The day even the great Jahangir Khan fell to earth in the most famous match in squash history

November 11 2016

Thirty years ago today, Toulouse played host to the most famous match in squash history. Is that an oxymoron? The sport has regressed since its 1980s heyday. But Jahangir Khan, the defeated party on Nov 11, 1986, was a towering figure. “If winning is everything,” wrote Time magazine in 2006, “then Khan is the greatest.”

Simon Briggs

Jahangir Khan's numbers place him in that rare class of athlete, along with Don Bradman & Ed Moses, who might as well have come from a different planet.

"He lifted the level of squash by 15 to 20 per cent, which is unusual," says Ross Norman, the victor on that historic day. “Roger Federer did the same for tennis, but maybe by five or ten per cent.”

Great as Federer is, he never posted an unbeaten season. Whereas Jahangir, whose very name means "conqueror", went from the spring of 1981 to the winter of 1986 without losing a match. In the intervening five-and-a-half years, he is supposed to have taken down 555 opponents, although the squash records of the time were patchy. So when he did finally fall in the final of the World Open, the result created global headlines. Not that everyone was accurate: the News at Ten listed the victor as Norman Ross.

Ross Norman’s triumph concluded a classic narrative arc, which – if only squash translated better to the screen - could have been a movie script.

He started his career as a dilettante, chancing his racket in the British amateur tournaments, & taking time out to go skiing or surfing. Even after turning pro, he was happy just to have a car & a house. Life was comfortable.

The switch, for Ross Norman, came through a parachuting accident in 1983. He ripped the ligaments off his left kneecap, & was told he might never walk without a limp. Within a couple of months, though, he was back on court. His career was not just saved, but revitalised by the threat of premature retirement. His once superficial training schedule became super-charged.

According to one fellow professional, “He out-Jahangired Jahangir.”

That day in Toulouse, Norman matched his opponent physically & outdid him for sheer desire. He surged home by a 9-5 9-7 7-9 9-1 scoreline – his only victory in 30 meetings with Jahangir.

How did Jahangir reign for so long? The attritional nature of squash militates against upsets. In a sport that might throw up 80 shots in a rally, & 80 rallies in a match, a fractional superiority in pace, accuracy or fitness will tell over the long haul. Close matches turn into tests of willpower. Rahman Khan, Jahangir's cousin & coach, compared them to boxing bouts where the bruises are on the inside.

So motivation was the key to this story. If Ross Norman found his mojo after that parachute crash, Jahangir Khan was driven on by an even more traumatic experience. In 1979, his older brother Torsam suffered a fatal heart attack on the court.

"It made me stronger & more dedicated to the mission," Jahangir told the authors of the new book 555. "It wasn't purely for myself. I was doing it for someone I loved."

Jahangir Khan might have lost that day to Ross Norman, but he played at an even higher level for the next year or two, finally retiring in 1993 with a record 10 British Open titles. For squash's ultimate conqueror, Torsam's memory was a light that never went out.

Is the 1986 World Open final between Jahangir Khan & Ross Norman the greatest ever final?
In the midst of the greatest winning streak in professional sport, Jahangir Khan, the iconic superstar from Pakistan, had won five World Championships back-to-back to assert his dominance on the sport & had beaten New Zealand’s Ross Norman to the title in 1985.

However, Ross Norman believed: “One day Jahangir will be slightly off his game & I will get him,” & his infamous words came true in the final of the 1986 World Championship when his 9-5 9-7 7-9 9-1 victory ended the Karachi-born legend’s 555-match winning streak in what is arguably the most significant World Championship victories ever.In an enthralling final, the New Zealander countered everything Jahangir Khan threw at him & even claimed the fourth game by a remarkable 9-1 margin to win his only World Championship crown & go down in the history books as the man who ended Khan’s unparalleled streak – one of the greatest ever seen in sport.