Part One of the two part article on Azam Khan
Greatest of them all?
The least-acclaimed of all the great squash
Khans, Azam migh have been the greatest of them all, claims Ijaz Chaudhry in
part one of a two-part article.
“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.”
two years of Hashim’s bidding, Azam was ready to take on the best in the
Force raised the funds for a trip to Britain through exhibition matches in
various bases. My first competition there was the British Professional
Championship, where I defeated the British no.1 in the semis and lost to my
brother in the final. Despite this, the Squash Rackets Association [now
England Squash] was reluctant to allow me to enter the British Open of 1953.
pushed into a ‘trial’ match against the British no.1, which I won easily.
Even then I was not given a seeding and I had to face the no.2 seed in the
first match. I dispatched him in three straight games and progressed to the
semi-final, only to lose again to my elder brother.”
But Azam Khan had arrived on the world squash scene, and the very next year he reached the final of the British Open for the first time, losing to ... who else but Hashim. And the 1955 final was a replica of the previous year’s.
point, British newspapers started running headlines such as ‘Family Affair’.
So in next two Opens we were kept in the same half of the draw and came face
to face in the semi-finals.”
According to Azam, Nusrullah Khan, who was holding office at the SRA, played an important part in this arrangement. “Thus Nusrullah helped his brother Roshan to progress to the final of both the 1956 and the 1957 Opens, where he faced Hashim. A ‘just draw’ was restored in 1958 and Hashim beat me 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.
“The most memorable of those four triumphs was that of 1960. I trounced Roshan Khan [a distant relative] 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.”
other repercussions. 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.
at the peak of his powers 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. Azam then had to retire from competitive squash
due to an Achilles tendon injury. The injury healed in 18 months but he
never returned to the circuit.
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.”
a brief interlude – and it was in the land of his birth. “I was on a private
visit to Pakistan in late 1963 when the Pakistan Squash Federation [PSF]
invited me to play in the National Championships. On their insistence, I
reluctantly agreed. I had remained crippled by the injury to my foot for
about a year and a half and not only was completely out of practice but also
found it painful to play. Moreover, I hadn’t played on cement courts for
several years. I still managed to win the final, overcoming Roshan Khan, who
was ranked in the world’s top three at the time. A few days later, I also
won the Pakistan Open, again defeating Roshan in the final.”
in England in 1956. Since then, I’ve been to Pakistan off and on. My last
visit was in 2000, when I was invited to a function organised by the PSF to
honour Jahangir Khan.”
Why did he leave Pakistan?
I was a coach in the Pakistan Air Force, I’d been employed as a porter, with
a monthly salary of 60 rupees (equivalent to five British pence at the
current exchange rate). 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.
said, the Air Force only provided us with a return ticket; during my stay
abroad, I had to take care of my own board and lodging. And unlike these
days, there were very few tournaments which offered prize money. Principal
among them were British Open, the British Professional, the Scottish Open
and a few hardball tournaments in the USA and Canada. So it was difficult to
I 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.
wasn’t in good health and in 1957 he asked me to take over the club. I
didn’t have the financial resources to buy the club, so he asked me to pay
in instalments over a period of five years. That’s how I became to own the
Azam’s association with the club is more than half a century old. And during
this period it has been associated with the emergence of several outstanding
person who halted the Khan era in British Open history, in 1964, was a
product of this club. Mike Oddy of Scotland ousted the defending champion
Mohibullah Khan in the semi-final, thus achieving the distinction of being
the first Briton since 1953 to reach the final – which he lost to Abou Taleb.”
The club is also linked with the development of arguably the greatest squash player Britain has ever produced – a story that sheds light on what Azam might have achieved had he continued with his squash career. Read it in Part 2 of this article, coming soon.