Geoff Hunt, Ross Norman and five years of total domination by the great Jahangir Khan
By Alan Thatcher, Squash Mad Editor
Today sees the publication of a book that celebrates the phenomenal achievements of Pakistani squash legend Jahangir Khan, who won 10 British Open titles in a row and went unbeaten for a five-and-a-half-year spell of total domination.
It has been a real pleasure working with co-author Rod Gilmour on delivering the book, 555: The Untold Story Behind Squash’s Invincible Champion And Sport’s Greatest Unbeaten Run.
We hope it does justice to Jahangir and also conveys the amazing transformations that took place during an era when players had to cope with changes to rackets and balls, and switch play from traditional courts to those made of Perspex and then glass.
These changes helped to shape the modern professional game, and Jahangir’s astonishing achievements were always at the forefront.
Even now, when you talk to non-squash players about the sport they will always recognise the name of Jahangir Khan. They might often ask: “Is he still playing?”
The answer, of course, is that he hung up his rackets many years ago. His playing career may be confined to history, but his impact on the game is still felt today.
Jahangir was not only a magnificent champion, and a great role model, but his record of success sparked all kinds of innovations in the game, starting with challenges from rival players and coaches who were desperate to seek ways to bring that unbeaten run to a close.
Such was Jahangir’s total domination of the professional tournament scene that promoters began to feel worried that spectators might grow tired of seeing the same name on every major trophy. A great champion will always draw the crowds, but meetings were held between federations, promoters and the TV companies to stimulate interest in a product that they feared might grow stale.
Researching the book was a joyful experience, wandering down memory lane to an era when I first got seriously involved in the game.
Squash in England was at an all-time peak, with close to three million players, and no one could foresee the drastic collapse in participation figures that were to follow.
Working on The News, Portsmouth’s evening newspaper, I was surrounded by magnificent squash centres, with Portsmouth Squash Club close to the office and Chichester and Lee-on-Solent a few miles either side. Further forays into Hampshire took you to Abshot, Trojans, Winchester and Beechdown. They all hosted some great tournaments and the Mayflower Theatre in Southampton followed Chichester Festival Theatre in hosting a see-through court on-stage.
Chichester features strongly in the book. This is where Jahangir finally brought down the great Geoff Hunt. I will never forget the sight of the Australian, previously rated the fittest man in squash, crumpling to his knees as he failed to return Jahangir’s serve in the last Chichester final to be staged inside the club show court before the tournament moved next door to the theatre.
Astonishingly, Hunt’s body recovered in time for him to win his eighth and final British Open title two weeks later. Again the court was set up on stage, this time inside the Churchill Theatre in Bromley, where Jahangir learnt some vital lessons about sticking to a winning game plan.
That match is where the book starts. The five-and-a-half-year journey ended on court in Toulouse, when Ross Norman achieved his one and only victory over the Pakistani maestro. It just happened to be the World Open final, and, after suffering 30 consecutive defeats, Norman finally achieved his career ambition of being the man to break Jahangir’s run. Next Friday, March 11, is the 30th anniversary of Norman’s conquest in France.
What happened between those two matches fills the book.
Players and coaches always believed that they could find a way through Jahangir’s formidable weaponry, and Jonah Barrington put Gamal Awad through all kinds of torture leading up to a marathon match on stage at Chichester in 1983 (right).
Jahangir and the little Egyptian set a new world record for the duration of a match, with JK winning 3-1 after a battle lasting two hours and 46 minutes. Remember, this was a 3-1, and not a five-setter.
Amazingly, I kept a shorthand note of every point, and I was delighted to discover those notes, plus some cuttings, programmes, and carbon copies of reports when I dug through some old memorabilia that had survived four house moves. I even found a copy of the scoresheet which was signed by both players.
I would like to thank all the players, coaches, referees and family members who helped to unlock some of those old secrets.
I have absolutely loved every minute I have spent in the company of Ross Norman (and I have him to thank for my big backswing). Late-night email exchanges and telephone conversations with Rahmat Khan, Geoff Hunt, Chris Dittmar, Ricki Hill, Ian Robinson and referee Graham Dixon have rekindled old friendships, unlocked some magical memories, and hopefully provided a warm and respectful insight into an extraordinary era when Jahangir Khan stood astride the game like a colossus.
Unlocking the statistics that led to the title of the book, 555, proved an enormous challenge. You’ll have to buy the book to see how we dealt with that particular issue.
555: The Untold Story Behind Squash’s Invincible Champion And Sport’s Greatest Unbeaten Run goes on sale today with Amazon
Pictures from Squash Mad archive