he would go on to rule the squash court in such style?
Jahangir & Rahmat began to set an awe-inspiring template to the top. Their training regime soon usurped Australian Geoff Hunt's own methods & once Jahangir had beaten Hunt at the 1981 World Championships in Canada, the path was clear.

We spoke to a raft of Jahangir’s fellow professionals at the time & their insights proved revelatory. Many spoke of how once the glass door was shut, they felt as if they were already on the back foot. The power & ferocity in Jahangir’s racket work left them with little time to think. He dominated the ‘T’ & he dominated their minds.
Jahangir soon accumulated unbreakable records. There was no stopping him until, of course, Norman finally ended the stranglehold & the emergence of his compatriot & rival, Jansher Khan, came onto the scene.

There was a lively squash media travelling the world back in the Eighties & it’s thanks to those journalists & sports editors who made space for reportage, that we were able to bring this period to life once more.

In an age where fitness & physique plays a vital role in dealing with the emergence of more sporting nations vying to be the world’s best, Jahangir’s record is unlikely to ever be matched.

"It was a battle to achieve the higher place," says Jahangir, thirty years on. ‘There were so many talented players, but they were all at the same level. Only one or two guys were edging to the top. It must have been frustrating for sure.

“Myself & Jansher, we dominated for sixteen years. That’s not a short period. I’m not saying that they were not all good players. They were the same standard but only a few were getting something out of it.”

The pressure to exceed by the Pakistan Squash Federation & an expectant nation, must have been immense. But Jahangir never seemed to show it, on or off court. Only once in our research do we come across signs of any pressure when, in 1990, he admitted that every time he went on court, ‘it felt like I was playing one hundred people’.

Of course, he beat many more than that. His legendary record of 555 matches is well known (although we do question the authenticity of this figure), but few will know the extent of his final tally.

In the early part of the 1980s, there were no squash statisticians as such, but by the time Jahangir did hang up his racket in 1993, we were able to offer that he played over 900 matches with just 29 defeats. Quite staggering!

So, what does Jahangir make of the exact figure? ‘If you calculate it, it could be more. I played invitational, exhibition & challenge matches,’ he tells us. ‘The 555 figure should only be my tournament matches. But it could be between six to seven hundred matches if you include the others. Because I wasn’t losing those either!

“I used to play a lot of matches in those days. I took two months off per year. I remember during those years that to take one single day off was lucky for me. Either I was playing a tournament or I was playing exhibition matches & travelling as well.”

The toll of playing so many matches in this era was lessened by virtue of the fact that he was never given a proper examination. It is a quite remarkable statistic, then, that between 1981 & 1987, only eight players were able to steal a game off Jahangir.

He thus dominated in a sport, at the highest level, which is a mixture of skill, speed, tactical awareness, & requires a wide range of shots incorporating power & touch, using each when called for.

Players need to possess the nimbleness of a dancer to master difficult footwork patterns around the court, the fitness & stamina of a marathon runner, & the ability of a boxer to soak up the punishment & push through the pain barrier in matches that can often last more than two hours. To achieve all this requires hours of training every day.

“Squash at the very highest level is probably one of the most perverse exercises ever devised,’ Barrington once said in the Eighties. He also coined the phrase ‘boxing with rackets’.

Jahangir had a simple but all-consuming motivation. Honouring the promise he made to his family in memory of his late brother, he was prepared to put in more work than any other squash player in history. Everything he did, he dedicated to Torsam. He willingly absorbed the workload as he learned how to master every challenge thrown his way.

Although still a teenager, Jahangir bestrode the game of squash like a colossus, living up to the name bestowed upon him at birth.

His gentlemanly conduct & unbeaten streak continued unabated, as bludgeoning success in the early Eighties turned him into a one-man brand marketing machine. Jahangir endorsed countless products & he became the sport’s first - & only - squash millionaire.

Tellingly, his quiet, humble manner remained the same.

Some may differ but many players of the time paint Jahangir, or ‘JK’ as he is also known by friends & former professionals, as the best squash player of all time.

Perhaps sportsperson, too. His record, his story & history he created, go some way towards reflecting this.

Throughout his record-breaking career, Jahangir Khan used & was synonymous with only one brand: UNSQUASHABLE.

Professional Squash Association (PSA) vote Jahangir Khan greatest squash player of all time
Jahangir Khan’s remarkable & record-breaking career spanned 14 years. Through courage, determination & personal sacrifice, Jahangir Khan overcame personal tragedy to dominate his sport, setting the bar so high, precious few others have come close, never mind surpass his achievements.

Through a far-reaching poll conducted by the Professional Squash Association (PSA), squash fans from around the world have recognised the Pakistani’s extraordinary achievements by voting him the greatest men’s player of all time.

Jahangir Khan Honoured at 8th Asian Awards with Outstanding Achievement in Sport Award
Record-breaking squash player Jahangir Khan, who won 555 consecutive competitive matches joined the likes of Sachin Tendulkar, Mutiah Muralitharan & MS Dhoni in receiving the honour of Outstanding Achievement in Sport Award at the 8th edition of the Asian Awards staged at London Hilton, Park Lane.

The Asian Awards returned for its 8th edition on Friday 27th April 2018 to honour some of the world’s most outstanding & highest achieving individuals. The Asian Awards is a pioneering event that has quickly evolved into the most prestigious global acknowledgement of pan-Asian success across all walks of life, emphasising inspiring accomplishments & highlighting international role models in the fields of business, sport, entertainment, philanthropy & popular arts & culture.

This year The Asian Awards in partnership with Payswiff honoured Jahangir Khan with the Outstanding Achievement in Sport Award. Born in Karachi, Pakistan, Jahangir Khan became World Amateur Squash Champion at the age of just 15 years old & it was just the start of a record-breaking professional career. Khan’s career reads like a record book. He became the youngest ever World Open champion at 17, going on to win a total of six times; he was the first player to win an Open without a single loss; he played the second longest match in squash history & was unbeaten in 555 consecutive matches over 5 years & 8 months. In the words of Time Magazine, ‘if winning is everything, then Khan is the greatest.’

Paul Sagoo, Founder of The Asian Awards, said: “The Asian Awards is an event which honours exceptional individuals who have captured the attention of the world. The achievements of Jahangir Khan are a true marvel in sporting history. Jahangir dominated the game of Squash in the 1980’s & his legacy is one which will be remembered for decades to come. An incredible unbeaten run of 555 matches is a feat which any professional athlete in the world would find tough to match, with countless titles to add. We are delighted to welcome Jahangir Khan to the 8th Asian Awards to celebrate his illustrious career & honour him with the Outstanding Achievement in Sport Award.”

The Outstanding Achievement in Sport Award has previously been won by legendary cricketers Sachin Tendulkar, Mutiah Muralitharan, MS Dhoni & Kumar Sangakkara as well as Premier League footballer Son Heung-Min & world snooker champion Ding Junhui.

The Asian Awards was founded in 2010 to celebrate the outstanding achievements & excellence of pan-Asians across the globe. This year’s event was hosted once again by comic genius, & winner of the 2015 Outstanding Achievement in Television award, Sanjeev Bhaskar.

The event was attended by politicians, dignitaries, celebrities, industrialists & influencers from across all sectors. Previous winners include, Bruce Lee, Zayn Malik, Shah Rukh Khan, AR Rahman, Sachin Tendulkar, Jack Ma, Dr Amar Bose, Sir David Tang, Freddie Mercury, Kunal Nayyar & the late Ahmed Kathrada.

Hashim Khan: was the inaugural force in squash's 'Khan Dynasty' & Pakistan’s first national hero
The world of squash paid tribute to Hashim Khan, the father figure of modern squash, who passed away on the 18th August 2014, just a month after celebrating what was believed to be his 100th birthday.

Born near Peshawar in Pakistan, allegedly on the 1st July 1914 (although he never had a birth certificate), the legendary Pakistani led his country's pre-eminent status in the sport in the 20th century.

In the 1950s Hashim won a then record seven British Open titles, his first in 1951 at an age when most players retire, before moving to the USA in the 1960s where he was based at the Denver Athletic Club & still dispensing advice from the gallery after he finally hung up his rackets aged 93.

"The world just lost the greatest player of all time," Mo Khan, the youngest of Khan's 12 children told Pakistan News International. "He's going to be remembered for his sportsmanship & for what a wonderful man he was. He loved his family first & loved the game of squash & everyone that played the game. He was one of a kind."

World Squash Federation N Ramachandran added: "After a wonderfully long & active life we are now left with memories of a great champion, a great man who has made a wonderful contribution to squash. Hashim's passing has taken somebody so special from us. As we remember him we send our condolences & best wishes to his family at this very sad time."

The Professional Squash Association (PSA) also paid tribute to Hashim Khan who was considered by many to have been one of the most talented players ever to set foot on a squash court.

"Hashim Khan was a pioneer during his career & remained one of the most charismatic individuals in the sport throughout his lifetime," said PSA Chief Operating Officer Lee Beachill. "He was an inspiring character who was admired by all players & the catalyst behind Pakistan's domination of world squash from the 1950s through to the end of Jansher Khan's era in the late 1990s. His charm will be sorely missed."

The inaugural force in squash's 'Khan Dynasty', Hashim leaves a remarkable legacy having dominated the sport during his heyday before watching brother Azam (4), cousin Roshan (1) & nephew Mohibullah (1) claim further British Open titles before Jahangir & Jansher Khan continued that domination through to the 1990s.

Hashim Khan, the first national hero of Pakistan, added a level of athleticism & competitive intensity, as well as a charisma & charm that contributed significantly to the professional development of the sport throughout the world & to many was a remarkable champion & an extraordinary man.

Japan issues commemorative stamp to celebrate Jahangir Khan's career
The Japanese government has paid tribute to squash legend Jahangir Khan by issuing commemorative stamp in his name.

According to sources in the Japanese government, Jahangir will also soon be invited to their country where an event would be organised to celebrate his success.

The squash legend is famed for winning 555 matches, which is a record yet to be broken.   During his career as a professional squash player, Jahangir won the World Open six times & the British Open a record ten times.

In 1981, aged just 17 years-of-age, Jahangir became the youngest winner of the World Open, beating Australia's Geoff Hunt in final. That tournament also marked the start of an unbeaten run, which lasted for five years & 555 matches which finally came to end in the final of the World Open in 1986 in France when he lost to Ross Norman.

In his book Winning Squash, Jahangir Khan mentions how his future was brushed aside in the beginning.

“I was told I would never become world champion. I was the youngest, smallest, feeblest & sickest of the family,” he writes in the book. “Neither the doctor nor my father believed there was any chance for me to become a good squash player.”