There have been a few times in the past four years or so when I have considered writing a piece on Jahangir Khan and his domination of squash in the 1980s. But something always seemed to stop me for some reason. In truth, my lack of knowledge on the sport probably held me back; a feeling that I might not be able to do justice to squash, and one of the the greatest athletes, not only of the 1980s, but perhaps of all time.
Luckily for me, a book has been produced that in my mind has fully justified my hesitation. A publication that proves to me that I would have only been scratching the surface if I had tried to write something insightful and knowledgeable about Jahangir and squash in the 1980s. Jahangir Khan 555: The Untold Story Behind Squash's Invincible Champion and Sport's Greatest Unbeaten Run by Rod Gilmour and Alan Thatcher, is a dream for a 1980s sports geek like myself.
Growing up in the 1980s, squash was all about Jahangir. There were numerous reports about the Pakistani legend on much missed programmes like Grandstand and Sportsnight, detailing his complete monopoly of the sport, and his unbeaten run. If squash was ever mentioned on A Question of Sport, my answer would always be Jahangir Khan. Put simply, to me, Jahangir was squash.
Yet there was very little I knew about the man. Until now. Gilmour and Thatcher have successfully filled a gap in my sporting database, covering Jahangir's journey from a struggling child to the legendary status he now holds. It is such an interesting tale, involving struggles, pain, determination, and drive, that you find yourself not wanting to put the book down.
Jahangir may have been born into a family that had produced British Open squash champions, but his childhood was not straight forward. Jahangir started to talk at the age of 8, and also had two hernia operations aged 5 and 12, yet it was apparent from an early age that with a squash racket in his hand, he could achieve great things. His father predicted at the age of 12 that Jahangir would become world champion in the sport. He was proved correct, yet there were a few obstacles to overcome before then.
Jahangir became world amateur champion at 15, but just weeks later his world was turned upside down when his brother and coach Torsam died. Unable to come to terms with the death, Jahangir did not pick up a racket for another four months, but then vowed to honour the memory of his brother. "It made me stronger and more dedicated to the mission of doing this all for someone. It wasn't purely for myself. I was doing it for someone I loved."
Controversially, Jahangir moved to Wembley and teamed up with his cousin Rahmat, a huge decision seeing as Air Marshall Noor Khan (a leading figure in squash in Pakistan) stressed that if Jahangir failed then he would be answerable to the nation. No pressure then. Struggling to adapt to a different culture and home was bad enough, but Jahangir was still trying to cope with the grief of losing his brother.
Gilmour and Thatcher then go on to discuss how Jahangir reduced world champion Geoff Hunt to a "physical wreck" when beating him in a match at Chichester in 1981. In truth, Hunt's time at the top was coming to an end, and the baton would be passed on to Jahangir soon. Yet two weeks later, Hunt extracted his revenge, beating Jahangir in the British Open final. Such was the effort involved in doing this, Hunt would later pass blood in his urine, which is one of the many excellent nuggets of information that make the book so compelling.
It would be 1,866 days before Jahangir would taste defeat again, as the authors describe in fantastic detail just how he stayed unbeaten for so long. The brilliance of the Rahmat-Jahangir partnership; Jahangir's punishing training schedule ensuring that he was always one step ahead of his opponents; how coach and player worked on countering any possible tactics used against Jahangir; the natural power and precision of the champion. All of this, and more, combined to make Jahangir an unstoppable force.
Naturally the run had to come to an end, with a chapter dedicated to Ross Norman's win at the World Open in Toulouse in 1986. Again, Gilmour and Thatcher are spot on in their approach to this seismic event, explaining how a parachuting accident had almost wrecked Norman's career, and how he in turn used this to motivate himself to reach the levels of fitness required to simply compete with Jahangir.
Norman's win provided squash with a great deal of publicity at the time, with Jahangir himself stating that losing was probably not a bad thing for the sport. The book obviously celebrates Jahangir's great unbeaten run, but in an interesting closing chapter, the myth behind the 555 number is challenged. Where and when did the 555 figure originate? Should Jahangir's hardball squash defeats in North America be taken into account? Jahangir's response to the questions make interesting reading.
There are so many other areas covered in the book, including details of Jahangir's lucrative sponsorship deals, how Jonah Barrington paved the way for squash to turn professional, Jahangir's forays into North America and the hardball version of the sport, and discussions about the failure to establish squash as an Olympic sport. And to top it all, there are facts galore, which is right up the street of this particular sports anorak.
The biggest compliment I can pay the book is to say that you really don't need to love squash or have a strong background in the sport to appreciate it. At no point are you flummoxed by technical jargon, as the authors constantly manage to explain details without bamboozling you. Before you know it, you are several chapters in, and your lack of knowledge about the sport seems a thing of the past.
If you have a passion for sport, are fascinated about what makes a champion tick, and want to learn a little more about one man and how he stayed ahead of the pack for so long, then I strongly recommend that you treat yourself to a copy of this book (or add it to your Christmas list). It has inspired me to investigate Jahangir and some of his achievements even more, and you never know, I may well get around to writing something more detailed about him at some point.
A quite brilliant account of one of the key sporting figures of the 1980s, Jahangir Khan 555: The Untold Story Behind Squash's Invincible Champion and Sport's Greatest Unbeaten Run, is a must read for anyone interested in sporting history. Gilmour and Thatcher have covered the subjects involved extensively, and should be extremely proud of a fitting tribute to a sporting icon.