'My aim is to get squash into Olympics'

HE was the undisputed King of Squash and reigned for over a decade.

S. R. SURYANARAYAN

"Sports is the best way to develop communication and friendship. I think we should not spoil that. We have a lot of feelings for Indian players and I think it should be the same for them too. We support each other," says Jehangir Khan. — Pics. K. GAJENDRAN-

HE was the undisputed King of Squash and reigned for over a decade. The aura around him was unbelievable but Jehangir Khan, the maestro, orginally from Peshawar, deserved every bit of the adulation he received for his incredible achievement — 10 consecutive British Open wins (from 1981 to 90) and six World Open titles. In addition, at his peak, he was unbeaten at one stretch in over 600 matches in a period of five years and near eight months to give a new dimension to human endeavour and resilience. For a long time he was associated with the record of playing the longest squash match (2 hrs, 46 mts) against Egypt's Gamal Awad in a Chichester event in Scotland. It is said Awad, after losing 1-3 in that final, decided to quit the sport! In any other sport, Jehangir Khan would have been spoken of as a demi-God. May be it is in Pakistan, where he still is a celebrity. But what is amazing and perhaps less heard is his almost-shattering childhood. Few know that Jehangir was born with a hernia and also disabilities in hearing and speech. If surgeons did wonders on him then the child repaid it to turn a superstar in later years in his chosen sport and add a golden chapter to his family legacy. After all, his father, Roshan Khan was himself a former British Open champion. Here are excerpts of an interview Jehangir or `JK' to his friends, presently President, World Squash Championship, gave to The Sportstar.

Question: Jehangir, your achievements in squash are mind-boggling. Can you tell us how it all began?

Answer: I was born with a hernia and I had a hearing problem and also could not talk till 7 or 8 years of age. My family was worried about my future. Besides, I was physically very weak, so much so the doctors felt I cannot take hard work and should not be pushed into squash. Two operations were needed, one at age five and the other at 12 to put me on the road to recovery. When I started to talk and began hearing, thanks to the surgery, my schooling started. My family still wondered if I would ever take up squash, considering the family links with this sport. My father was the 1957 British Open champion and my brother Torsem was a top-ranked player in the world. But I wanted to play and, taking a small racket, used the garage area and verandahs for my initial association with the sport. Then I used to wait for the summer vacation to plead with Torsem to get my father agree to my going to the squash club where he was coaching. My father told me that I could go but not to the court. Giving my assurance I played outside the court area but was eyeing always for a chance to enter the court. The second operation at 12 made me ready for regular play in the court though without my father's permission. As it happened, one day my father caught me red-handed but not to punish me but to tell me that he liked the way I played and looked at my hands to say I was quite talented. But still his worry was whether I would be able to stand up to the physical demands. Emboldened now, I told him I was feeling perfectly fine and on that assurance began the story.

So, do you say that was the turning point?

I was the national junior champion (U-19) when I was 14. Prior to that in the state tournament in Karachi even as a 12 or 13-year-old I had reached the semi-final in the junior championship. I was in the national team for the Sweden World championship in 1978 (unofficial) and I remember playing in the singles final. I lost but that loss certainly inspired me to do better the next time.

When did you get that fire in the belly, the feeling that `I should be the best in the world'?

I think it came from my brother, Torsem. He was 12 years elder to me but more a friend, guide and philosopher. He was the one who was keen to see me come up and trained me for that. He even took me to England for studies and for improving my squash. However, unfortunately he died at this crucial juncture in Australia. I was 15 years then and had just become the World Amateur champion in Australia. I had gone there for training under Pakistan International Airlines' auspices and then I entered this tournament, came up the qualifying rounds and went on to beat several seeded players before downing England's Philip Kenny, who was the World number two then, for the title. My brother, delighted at my progress, wanted me to turn professional and it was around this time that he passed away. I was in London and was shattered. I even thought of quitting and getting back home. But my family members dissuaded me. "It was his (Torsem's) wish to make you World number one. You must realise it for him," they dinned into me. That was the inspiration and all my achievements were for him and my family members. In two years time, I had won the World Open, beating Geoff Hunt.

Incredible progress, but you certainly had gone through enough sacrifices.

I had set my goal and worked day and night. In the beginning it was tough. I was missing my brother and my family. Then Rehmat, my cousin (currently the Pakistan national coach) joined me to basically help me remain focussed. Whatever I did then was for him. Only now when I look back I realise how much I have gone through in my early life.

Then the winning streak began. How did you sustain the pressure of winning?

I certainly did not go into a match expecting to win but do my best in keeping with my preparations. Yes, I had trained hours together to keep myself fit, for, it is my belief that unless you are able to reach the ball, you cannot do what you want with the ball. I think, from what I have seen in present day players, it will be difficult for anyone good to remain at the helm for more than three or four months at one stretch. I do not know but perhaps they do not work as hard as we did in our times or the confidence level is not that high.

And when you finally lost, did that prove a bit of a setback?

Well I lost to Ross Norman in the 1987 World Open at Toulouse. Yes, it was depressing but I was again unbeaten for another nine months thereafter.

What was the rivalry between you and Jansher Khan?

Just a media creation. As the leading players then, we enjoyed a healthy rivalry but beyond that there was nothing. We are good friends. He has beaten me and I have beaten him. That settled the argument. Rest you can judge from the record of achievements.

After your grand career, normally one would have imagined a horde of top players would have been inspired to follow in your footsteps. What went wrong in Pakistan?

There was no plan or system then. It was just the interest of one family and one generation giving it to the next. I was inspired by my father and so on. Then again those days players were determined to excel. They worked hard unmindful of the pain or sacrifice. Things are changing for the better now. Rehmat Khan has been given the job and the results are showing. Pakistan won the team title in the Chennai World championship after a gap of 20 years.

You were so much into squash but did you sacrifice your education too?

Yes, I went to England to continue studies but had to give up. I had no choice. Turning a professional meant it was a full time job. Then I had my responsibility to my family and do something for my nation. So I had to sacrifice studies.

Having reached such a status, how was the treatment in your country?

Oh, I was a hero. They (Government) had supported me since childhood. My performance started when I was 13 or 14 and continued till I retired at 29. The media too boosted my morale. I have won every award including the nation's highest. A postage stamp was also brought out in recognition of my achievements.

But aren't the cricketers getting a greater mileage?

Much of it is media creation. I am happy when they do well for which they deserve recognition. But I have no problem. When there is a talk of top sports personalities, my name gets mentioned. I feel lucky that my name is there along with Imran Khan's.

But you did not want to join politics like him?

No, never. I do not have that in me.

When you left the scene, was it of your own volition or was the pressure getting too much?

On my own. I did not think I had anything more to achieve. At the time of my retirement I was still in good touch, having played in the final of the 1993 World Open in Karachi. I lost to Jansher. I had captained Pakistan then. Six months before that itself I had planned to quit but I was asked to continue by the Government because they wanted me to help Pakistan win the team title before the home crowd.

You did not think of coaching after your playing career?

I did not have the time. I was into administration. Besides, I thought I did not have the patience for the job then. Yes, I used to give tips. In any case I have not closed the option totally. May be some day...

Before becoming the WSF President, your experience and what are your plans ahead?

I was a vice-president in the Pakistan Squash Federation. Later, I became the VP in WSF and now this. I am enjoying the new role. Yes, there is much to be done. Not all countries are involved. The task is for more interaction. In Asia, for instance, just four or five countries are actively involved. We must activate countries such as Nepal and Bangladesh. Then again get squash into the Olympics. It is now in Asian Games and Commonwealth Games.

We talk of modern facilities now as a way to raise the sport. What was the scene in Pakistan in your time?

We had facilities though some of the current glass-walled courts are only now making their appearance in Pakistan. Besides, we had a lot of tournaments then thanks to PIA. Top players such as Barrington, Hunt, Dittmar among others would take part. So, there was top squash and involvement from our players.

What are your other interests?

I used to play cricket for my school and played reasonably well. I was good with both the bat and ball. I was a fast bowler. Even now I do not miss charity matches. I like the game and it is my belief that anyone who excels in racket game will do well in most other sports.

What do you think about India and the country having sporting ties with Pakistan?

I feel quite at home here. Everything looks the same. The people, culture, the language, well every aspect. I think a lot of Pakistanis are keen to visit India and see places. I am sure there will be many Indians too wishing to visit my country. At this level there is no rift between the two countries. I do not know why, when it comes to sports, there is problem. Sports is the best way to develop communication and friendship. I think we should not spoil that. We have a lot of feelings for Indian players and I think it should be the same for them too. We support each other.

One last question. What is your advice to budding squash players?

Start at 10 or 12, go to the right place for training. It is necessary to start right and equip yourself best. And then keep realistic targets. The first task is to excel at the junior level by age 16 or so and by 18 or 19 try to reach the top level. I am happy with the way the Indian juniors have come up. I am sure if in a few more tournaments they can keep their performance high then surely that should augur well for the future.