Among the pantheon of all time squash greats, there are two men that share a name. Jahangir Khan and Jansher Khan dominated the sport for the best part of two decades. During the 1980s and 1990s they won the majority of British and World Open titles between them.
I will look at their history, their rivalry, their great matches against each other, and also at their legacy which lives on to this day.
There are many questions, such as which was greater? Let’s find out.
The Khan Rilvalry – History
When Jansher Khan chucked his squash racket away for good in 2001, he officially closed the most fascinating – and possibly the most glorious chapter – in the history of professional squash. It is actually hard to imagine that there has been another sporting story quite as remarkable as the one written by Pakistani squash for half a century.
Jansher Khan, born in Peshawar 1969, is actually the outsider who meddled in another family’s affair.
That family’s patriarch was Hashim Khan, who actually competed competitively by accident. You honestly cannot script this stuff. The story goes that Hashim Khan coached in the British Army and the Pakistan Air Force.
Despite being of an advanced age – it isn’t actually clear when he was born – the officers were so impressed by Hashim Khan’s skills that they decided to club together and send him to the British Open in 1951.
Even then, nobody could possibly have known what was being started. Hashim Khan beat defending champion Mahmoud Karim in straights at his first British Open – then the most prestigious tournament in squash.
Hashim Khan Beat Karim in straights again at the 1952 Open. The next to face the fury of Khan was Roy Wilson in 1953. He went on the win the tournament four more times. A total of seven victories in eight years.
Hashim’s one defeat during that glorious period came against his cousin Roshan Khan in 1957.
During that period Hashim also beat his younger brother Azam Khan twice at the British Open – the last of those victories came in 1958, when the baton was officially handed over. Azam Khan then went on to win four British Opens between 1959 and 1962.
Azam Khan beat Roshan Khan once in those four years. All three of the other victories came against his nephew Mo Khan. As it so happens, Mo Khan would only go on to win one British Open crown – in 1963.
For the next two decades Pakistani players featured regularly in big tournament finals but it wasn’t nearly as glamorous as anything produced in the 50s and 60s. However, that ladies and gentlemen was merely the calm before the storm.
Birth Of The Khan Squash Rivalry
Between 1982 and 1997, the only name that appeared on the British Open trophy was Khan. Ten of those titles belonged to Jahangir Khan. Jansher Khan – who lost to Jahangir in two of those ten finals – went on to conquer Britain six times himself.
While the British Open still enjoyed some meaningful status in the 80s and early 90s, the emergence of the World Squash Championships in 1976 marked the beginning of a new era in the game. Between 1981 and 1996 Khan Hands were kept off the trophy just twice.
Ross Norman beat Jahangir Khan in a dramatic 1986 final, while Rodney Martin produced a similar miracle against Jahangir Khan in 1991.
Six years separate the two Great Khan’s, which is actually quite telling when we consider the Head-to-Head ratio. Jansher Khan wins that Head-to-Head 19-18. Jansher Khan also won eight of nine World Squash Championship finals.
Incidentally that one defeat came against Jahangir Khan; at Amsterdam 1988.
At first glance, there is perhaps a strong case to be made that Jansher Khan was indeed the better player.
While Jahangir Khan was still a dominant player when Jansher emerged as a squash force, it would be remiss of us to ignore the fact that the former was at the back end of his career – possibly no longer at the peak of his powers.
Any reasonable squash fan and any reasonable human being cannot ignore the sheer scale of the Jahangir Khan dominance.
Between 1981 and 1986 Jahangir Khan won 555 consecutive matches. Obviously a record.
We are talking about a man who won the World Amateur Championships aged 15, a man who won the World Squash Championship at 17, who won a World Squash Championship without losing a single game, a man who also took part in the longest match in squash history.
Do not tell me these things are not written in the stars.
The Squash Legend of Jahangir Khan
Stuart Sharp was an independent film maker from the Midlands in the United Kingdom and was drawn to the talent of Jahangir Khan at a very early stage in his career. Among his observations about the rise of the Pakistani legend was the critical role that family played in advancing his squash fortunes.
Torsam Khan, also a talented player, died on a squash court in Australia in 1979. He was just 27 years old and the brother of Jahangir Khan. Jahangir Khan was just 15 years old at the time and already dealing with his own physical and mental demons.
It has been envisaged that Torsam Khan would mentor Jahangir Khan and help him evolve into a squash world beater. Those dreams were shattered so suddenly and through a heart attack.
Cousin Rehmat Khan, who was close to Torsam, stepped in when it mattered most – despite being a prominent professional player himself. Rehmat Khan decided to quit his career and centre all of his attention a promising Jahangir Khan.
Sharp noted the incredibly close family bond, the sense of duty which was almost impossible to match. He commented that when he first saw Rehmat and Jahangir Khan working together, he recognised a unity and discipline that he has never seen in any sphere of life before. Certainly not on a squash court.
Bearing in mind that Jahangir Khan was on the verge of quitting the sport, after his brother died. Rehmat convinced that he needed to continue playing, as a tribute to his brother.
Throughout his career – and in the aftermath – experts have commented on the level of fitness that Jahangir Khan possessed. It is something that Sharp noted straight away when he spotted him.
However, beyond that, there is a kind of mental fortitude that was almost unmatched at the time. A cerebral element to Jahangir Khan’s game that often set him apart from the rest.
They say Jahangir Khan always knew what shot to play and when to play it. Any sports pundit will tell you that is half the job done, regardless of the code you are competing in. Young people – we suppose since forever – are confronted by confidence issues. They have egos that need to be stroked.
Despite eventually completing an extraordinary career, Jahangir Khan did struggle a little in the early years. He encountered some potentially defeats but Sharp remarks it is those defeats that made him the great player that he was.
The capacity to handle loss and recover from hit, combined with the capacity to accept shortcomings, analyse them and remedy them. Not everybody can do that and not everybody can do that well.
Jahangir Khan, even when he was a fully developed player, encountered a few scares along the way. His capacity to counter and triumph in the face of adversity is also the stuff of legend. His mentor, Rehmat Khan, always expressed extreme confidence in his horse.
Much is often made of the hernia troubles that Jahangir Khan encountered at a young age. The fact that he was physically weak and discouraged from competing in physical activity. In an interview with Sharp in 1982, Khan goes into some detail about how he had to defy the orders of doctors and family. Squash, as it so happens, meant that much to him. That speaks to the sense of duty he had towards his family legacy.
Geoff Hunt, also considered to be one of the greatest squash players the game has produced, has won four consecutive World Squash Championships before the Jahangir Khan phenomenon happened.
He was also the first player to lose to Jahangir Khan in a World Squash Championship final. Hunt said Jahangir Khan was rare in that he always played fair, even though he was hard and tough. He marvelled at the outstanding attitude that Jahangir Khan and attributed a considerable amount of it to the work of mentor Rehmat Khan.
The Squash Legend of Jansher Khan
While at face value there appears to be overwhelming evidence that Jahangir Khan was the better player, it is impossible to ignore that some of the opinion on this matter is actually split.
Peter Nicol believes Jansher Khan is the best squash player who ever lived.
Amr Shabana once said Jansher Khan was the best player to ever step onto a squash court. He went onto say that he was a totally complete player and by far the best mover on a squash court.
Ramy Ashour has marvelled at how easy Jansher Khan made squash look. Ashour, himself a legend of the game, says he always draws inspiration from Jansher Khan on YouTube, marvelling at the sheer brilliance of the man.
Jansher Khan played in a 118 tournament finals and won 99 of those tournaments. Jansher Khan also played in fewer World Series finals than Ramy Ashour but won eight more World Series titles than the Egyptian star.
That is pretty compelling and the reality is that the squash fraternity has not seen another player like him since. For many of the early years, Jansher Khan was viewed as somewhat of a defensive player. However, at the start of the 90s there was what many believe to have been a significant paradigm shift.
It was when he became more attacking that he began to blow all of his opponents away. That does not mean he lost the capacity to retrieve the ball…by any stretch of the imagination. By about 1993 he has mastered both the art of attacking and defending.
Those are the little things that tend to set players apart, apart from being world number one for 97 months.
The Khan Legacy In Squash
It does go without saying that the balance of power in men’s squash has shifted dramatically in the past two decades. A game that was dominated by Pakistan for almost half a century has been taken over by a generation of Egyptians who have taken the world of squash by storm.
This kind of development is only natural in sport though – it can never be dominated by one country forever. What is perhaps worth noting though is that Pakistan is a country which dominated several sporting codes for protracted periods during the last century.
We mentioned some of them in our opening remarks. For some reason, the country was knocked off its pedestal in most of those codes at various stages during the 90s and has never been able to recover since then.
There is probably a lot to be taken into account. Chief among those things perhaps is the evolution of the world into a truly global village during the past 20 years. The first great squash Khan was a hidden gem – a gem that didn’t know how great it was. A gem that was almost never discovered.
We now live in a world here these gems get discovered with increasing regularity and are exposed to a high level of competition at a very young age. It is a generation that has access to more opportunities than ever before but also a generation that has to fight a little harder to rise to the top – such is the nature of the competition.
As of April 2019, there wasn’t a single Pakistani player among the top 50 in the PSA World rankings. Pakistan’s best player, Tayyab Aslam is ranked 51 in the world.
Being born into a sporting dynasty is no longer enough to conquer the world.
Carla Khan is the granddaughter of Azam Khan. She actually had a very promising career, which saw rise as high as 21 in the world during May 2004. However, she has encountered some physical troubles along the way and like everybody else she also had to deal with the Nicol David phenomenon. She has also retired from the game and does television presenting.
Kamran Khan is the son of Jansher Khan. 1- He plays for Malaysia now, after his parents divorced. 2- He only reached a career high ranking of 56.
None of it is bad but it is maybe an ominous sign for squash in Pakistan, where the end really is the end.
Khan v Khan: Does It Really Matter Who Was the Better of the Two?
Determining greatness is often a very subjective thing. Yes, statistics do help simplify the task but even, you have to decide which statistics matter the most. Jansher Khan won fewer British Open titles, for example but that was at a time when the British Open no longer held the same kind of prestige that it used to during the era of Jahangir Khan.
Jansher Khan has more World Squash Championship titles than Jahangir Khan, a title that means a considerable amount more to the modern player. Jansher Khan almost won 100 professional titles but that came during an era when more tournaments were being played around the world and when squash opportunities opened up more than ever.
All that should really matter is that both players put Pakistan on the map in a way that no other athlete had done before. They are both sporting royalty. They are both conquerors and great servants of the Khan name.