Hashim Khan, seven-time world squash champion, dies


Hashim Khan with fellow squash player Heather McKay. Mr. Khan died Aug. 18. (Photo by Ham Biggar/ Courtesy of US Squash)
August 19

Hashim Khan, who 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, died Aug. 18 at his home in Aurora, Colo. He was widely believed to be 100, possibly 104.

The cause was congestive heart failure, said his son Mohammad “Mo” Khan.

Squash matches, contested on rectangular courts with all walls in play, is a punishing blend of speed, power, precision, stamina and mathematical calculation. One British athlete memorably equated it to “boxing with rackets.” (Squash rackets have smaller heads and thinner shafts than their tennis cousins.)

Mr. Khan was an unlikely master of the sport. He grew up in India during the prime of the British raj, in what became after partition the northwest frontier region of Pakistan. At first glance, he was unintimidating: 5-foot-4, balding and stocky, with a protruding belly that even Prince Philip of England remarked on when they met. And he was approaching an age when most squash players are retiring — his late 30s — when he began his remarkable run of victories at the British Open, the sport’s premier event.

Mr. 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.


Hashim Khan with fellow squash player Heather McKay. (Photo by Ham Biggar/ Courtesy of US Squash)

He also was the undisputed leader of a squash empire that included his brother, Azam, whom he brought into the sport to be his training partner, and Hashim’s 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. But Hashim Khan was the sport’s titan.

“Within the game, he was an iconic player, arguably the greatest player ever,” said James Zug, a leading historian of the sport. In Pakistan, Mr. 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 Mr. Khan, who also won major titles in the United States and elsewhere and became a coach in Detroit and Denver, “broke a lot of barriers for a sport that for that time in the U.S. 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 northwestern city of Peshawar. The family never had a birth certificate, but his birthday was later celebrated every July 1.

His father, chief steward at a British officer’s club in Peshawar, brought 8-year-old Hashim to the outdoor squash courts where military men relaxed when not safeguarding the Khyber Pass. The boy was soon fetching flyaway balls for the players.

In the midday sun, as the Noel Coward song goes about “Mad Dogs and Englishmen,” the British took refuge inside, and Mr. Khan stepped onto the court — shoeless, as he would play for much of his early career — and tried to emulate the shots using a worn racket and a much-abused ball.

He was 11 when his father died in a car accident, and Mr. Khan left school to work full time as a ball boy and cleaning the courts. “For sweeping the place, they paid me four annas a day,” he told the New York Times in 1957. “One anna is a sixteenth part of a rupee. Five rupees equals one American dollar.”

On the side, he apprenticed for five years under an assistant pro at the club willing to show him the proper way to hold a racket, the way not to exhaust oneself, how to bend for the ball and when to snap one’s wrist.

He got good fast.

“Now some British officers watch me in courts . . . and they begin to say, ‘Give me a game, please, Hashim,’ ” he wrote in “Squash Racquets: The Khan Game,” a 1967 book co-authored with Richard E. Randall that captures Mr. 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 Mr. Khan offered, the man laughed at him until Mr. Khan offered to give the stranger a 50-point handicap — meaning Mr. Khan had to score 59 points and the other man only 9.

“Where do I change clothes?” the man said sternly, before being trounced by Mr. Khan. The opponent turned out to be a bank manager in Bombay and the second-ranked amateur player in the city.

The next year, Mr. Khan began a run of wins at the All-of-India squash championship in Bombay. Mr. Khan, who was tigerish about spotting weakness in opponents, recounted in “Squash Racquets” how he surprised his hardest opponent, Adbul Bari, a reigning champion who had a killer drop shot.

“Bari had best soft shot I see anywhere,” he wrote. “This is how he makes points. But I am light like a fly, 112 pounds 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 30s when the new government of Pakistan — specifically its air force — sponsored him for the British Open in 1951. It marked the first time Mr. Khan wore shoes on the court.

At the age when many players retire, he bested the world’s reigning champion, Mahmoud El Karim of Egypt, 9-5, 9-0, 9-0.

“Never before do I see a man like this in squash racquets,” Mr. Khan wrote in his book. “He is higher than six feet, long arms and legs, and he moves about the court like a dancer in ballet, soft and smooth, you never hear his feet on the floor, and how he turns and runs and strokes, you want to watch all day, it is wonderful.”

“My game is simple at this time,” he added. “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.”

Mr. Khan won the British open six more times, a record that stood until Australia’s Geoff Hunt won eight by 1981 and Jahangir Khan won 10 by 1991.

In the 1960s, Mr. Khan moved to Detroit to coach squash at the Uptown Athletic Club. A decade later, he became a pro at the Denver Athletic Club, helping make both sporting centers well-known venues outside of the dominant Ivy League squash circuit on the East Coast.

Survivors include seven sons and five daughters; a brother; and more than 40 grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Mr. Khan’s wife of 65 years, Mehria Begum, died in 2007. Two daughters and a son died in childhood. Another daughter died in 2007.

Mr. Khan, who stopped playing within the past decade, spent much of his career playing exhibition games and running clinics worldwide. He rated widespread coverage, including a profile in the New Yorker by sports writer Herbert Warren Wind, who 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.”

Adam Bernstein has spent his career putting the "post" in Washington Post, first as an obituary writer and then as editor. The American Society of Newspaper Editors recognized Bernstein’s ability to exhume “the small details and anecdotes that get at the essence of the person” and to write stories that are “complex yet stylish.”
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