Azam Khan: an accountant with the instinct of a murderer
The Covid-19 pandemic is like war. Among the many he says: jazz musicians, great saxophones, working-class actors, forgotten athletes, most are reduced to a footnote, to be mourned when the smoke clears and the world begins to pick up the pieces. So it was when the news came that Azam Khan he had succumbed to the virus in a London hospital last week. He was 95 years old.
Azam Khan was a legend of Pakistan squash, a true great in an overcrowded array of Pakistani squash Masters Described as the Accountant, by most estimates, Azam was the best player on the tight court and the tightest corners. But, as the old sports joke says, he may not even have been the best player in his own family.
A February 2019 article in the UK-based web magazine DESIblitz.com quotes former international Johan Barrington from his 1982 book, Murder in Squash Court: If Hashim were the most devastating savage of the great Khans , and Roshan the most beautiful stroke player, Azam would have been the little accountant, methodically organizing all parts of the game, having everything under close analysis, nothing out of place. He was totally silent on the court, like a little bird.
These names were from family. Hashim Khan , was Azam’s brother, 11 years his senior. A squash Hafeez Qardar of sorts, Hashim is generally considered as the pioneer of the sport as Pakistan would dominate the sport for almost nearly half a century from late 1950 onwards. Roshan Khan was a second cousin. Roshan’s son was one Jahangir Khan .
“There was also Mohibullah Khan Senior, he was Hashim and Azam’s nephew,” Jahangir tells TOI from Karachi. “Together these four men ruled world squash in the '50s and the laid the groundwork for me and Jansher,” says the man, a six-time world champion and record 10-time British Open winner, and one who is generally be regarded as greatest squash player of all time.
They all come from the village of Nawa Kille Payan, on the outskirts of the city of Peshawar. “We are a great family: brothers, uncles, cousins. And we are Pashtuns, we do not leave anything easy that we are looking for, Jahangir laughs at the semi-professional era and the great rivalry between the four. Four-time British Open champion, Azam's streak from 1959 to 1962 also boasts of a 9-1, 9-0, very unilateral score of 9-0 over Roshan Khan for his first title. Oh, my waab Saab had a bad knee that season, Jahangir dismisses the question about his father, but Barrington offers an idea of what that might have been. He (Azam) was incredibly efficient ... constantly absorbing you in situations that were impossible to get out of, he writes in his book.
Jahangir is effusive about Azam’s legacy. “He was the leading light in putting Pakistan on the sporting map of the world. What’s more, the situations he overcame, the facilities they had in those days, to do what he did is simply phenomenal. Raising money to travel abroad was very difficult. Going to England was like scaling a mountain back then. Yet, these men persisted, ”adds Jahangir. So close were the rivalries and so hotly followed that the famous 1959 final verdict caused anger among spectators for it’s extremely brief duration, many of whom had barely settled in their seats when it was already over. Pakistan media remembers how organizers had to hastily devise a third-place play off to placate the spectators. It gave an indication of Pakistan’s love for squash and the adulation for Pakistani squash stars.
Squash in Pakistan was a British army hand me down. Centered around the cantonment culture in Peshawar, the sport grew with local boys observing the officers playing the game. Remember, they all began as ball boys either in tennis or squash. They would watch the British officers play and carried the game to our homes, to our villages. ” Originally a tennis player, Azam switched to squash at the advice of his older brother. Money was meager and Azam Khan himself left his employment as ‘electrician’ - Rs 100 per month - in the Pakistan Air Force since he was demoted to ‘porter’, subsequently to move to the UK as coach at New Grampians Club. Azam’s personal legacy continued in the form of granddaughter Carla who was top British pro in the 2000s.
Despite family familiarity, Jahangir may not have felt the need for a deeper understanding of Azam. He belonged to my father's age group, so as kids we stayed away, remember, but yes, I would see him at every British Open. He was a regular character there since he moved to London in 1956. We would also visit his club in London's Shepherd’s Bush. I heard it closed a while ago.
It was the other, the “outsider,” however, who recalls Azam more fondly. A second-generation squash player, the Peshawar-born Jansher is not related to the Khans from Nawa Kille Payan, but feels a closer affinity to Azam. “I learnt how to grip the racquet from him,” he tells TOI, recalling how he met Azan for the first time in 1984 when he had come for the junior British Open. “He always had a tip or two whenever we would go for the British Open. He was always there.
I remember he'd told me, 'Jansher if you're not 100% fit you cannot succeed in squash.' It was a strange thing to say because his game was usually so tactical, but I hung on to it all through my career. I decided that if I ever lost in squash, it would not be due to my opponent being fitter to me. When I beat Jahangir for the first time in 1987, I realized it was because I was more fit and could last longer in the long games. His tip worked, ”says the eight-time world champion.