Sportsman of the Millennium - Ian McKenzie reports
It was a remarkable gathering in Karachi, Pakistan in March when Jahangir Khan received the PIA's 'Sportsman of the Millennium' award. Some people may say that Jahangir had won enough awards but this was special and an appropriate occasion to reflect on one of the most outstanding achievements in the history of sport.
Top sportsmen from around the world flew in to honour Jahangir. The 'father of the modern game' Hashim Khan flew in from Denver, Hashim's brother Azim and former world champion Ross Norman from London, Chris Dittmar from Adelaide in Australia, where he is now working as a sports presenter, Rahmet Khan, Jahangir's cousin and his former coach, came from Bombay, where his movie star wife is based. From Pakistan came Qamar Zaman, a former British Open champion, Jahangir's father Roshan, and their outstanding hockey players and cricketers, Imran Khan, Javier Minaad, Wasim Akram, Waker Younis and Zahweer Abbas, to name a few.
Pakistan is a new country, born on 14th August 1947, which is keen to establish its identity and rightly proud of its sporting achievements. Pakistan cricketers have been outstanding and in the one-day game won the World Cup in 1992 and reached the final in 1999. The hockey team has collected two Olympic golds and won the World Cup in 1982 and 1994.
"They have done so much in these games for a new country," says Jahangir of his country's sportsmen. "And our squash players have won the British Open for 30 out of 50 years and the World Open 14 times. Not a bad record for a country like Pakistan. It is important for us - not just for national prestige but for identity."
He went on to explain that in Pakistan when you are successful internationally you are honoured by your country and often rewarded by the PIA and the government. An award is not just an honour for the recipient but a celebration (and perhaps a congratulation) for the whole country - but is it not like that everywhere?
Jahangir explained: "Being a third world country it is important for us to get a good name internationally. People are proud of that. You are doing something big in the world."
Jahangir has received awards before. In a civil award he received land from the government in Islamabad and in 1984 he appeared on a Pakistani postage stamp used for international letters. He has also received three government awards: the 'President's Award' given to him by General Zia, the 'Pride of Performers' award given to internationally successful sportsmen and artists, and the civil award 'Hilal-e-Imtiaz' awarded by president Ghlam Isay which Imran Khan is the only other sportsman to have received.
The millennium award was given by the PIA, one of the main institutions in Pakistan, with government sanctioning. Now, with what is reputedly a benign military government, the PIA comes under the Ministry of Defence and the Minister of Defence is the President of Pakistan.
"I was chosen to receive this honour because of the record I have in squash and because of what I have done for the country," explained Jahangir.
The good and great of squash and Pakistani sport assembled in the conference room at the Marriott Hotel and the cricket commentator Henry Bloefeld addressed them and live TV audiences in Pakistan and Asia. The former champions and Mike Corby, representing the WSF, were introduced on stage.
A short film was played showing some of the highlights of Jahangir's career including coverage of his World Amateur title win over Phil Kenyon.
"Wonderful," exclaimed Bloefeld. "It makes me quite out of breath just watching it. Has anyone hit a squash ball quite so ferociously?"
Jahangir entered to a standing ovation, Bloefeld continued with a brief homily and Hashim Khan was asked to present the special trophy to Jahangir.
Jahangir spoke briefly, thanking his family and the PIA for its support, and the guest sportsmen were interviewed.
This special millennium award was the brainchild of PIA MD and Chief Executive Officer Arif Ali Khan Abbassi. He is a keen sportsman himself, a first class cricketer and former Chief Executive of the Pakistan Cricket Board. With the award he wanted to show not just what Jahangir had achieved but what Pakistan and the PIA had achieved.
The PIA is a remarkable institution supporting sport - perhaps in some ways the Pakistani version of an institute of sport. It supports many of Pakistan's top sportsmen and, when they finish their sporting careers, they often find a job within the organisation - perhaps at the airport or in the head office. For example Jahangir Khan is General Manger of Sports, and the Director of Customer Services is Wasim Bari, the player who took seven catches in New Zealand to set a test record.
The PIA was instrumental in Jahangir's career from the beginning and four people are credited with recognising his talent and assisting him: Air Marshall Noor Khan, who started the Colt Scheme to promote squash among juniors and who also built the PIA complex, Arif Ali Khan Abbassi, Omar Kureshi, Director of PIA public relations, and the late Hassan Musa, former Head of Sport of the PIA.
The PIA could be said to have launched Jahangir's international career in 1979. He had started squash at his father's club in Karachi aged 10, playing at a local level, and first competed internationally in the unofficial 1978 World Junior Championships in Sundsvall Sweden, where he lost to the eventual winner, Australian Glen Brumby, in the semi-finals. In 1978 he played in amateur senior tournaments on the East Asian circuit in Malaysia, Singapore and the Philippines and was the Pakistan U19 champion.
He played in the next still unofficial World Junior Championships in England and lost again to Brumby, this time in the final, but Pakistan won the team event. Then the PIA sent the 15-year-old Jahangir to play in the World Amateur Championships in Australia. He was not a member of the Pakistani senior team and was entered in the qualifying tournament to gain experience. Jahangir qualified and in the first round met the impressive Swede Lars Kvant, who was then ranked in the top five in the world and had beaten everyone to win an event in Sydney the week before. Jahangir went 0/2 and 2-5 down but remarkably came back to win in five. This was the turning point for the 15 year old. He hadn't realised how good he could be before this. He hadn't felt a sense of destiny although he knew he could be a good pro.
"I practised with Torsam, Hiddy, Rahmat and Yasin and they told me I was good but I thought they were encouraging me because I was a junior," he says.
"Beating Kvant gave me confidence and the belief that I could do it. I had been thinking about the plate competition. I thought that maybe I could win it. After beating Kvant I thought maybe I could get to the quarters but I just concentrated on playing my game. It gave me strength every day and I won the title but I was surprised to win." So was the world of squash. A 15 year old had beaten the top amateurs in the sport.
The PIA's millennium award was a good time to look back on that occasion. "If the PIA hadn't sent me I would not have gone," says Jahangir. Who knows, perhaps the history of squash would have been different.
When Jahangir's brother Torsam, who was his coach and mentor, died tragically on court, his life changed. "I did it because of him. It was his aim to make me world no. 1. He said to me 'This is my last tournament. Let me go to Australia for this and then I will concentrate on you. You can do it.' He didn't come back," recalls Jahangir. "In my mind I could see him coming for me. We were very close.
"It was a shock for me. I didn't play for three or four months. But my family convinced me to try to fulfil his ambition. I promised to try. I wanted to progress as quickly as possible to show the world that I had done it. It was a responsibility to my family, my friends and my nation.
"I spent two years playing day and night. I had nothing else in my mind." In 1980 Jahangir returned to London, where he had been living with Torsam, and started working with his cousin Rahmat.
In the World Open in Adelaide Jahangir lost to the fourth seed Qamar Zaman in five games when he was seeded just 26 and was invited by Neven Barbour to play in the New Zealand Open at the Henderson Club. There he beat Gamal Awad in the semi-final and Bruce Brownlee in the final to score his first circuit win.
"I could see I was improving," he said of the win over Brownlee, the world no. 6. A month later in Karachi he beat Qamar Zaman, Mohibullah Khan and Hiddy Jahan to take the Pakistan Open title.
"I could see I was achieving something. In the British Open U23 at Wembley he beat Ross Norman and then started winning tournaments: the Belgian Open, the Dutch Open, the Poderite Open, and the Canadian Club Cup in Munich, where he beat Geoff Hunt for the first time. In the British Open he lost to Barrington in the quarters.
In 1981 Jahangir beat Geoff Hunt in a two hour 11 minute marathon at Chichester 9-6 in the fifth. In the British Open, in one of the epic matches in squash history, Geoff Hunt resurrected himself to win over four games in two hours 24 minutes, but that was the last time Jahangir was to suffer defeat for five years and eight months and more than 800 matches.
He swept all before him, applying relentless pressure and playing at a pace that no other player could live with. His work rate became legendary, his fitness indestructible, his consistency machine-like.
"I believed in training and I put in a lot of hours each day - more than the other guys so that I could stay ahead of them. I put my training into matches. I worked harder than the other guys. Mentally I was strong. I would train at what I had to do in a match. If you are winning all the time it is not easier; if you lose it is easier to be motivated. You learn what you have to do to improve.
"My whole life was organised for that performance on court. I believed that you should do your best. I worked hard for five for six years.
"My first target was to win the British Open and the World Open for my brother, my family and my nation. Then, when I was there, I wanted to stay there.
"It was not in my mind to set a record but then I realised I could equal the record [of eight British Open titles set by Geoff Hunt] and break it. I could see I was getting closer, the years were going by."
Strangely, perhaps the greatest moment of Jahangir's career and one of the landmarks in our sport was when Jahangir was finally beaten, in 1986. Jahangir winning was not news, but now the news that the player who was never beaten had fallen to New Zealand's Ross Norman in the World Open final in Toulouse found its way onto every sports desk in the world and made many main news bulletins, let alone sports bulletins.
"I knew that one day it would happen," he said. "A sportsman can't play the same every day; you can't be unbeaten for ever.
People were waiting for me to be stopped. People came to see, wondering if it would be the day that I lost. They had been waiting a long time."
Perhaps that era of total dominance practically unequalled in sport was Jahangir's greatest achievement, but there is another record - 10 consecutive British Open titles - and that too is practically unequalled in other athletic sports.
Now Jahangir works for the PIA, the company that was so instrumental in allowing his talent to flourish, and is a Vice-President of the World Squash Federation. In that role he is an ambassador for squash, travelling and promoting it around the world.
The beginning of a new millennium is a time to look back and this millennium award is a time to celebrate his achievements.
I had one last question for him. What were the personal qualities that allowed him to achieve that magnificent unbeaten run and the record 10 titles?
He mentioned three: determination, faith in hard work and ambition.
"I had the ability to do this; the talent was in my blood," he said of his achievements, "but these qualities allowed me to bring it out."