Hashim Khan learned to play squash barefoot in what is now Pakistan and broke class and racial barriers to become a seven-time world champion in the 1950s, a record that stood for more than a generation, and helped launch a family dynasty of players.
He was an unlikely master of the sport. He grew up in India during the prime of the Raj, in what became after Partition the north-west frontier region of Pakistan. At first glance he was unintimidating: 5ft 4in, balding and stocky, with a protruding belly that Prince Philip remarked on when they met. And he was approaching an age when most squash players are retiring, his late thirties, when he began his remarkable run of victories at the British Open, the sport’s blue riband event.
Khan triumphed seven times at the competition between 1951 and 1958, shocking the squash elite, vastly broadening the game’s appeal and cementing his reputation as the fiercest competitor in the world for years to come. He was the undisputed leader of a squash empire that included his brother, Azam, whom he brought into the sport as his training partner, and his son Sharif, who won a dozen North American Open titles. Other relatives such as Roshan Khan and nephew Mohibullah Khan were respected players. Another distant relation, Jahangir Khan, won the British Open 10 times. In all, the “Khan Dynasty” collected more than 20 British Open titles.
“Within the game, he was an iconic player, arguably the greatest player ever,” said James Zug, a leading historian of the sport. In Pakistan, Khan became a folk hero and a symbol of national pride soon after the bloody partition from India. Likening him to baseball’s Jackie Robinson, Zug said that Khan, who also won major titles in the US and elsewhere and became a coach in Detroit and Denver, “broke a lot of barriers for a sport that for that time in the US was an elite country-club sport. Here was this guy who was a Muslim, from Asia, and hanging out with white players off the court and working at their clubs. That was a watershed moment for the game of squash and in American society.”
The eldest of four siblings, Hashim Khan was believed to have been born in 1914, or as early as 1910, in Nawakille, near the north-western city of Peshawar. The family never had a birth certificate, but his birthday was later celebrated every 1 July. His father, chief steward at a British officer’s club in Peshawar, brought the eight-year-old to the outdoor squash courts where military men relaxed.
He was soon acting as ball-boy, and when the Brits took refuge from the midday sun he would step on to the court – shoeless, as he would play for much of his early career. He was 11 when his father died in a car accident, and Khan left school to work full-time as a ball boy and court cleaner. “For sweeping the place, they paid me four annas a day,” he recalled in 1957. “One anna is a 16th part of a rupee. Five rupees equals one American dollar.”
He was apprenticed for five years under an assistant pro at the club, and quickly improved. “Now some British officers watch me in courts .. and they begin to say, ‘Give me a game, please, Hashim,’” he recalled in Squash Racquets: The Khan Game, a 1967 book he wrote with Richard Randall that captured Khan’s idiosyncratic speech. “I am delighted.”
A turning point came in 1943 when a man walked into the club and asked to play with a pro. When Khan offered, the man laughed at him until Khan offered to give the stranger a 50-point handicap – meaning that Khan had to score 59 points and the other man only nine. “Where do I change clothes?” the man said sternly, before being trounced by Khan. He turned out to be a Bombay bank manager and the city’s second-ranked amateur player.
The next year Khan began a run of wins at the All-of-India championship in Bombay. Khan, who was tigerish about spotting weaknesses in opponents, recounted in Squash Racquets how he surprised his hardest opponent, Adbul Bari, a reigning champion with a killer drop shot: “Bari had best soft shot I see anywhere. This is how he makes points. But I am light like a fly, 112lb only, and never before does he see me run. I watch close. When I see him start with wrist to make that drop shot, that moment I am on way to front. He thinks I am never in time, he relaxes. Abdul Bari is relaxing when I reach and stroke and put that ball away.”
He was in his late thirties when the Pakistan Air Force sponsored him for the 1951 British Open. It marked the first time he had worn shoes on the court. At the age when many players retire, he beat the world champion, Mahmoud El Karim of Egypt, 9-5, 9-0, 9-0.
“My game is simple at this time,” he wrote. “I drive very hard and low, cross court, and sometimes I play soft drop shots, that is all. But speed on my feet, I have this, I can get to ball. Also, I think fast. When I am up front in court, and El Karim tries to pass me with a ball, sometimes I surprise him: I do not run after that ball to back, I leap out and get that ball in front.
“Ball is going very fast yes, but I see that ball clear, I have time to think about this ball and where I must leap and where I must place it ... I know what I do, and I give thanks for this gift, fast thinking.” Khan won the British open six more times, a record that stood until the Australian Geoff Hunt won eight by 1981 and Jahangir Khan won 10 by 1991.
In the 1960s he moved to Detroit to coach at the Uptown Athletic Club. A decade later he became a pro at the Denver Athletic Club, helping make both sporting centres well-known venues outside the dominant Ivy League squash circuit on the East Coast.
Khan, who had only stopped playing in the past decade, spent much of his career playing exhibition games and running clinics worldwide. In a New Yorker profile, Herbert Warren Wind concluded, “The more I think about it the more convinced I am that the greatest athlete for his age the world has ever seen may well be Hashim Khan.”
Hashim Khan, squash player: born c. 1914; married Mehria Begum (five daughters, and three daughters deceased, seven sons, and one son deceased); died 18 August 2014.
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