Azam was silent, meticulous and ruthless says Jonah
By ANDREW SHELLEY (World Squash Library)
In the days before the World Open it was the number of British Open titles that was the benchmark by which a squash career was judged. Azam Khan won four.
But that doesn’t tell the full story of the Pakistani legend who died yesterday aged 95 in a West London hospital having contracted the Coronavirus.
Azam had been tennis coach at the Pakistan Air Force Officers Club until brother Hashim Khan suggested that he switched to squash; and picked up a racket for the first time, extraordinarily already aged 26. Then, in December 1952 he followed Hashim from Peshawar to London.
Similar of stature, a little less barrel chested than Hashim, he was a superlative technician, whose skills eventually led him out of the family shadow and into his own place amongst the great squash champions. At the time, while Hashim was described as the master, Azan was regarded as the great craftsman (and Roshan Khan, Jahangir’s father), the magician.
During the 1950s when he was runner-up to older brother Hashim three times before taking the British Open crown for the first time, many at the time thought that he had deferred to his senior. (How much his senior has never been confirmed as Hashim was never sure of his date of birth, but probably around nine years younger than his only brother).
Azam also won the Professional Championship of the British Isles – an important event of the age – beating Roshan, Nazrullah Khan, Jamil Din and nephew Mohibullah Khan in four finals in 1956, 1958 – 1960.
He crossed to America, too, and dextrously won the US Open, a hardball championship, in 1962, which proved to be his last competitive event as an Achilles tendon injury then side-lined him for over a year and into retirment.
That said, there is no doubt that he could have won more titles if he had returned to the fray, as he would trounce the professionals who came to him for coaching. The day before he started the British Open that he won in 1967, Jonah Barrington reportedly only got one point from the great craftsman in a practice match!
At that time he was well into his tenure as owner of the New Grampians Club in Shepherds Bush in West London that lasted over 50 years; where he started as coach but in 1957 took over.
The three courts below an apartment block saw a constant flow of Pakistani and other players wanting to learn from Azam, who only stopped getting on court in his seventies when osteoarthritis in a knee caused a halt.
Azam’s son Wasil inherited talent from his father and was a junior champion but did not proceed further. However, grand-daughter Carla Khan went pro and won five international Tour titles and had a career high world ranking of 21.
Off court Azam combined an innate cheerfulness, with a friendly, open and indeed modest persona. Not surprisingly, he was popular, a gentleman. This shines through in so many photos, where he is inevitably smiling!
But the last word should come from Jonah Barrington, who sums up the great man thus in his book Murder in the Squash Court:
‘If Hashim was the most devastating savage of the great Khans, and Roshan the most beautiful stroke player, Azam would have been the little accountant, methodically rearranging all the bits and pieces of the game, having everything under close analysis, nothing out of place …. he was meticulous, organised, ruthlessly clinical and very deft … he was unbelievably efficient … he constantly sucked you into situations from which it was impossible to extricate yourself … he was totally silent on court, like a little bird’.
The last of the Pakistani legends has now departed, leaving with the love of their families and the greatest respect from everybody who has been part of the patterns they wove.
Azam’s granddaughter, former professional Carla Khan, posted on Facebook:
My Grandfather as the squash world knew him as the legendary squash champion (Azam Khan ) passed away yesterday March 27th 2020 peacefully at hospital in London with his loving and devoted daughters from the deadly coronavirus.
Azam fought many squash battles on and off the court throughout his life but this battle could not be won. This virus can take legends with no mercy. Everyone stay safe. Condolences to our family and friends in America, Canada and Worldwide.
Thank you to everyone for your kind messages, thoughts and tributes in remembering Azam Khan and reaching out to his family.
The Khan brothers are gone but not forgotten and their squash achievements will forever be embedded in our squash memory. Azam and Hashim, Pathan brothers from Peshawar, emerged from an extremely humble background to conquer the world of squash and to change squash history forever.
I for one was honoured to even be associated as his granddaughter and to share his name and blood line, but for the family who was by his side his daughters and granddaughters who cared for him over the past few years with his ongoing health issues and deterioration and then finally to contract corona for them this is a devastating loss which will impact them forever.
A time to keep our loved ones safe and family to come together. Life is short and can be taken any second. God bless you all. Amen.
Pictures courtesy of World Squash Library