Greatness

Published in The Express Tribune

‘They think Hashim too old for the game,’ he said once, ‘but Hashim fool them.’

Greatness might be understating it. Hashim Khan was to squash what Ken Norton was to boxing, what Harry Houdini was to wriggling out of chains underwater: greatness, yes, but a classic greatness. The kind that stares back from sepia photographs. The kind that’s for the ages.

When it comes to sport, Pakistan’s seen its share of greats. At times, its laid claim to legends — athletes that could very well be called the Best Ever — in its Jahangir Khans and Wasim Akrams. But Hashim Khan was different: he was the first.

Hashim Khan defined the country back when it had nothing to define itself with. Dazed from birth in ’47, the nation-state was without a story, without a plan, and without a hero. That’s when it flew Hashim Khan into England (he proceeded to give heart attacks to the hoity-toity squash elite).

Because before cricket, there was squash. And squash meant Pakistan — but only after the Coming of Hashim. By 1951, the Dominion of Pakistan was home to a world-class champion, who destroyed Egypt’s Mahmoud Abdel Karim 9-5, 9-0, 9-0. Karim threw a fit.

Mr. Khan returned the next year, to bulldoze Karim again — this time, the Egyptian took it on the chin. ‘Aakhir kitna bhaagay ga?’ was Hashim Khan’s in-depth analysis.

By 1958, this was a champion that had changed the face of the game, piling up six straight British Open wins, more than any in history. And that was before the rest of the Khans showed up.

No other world sport would be so dominated by a single family — the Heirs of Hashim ran rampage over squash to the point of madness: Hashim beat brother Azam in the finals of ’54 and ’55, then beat relative Roshan in ’56, lost to Roshan in ’57, then beat his brother again in ’58.

But by then, Hashim Khan was the rest of the world’s too. The Western press tried hard to make him relatable: this wasn’t, after all, your conventional hero. TIME compared his looks to Douglas Fairbanks; others Pablo Picasso. The New Yorker called him ‘the greatest athlete for his age the world has ever seen.’ They needn’t have — audiences loved him anyway.

‘Just imagine,’ wrote James Zug, ‘what no one but the unwitting, gin-soaked members of the Peshawar Club saw: Hashim Khan in his prime.’

Because it wasn’t hard, whatever race or religion, to find Hashim Khan endearing. He was the sport’s finest athlete (some say the world’s), but stood 5 feet 4, with a boxer’s build. He was an international icon — name emblazoned on clubs across continents — but he’d speak fondly of Nawakille near Peshawar, a village even most Pakistanis hadn’t heard of.

And he spoke English without a past tense. For active minds, this was rich: Hashim Khan’s past often defied the possible.

Just his birthday was the sport’s biggest mystery: the US Open’s Ned Bigelow flew to Pakistan in the ‘60s wholly to find the birth certificate. After days and days of search, Bigelow surfaced with nothing; it could be 1914, which Mr. Khan stuck with, but it could also be 1910; he even flirted with 1916 a while.

What was certain was Hashim Khan was over retirement age when he won his first championship. ‘Just imagine,’ wrote James Zug, Mr. Khan’s finest chronicler, ‘what no one but the unwitting, gin-soaked members of the Peshawar Club saw: Hashim Khan in his prime.’

This became a part of the legend: that the 10-year-old Hashim Khan learned the game at a British officers’ club in Peshawar, where his father was head steward. The courts were roofless; exposing the natives to the sun and wind. Rain too, Hashim Khan remembered: ‘When this occurs, British go inside to play cards or something amusing.’

But Hashim Khan — the barefoot ball boy — played squash instead, in rain or sun, night and day. It was at age eleven that tragedy struck, when a truck carrying his father collided with a stone wall. ‘After my father dies, I begin to change from a little boy. I begin to think more.’ Mr. Khan threw himself headlong into squash. He played frantic games — Hashim versus Hashim on empty courts — British officers crying he’d kill himself.

Not long after, those same officers were asking the boy for games. Hashim obliged, but tried not to beat them too badly. “If you beat a man bad, you keep him without a score, he has no hope; never wants to go in court with you again. This makes me feel sorry, too. It is not good sport.’

And when it came to Good Sport, there was nobody classier than Hashim Khan. Pakistan loves another sort of sportsman today, the kind with too much talent and too little patience. There’s nothing in common between Roshan or Miandad or Afridi; except that they’re discipline cases all (and beloved for it).

But Hashim Khan had the temperament of an angel. He accepted the awful decisions of awful referees with a dip of the head and a ‘Thank you, sir.’ He was squash’s first celebrity — who neither smoked nor drank. He was a great who never knew how great he was, stringing his own racquets by hand. And he was polite to a fault: a man that enjoyed holding doors open for people.

Yes, as a clean, classic athlete, Hashim Khan may have set the bar too high: a Federer trailed by dramas and divas.

In old age, Mr. Khan kept right on playing. ‘Keep eye on ball,’ he’d say. ‘Cat never takes eye from bird it tries to catch and never you take eye away from the ball you want to hit.’ He passed away last week, aged a full 100 (he’d moved from Detroit to Denver because, a sportswriter said, he wanted to live somewhere that looked more like the Khyber Pass).

And Pakistan lost a legend — its very first.

The same Jim Zug wrote, ‘The dream merchants of Hollywood couldn’t make a more romantic story than the rise of Hashim Khan.’ But Zug was looking in the wrong place. For stories as romantic, there’s no place like Pakistan.

And Hashim Khan’s story was purely Pakistani.