On the Hunt

Interview with Geoff Hunt published in Squash Player (the official magazine of World Squash Federation, in Issue 4, 2009)

There was only a nominal participation by Australia in this year’s British Junior Open. Huge distances and little sponsorship meant that a solitary player from one of the most successful squash nations could make it to Sheffield.

However, the squash lovers were thrilled to see one of the greatest male players of the game. Geoff Hunt, winner of eight British Open titles (a tally second only to Jahangir Khan’s record 10) as well as the first four World Open titles, was here.

The legendary Australian was accompanying the Qatari team as their coach. The gulf nation was one of the only two teams making their maiden appearance in the most prestigious junior squash event of the world.

Still looking as trim and lean as in his playing days, the 62 year old Geoffrey Hunt, MBE talked mainly about his present assignment.

“Ever since exiting the squash circuit in early 80s, I have been mainly engaged with coaching. I served as the head squash coach at the Australian Institute of Sport from 1985-2003.”

In fact, he played a major role in help developing a new generation of Australian squash stars including illustrious names such as Martin brothers, Chris Dittmar, Rodney Eyles and David Palmer among others.

“In Qatar, I am working with ‘Aspire’ the Academy for Sports Excellence as the head squash coach. Squash is one of the core sports at this academy. I have to develop squash programme in conjunction with the squash federation. Aspire is an excellent academy and along with the sports coaching, the boys also get quality education in a full-fledged school. It is pertinent to mention that much of the syllabus is in line with the Qatar ministry of education plus they also have some sports oriented subjects.”

Hunt took over the squash programme at Aspire only one year after its start.

“I joined the academy in May 2005. Prior to that, the technical director of the Qatar Sqaush Federation (QSF), Alaaeldeen Allouba was running the programme. A few Pakistani and Egyptian coaches working with the QSF had worked with some of these boys before me. Currently, there are eight boys with me. Only one is U 19, rest are in the younger age groups.”

An achiever throughout his life, Hunt’s aims are high.

“We target medals at various levels.  Starting from the Gulf championships and going up to the Arab games and then hopefully at the Asian level. And we already have had some real success. Ahmad Al Tamimi won the U 17 title at the Gulf championships. His brother Abdullah went a step ahead, lifting the U 17 crown at the Arab championships– first ever title for a Qatari at this level. Now we aim the Asian titles.”

Does all this mean his contract is target oriented?

“Yes, in a way. I have not been given a fixed term contract. It is subject to yearly renewal.  I have already spent more than three years which indicates they are happy with my performance, and the results achieved by the lads.”

He also appears satisfied with the assistance provided by the academy.

“The academy has excellent facilities. I have a good support staff which includes physical trainers and psychologists. Last year, former world number 5, Dan Jensen of Australia joined me as the assistant coach. In addition, international exposure is essential. My boys have been participating in the various European age group competitions. QSF also invite teams from other countries and last year we had German juniors. After the BJO, we will be going to the Asian juniors.”

The hard task master is quite satisfied with his pupils’ showing at the 2009 British Junior Open.

“All the academy boys were very keen to come here. Four were selected. It was Qatar’s first ever appearance in this competition. Then the boys were somewhat out of practice as they had finished their exams only a week before. One of the boys was handicapped by a shin injury. Considering all this, I think they performed reasonably well. Three of them made into the second round and Abdullah Tamimi also won a match in the plate competition. Both the Tamimi brothers came across quality opponents.

The boys also had practice matches against players from different countries. So all in all it was a good experience for them.”

The name of Geoffrey Hunt is synonymous with success both as player and as a coach.

As a player he first broke the domination of Jonah Barrington and then held off the challenge of so many hungry and talented Pakistanis, to win a total of 12 British and World Open tiles.

Then as a coach he tutored at least half a dozen Aussies who made it into the top-ten.

In his present assignment, Hunt has already started getting commendable results.

ASPIRE stands for ‘aspiration, inspiration, excellence.’

The aspiration is there. Let us see how the maestro inspires the racket wielders of this tiny but extremely resourceful gulf nation to achieve excellence.

Hockey’s Near Death Experience

Published in the April 2013 issue of PUSH (the only independent print hockey magazine in the UK)

In early 2000s, the IOC decided to cap the number of sports in the Summer Olympics at 28.  At the same time, many sports aspire to join the Olympic family. After every Olympics, the OIC considers the relative merits of the contenders and the disciplines which are part of the Olympics at that moment of the time- who to include and who to drop. This scenario means Olympic sports disciplines would live with a sword of Damocles hanging over their heads.

It was shocking to know that our game came the closest possible to be eliminated from the Olympics. Hockey was one of five sports under threat at the meeting in Lausanne, Switzerland, and was still involved after canoeing and taekwondo survived the early rounds of voting. It was the 15 member executive committee of the IOC who voted. In the penultimate round of three sports, hockey, wrestling and modern pentathlon, remained. Luckily for hockey, the axe fell on wrestling.

All this should serve as a wakeup call. Wake-up call for whom? For everyone who is related to the game and who really loves the game. Dropping from the Olympics would have been a disaster for hockey no less in proportion than the catastrophes of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Unlike some other team sports such as soccer, basketball, etc. Olympics are the most important event for hockey. The World Cup is a distant second. Even in some of the most successful hockey nations such as Australia and Germany, the interest of general public and particularly of the national media in hockey is only ignited when the national team is seen at the quadrennial multi-sport stage.

It is not much different in the Great Britain. When the team GB picked the bronze at the 1984 Olympics, they won the national team award of the year. The sport received unprecedented attention when the side returned with the gold from the Seoul 1988. Sean Kerly, the most celebrated hero of that campaign tells, “As soon as we landed at Heathrow, we were taken into a small room for an interview for breakfast television. That was just the beginning. We went to Buckingham Palace as well as 10 Downing Street to see the Queen and Margaret Thatcher. At the BBC Sports Personality of the Year Show in 1988, the hockey team won the team award for the second time, having won it in 1984. Moreover, I was nominated for the individual award. I made other TV appearances and The Sun even ran a story on “20 things you never knew about the Olympic hero Sean Kerly”.  Neither the game of hockey nor its executioner in the UK has received such recognition before and since, and it was solely due to the Gold at the Olympics.
Government funding to hockey in many countries is centred on the Olympics; directly proportional to the showing at the Olympics. In this sport, still by and large an amateur discipline, perhaps the most coveted title, the stick wielders dream of is ‘Olympian.’ It would not be wrong to term Olympics as the Oxygen to our sport.

The selection of the sport to be dropped was in the hands of the 15 member executive committee of the IOC which didn’t include the president.  One wonders why hockey came so close to the exit door. Just a few months back, hockey was only the third biggest sport at the Olympics in terms of ticket numbers. Over 630,000 tickets were sold for the Games. Yet, in no time, the sport came closest possible to be shown the door.

Leandor Negre, the FIH president, was also flabbergasted at the news, “I’m shocked that it came down to that. In fact, many officials from the IOC too were surprised. Hockey is an Olympic sport in the true sense. The attendances at London were excellent, the TV coverage was better than many other sports.”

Hockey has come under the IOC scrutiny before, when concerns were raised over its popularity in comparison with other disciplines. The IOC had highlighted three key areas — spectator interest, broadcast quality and viewership, and the number of countries affiliated to the FIH. Negre said the sport has made progress in dealing with these issues. “These were the concerns addressed by the IOC around six years ago. Back then, we had less than 100 affiliated countries but now the number has increased to almost 130. Television coverage has improved tremendously too. We don’t know where we are lacking this time,” said Negre.

All this suggests there is more to it than that.  Modern Pentathlon, along with hockey and wrestling, came to the penultimate round of the elimination. It comprises five events: pistol shooting, fencing, 200 m freestyle swimming, show jumping, and a 3 km cross country run. Its lack of popularity outside Eastern Europe had led to frequent calls for its exclusion from the Olympics programme for a long time. Yet, the discipline has survived.

Before making its decision, the IOC’s programme commission reportedly assessed each sport by looking at such factors as TV ratings, ticket sales, anti-doping and global popularity. Where does modern pentathlon stand in comparison with hockey in any of the above aspects?   Nowhere.

Klaus Schorman, the president of modern pentathlon’s governing body himself stated, he had ‘lobbied’ hard to protect his sport’s Olympic status. So Lobbying is a definite factor.
South Korea, the new economic giant, at that particular time, staged the 1988 Olympics at Seoul. Taekwondo, the Korean martial art made its Olympic debut though only as a demonstration sport. The success of the Olympics plus the continuous and effective lobbying by Korea was a major factor in Taekwondo becoming a medal sport in the 2000 Olympics. This was despite the fact that Judo, another form of the martial arts, which is not much different from a spectator’s point of view from Taekwondo, was already a part of the Olympics and remains so.

Hockey is definitely doing well on all the fronts. The recent initiatives of the FIH like the World Hockey League and the proposed World Club Championships are steps in a right direction but this scare definitely means far more needs to be done:  Hockey should not even come into mention whenever there is some discussion about the sports to be eliminated from the Olympics.

The areas needing to be worked at: Glamour, Professionalism & Money, Horizontal & Vertical spread.   All these are distinct spheres but at the same time very much interlinked.

Quite a few domestic hockey leagues in different parts of the world are now professional or semi-professional as players get paid. The Dutch league is definitely the best competitively as well as vis-à-vis the quality of players and the duration. However, India’s HIL (Hockey India League), launched this year, promises to take hockey to a new level. Top international stars like Tuen de Nooijer and Moritz Fuerste earned more than $ 80,000 for playing in the league which ran for about four weeks. The television presentation was excellent with large viewership all over the world. This should only be a beginning. In cricket too, it was the Indian IPL that set the ball rolling. Now there are lucrative Twenty20 leagues in Australia, Bangladesh and South Africa with one coming up in the Caribbean. It is hoped the HIL would also have a comparable knock on effect on other countries.

China, the other huge Asian economic giant of today could be one such nation. No doubt, hockey is a low profile sport there as compared to India. But in recent years China, especially their women national team (silver medal at the 2008 Olympics), have been doing quite well at the international stage. Then in certain areas of world’s biggest nation housing 1/5th of humanity, hockey is strongly embedded in the culture. In inner Mangolia, people are playing a sport similar to hockey for more than 1,000 years.

In the USA, hockey is one of the biggest participatory sports among the women. With some astute planning, a professional/semi-professional women field hockey league could be worked out in the sole super power of the day. If successful, players from other nations of the American continent could also be figuring in such a league leading to its following in their respective countries as well.

The FIH and the continental governing bodies also need to work on the untapped hockey markets.  One which readily comes into mind is the Gulf. With large expat communities from the Indo/Pak sub-continent, the area has all the ingredients to be a big hockey centre. It might surprise some but it was in gulf where prize money in the international hockey was introduced for the first time.

It was Brig M.H.Atif, the former vice president of the FIH, the man with a great foresight, who realised very early that the Middle East would soon be a major sports centre. The Pakistan/India hockey series organised by the great visionary in Kuwait and Dubai in mid 80s were the first real international hockey activity in that part of the world. Then he went a step further. The two 4-Nation tournaments in Dubai & Kuwait in January 1986 were the first international hockey events to officially offer prize money anywhere in the world. And it was before Abdul Rahman Bukhatir’s CBFS (Cricketers Benefit Fund Series) took off in the UAE.

Qatar, with world’s fastest economy growth rate at 19%, is a potential gold mine for hockey. The sport made remarkable progress in the sheikdom during last year- staged the first round of the World Hockey League and, in December, hosted the very high profile Asian Champions Trophy. For the final between Pakistan and India, more than 7,000 fans turned up and reportedly some paid 500 riyals to buy tickets with face value of only 10.

The highly ambitious Qatar Hockey Federation has loftier goals, and desires to do something revolutionary –  which could stun the world of hockey. Spadework is on for an Arab Hockey League on the pattern somewhat similar to cricket’s IPL (Indian Premier League).  The proposed six team tournament won’t be confined to Qatar only as it envisages two sides each in Qatar, UAE and Oman. The team composition is what that would make the league really special. The local talent would form only one third of the squad with the remaining two thirds composed of international stars.

One way to benefit from this encouraging Gulf scenario could be to stage a Champions Trophy edition in the gulf with matches distributed between Qatar, UAE and Oman. That would make the region an international hockey centre.  The rich sheikhs are already investing a lot into the major soccer clubs of the top European leagues. The successful holding of a major hockey tournament in the region featuring world’s top international sides would definitely make them ponder about injecting money in the game of hockey which has a lot of similarities with football. The success should result in an almost inevitable spread to the other gulf countries, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Bahrain, again all with substantial population from South Asia, and all very resourceful.

At the same time, the FIH should try to introduce prize money at its own tournaments such as the Champions Trophy. Same goes for the invitational tournaments like the Sultan Azlan Shah Cup, four/three nations, etc. The element of the prize money would not only bolster the competitive streak among the teams but also the interest of the followers of the game.  Presently, the interest is somewhat diluted as many see such tourneys mainly a preparatory ground for the title tournaments.  No one on the earth dislikes money. The financial incentives would attract more and more youngsters to the sport of hockey. The family influence, especially in the Eastern cultures, still plays an important part in the choice of the career. If hockey offers good career prospects, the parents won’t stop their wards from taking up the sport.

In those parts of the world, where hockey is virtually non- existing or not played much, interest in the sport could be developed through mini hockey: 7 a side or 5 a side hockey played across smaller pitches. There is also the matter of taking hockey to hitherto unknown   territories. Negre has already mentioned about getting hockey into the Paralympics.

No need telling the role of media in popularising a sport. The coverage goes beyond international tournaments and domestic leagues. Every sport needs stars and role models. Our sport also dishes out the player of tournament at most of the events.

Every year, the FIH announces its own All-Star team, Men and Women players of the year plus the Young players of both the gender.  Some other categories such as the umpire of the year, the most improved nation, the best domestic league, etc. should also be added.  To make it really colourful, the  gala award ceremony to be held  with pomp and fanfare as done in other sports like soccer and cricket.  It won’t be a bad idea if the media departments of the FIH as well as the leading hockey nations make efforts to produce really interesting hockey documentaries about greats of the game, memorable matches, unforgettable moments of hockey, etc.

A vicious circle: spread in every direction, more money & sponsorship, more & better media coverage, more playing countries, more glamour, more talk about the game; more talk about the game’s stars; there is no end.

All this would contribute towards the final goal: Hockey should not even come into mention whenever there is some discussion about the sports to be eliminated from the Olympics.

Sky is the limit for Amir Khan

Published on July 31, 2011  in The News (a leading Pakistani English language national daily)

By Ijaz Chaudhry

British Pakistani boxer Amir Khan successfully defended his light welter-weight title in style against American boxer Zab Judah last week. Amir dominated the entire five rounds. Judah, a former undisputed world welter-weight champion and the IBF world light welter-weight champions, had no answer to his opponent’s speed, agility and power. Amir Khan is presently the most popular British Asian sports person and the highest profiled boxer in Britain.

And while his story is inspiring, it has a fictional flavour to it.

Born in Bolton to parents of Pakistani origin hailing from Rawalpindi, Amir was a precocious talent and started competitive boxing at the age of 11; winning three ABA (Amateur Boxing Association of England) titles.

In 2003, he stepped into the international circuit and won gold at the Junior Olympics and the very next year he crowned as the world junior light-weight champion.

The 2004 Olympics made him a national hero as he was the only British boxer to qualify. He defied all odds to reach the final where he lost to the Cuban Mario Kindelan. Still, at 17, he became the youngest ever British athlete to win an Olympic medal.

England wanted Amir to remain an amateur as they were eyeing gold for him at the 2008 Olympics. But the professional promoters could not let go of such a talent. The biggest British boxing promoter Frank Warren signed him for a contract worth one million pounds and Amir entered the professional ring.

After his first professional fight in July 2005, Amir continued winning and with that,  the quality of the opponents improved.

Having won all of his first 12 bouts in the first two years of his pro career, Amir had his first shot at a meaningful title in July 2007: for the Commonwealth light-weight crown against reigning champion Willie Limond of Scotland.

Although he was knocked down early in the fight, he easily won the title bout in the eighth round and has since successfully defended his Commonwealth title four times.

Meanwhile, Amir had also won the lightly regarded WBO intercontinental title by defeating Danish Martin Kristjansen.

But in his first defence of WBO intercontinental title in September 2009, he suffered the biggest setback of the career. Against Colombian Breidis Prescott in Manchester, Amir was knocked out in the first round for his first loss in 19 pro fights.

That had serious repercussions.

With the fight being his Sky Box Office debut, it was his maiden bout with the new trainer Jorge Rubio and detractors came out with claims that “Amir’s weak chin fully exposed” and that “he has been mostly contesting weak opponents”.

His promoter, Frank Warren immediately sacked Jorge Rubio replacing him with Freddie Roach, widely regarded as world’s finest boxing coach having trained 27 world champions.

And that change paid dividends.

Amir easily defeated Oisin Fagan in the second round to win the vacant WBA international light-weight title before successfully defending it against Mexican Marco Barrera.

That win made everyone believe that Amir was now ready for a shot at the world title.

And it came in July 2009.

Moving up to the light welter-weight division to fight Andreas Kotelnek, Amir won by a unanimous decision to become the WBA World light welter-weight champion at the age of 22.

He then defended it against America’s Salita, a jew, in a bout titled as the ‘battle of faiths’ in his last fight with Frank Warren as his promoter.

Then, at New York’s famous Madison Square Garden, Amir won his first overseas pro-bout against Pauli Malignaggi to keep the belt before winning a classic against Marcos Maidana in Nevada in a bout that was declared the ‘Fight of the Year’ by the boxing writers association of America.

He then beat Northern Irishman McClowsky at the MEN arena in Manchester before the fight with Judah for his fifth defence of the WBC title

The latest victory means that Amir now holds both the WBA and IBF versions of the world light-welter weight title. And now his next target would be to win the other two belts IBF and WBO to unify the weight division.

In boxing, the champion of the highest weight category steals almost all the limelight and mostly the world heavyweight champion had been regarded as the best boxer of a particular era. Sugar Ray Robinson, the world welter-weight champion from 1946-51 and the world middle-weight champion for most of the 50s, made the boxing connoisseurs and officials think otherwise.

His achievements, domination and style prompted the sports writers to coin the term “pound for pound” whereby fighters were compared regardless of weight.

Presently, all the reputed magazines give pound for pound rankings of the professional boxers. Amir is presently rated at 9 and 10 by Boxrec and Sports Illustrated respectively. The number one pound for pound boxer is the Filipino Manny Pacquiao and now the connoisseurs firmly believe that Amir has the capability to win the greatest accolade his sport has to offer: No 1 Pound for Pound.

Greatest of them all?

The least-acclaimed of all the great squash Khans, Azam might have been the greatest of them all, claims Ijaz Chaudhry.

Published in Squash Player (the official magazine of World Squash Federation)

Winning the British Open four times in succession is no mean feat, yet Azam Khan, who achieved just that between 1959 and 1962, has not been given due recognition by sports historians. There is a reason for this. His victories came at a time when the British Open was already Pakistan’s domain. His elder brother, Hashim Khan, had won the title as many as seven times before him, so only those with comparable achievements are mentioned in the same breath: Jahangir Khan, Jansher Khan, Geoff Hunt and Jonah Barrington. Nevertheless, some people are of the view that Azam Khan was the greatest of them all – and there are reasons for this too.

Now 81 years of age and settled in England since 1956, Azam Khan owns and runs the New Grampians Squash Club in London. Osteoarthritis in one knee forced him to stop playing squash a few years ago but he still spends a couple of hours every morning at his club doing exercises, including cycling.

I asked him to tell me about his journey in squash from the beginning. How was he lured into the game?

“I was a tennis coach at the officers’ club of the Pakistan Air Force. My elder (and only) brother, Hashim, who had won the last two British Opens, told me to switch to squash. I was 26 at the time and had never played the game.”

Yet within two years of Hashim’s bidding, Azam was ready to take on the best in the world.

“The Air Force raised the funds for a trip to Britain through exhibition matches in various bases. My first competition there was the British Professional Championship, where I defeated the British no.1 in the semis and lost to my brother in the final. Despite this, the Squash Rackets Association [now England Squash] was reluctant to allow me to enter the British Open of 1953.

“I was pushed into a ‘trial’ match against the British no.1, which I won easily. Even then I was not given a seeding and I had to face the no.2 seed in the first match. I dispatched him in three straight games and progressed to the semi-final, only to lose again to my elder brother.”

But Azam Khan had arrived on the world squash scene, and the very next year he reached the final of the British Open for the first time, losing to … who else but Hashim. And the 1955 final was a replica of the previous year’s.

“At this point, British newspapers started running headlines such as ‘Family Affair’. So in next two Opens we were kept in the same half of the draw and came face to face in the semi-finals.”

According to Azam, Nusrullah Khan, who was holding office at the SRA, played an important part in this arrangement. “Thus Nusrullah helped his brother Roshan to progress to the final of both the 1956 and the 1957 Opens, where he faced Hashim. A ‘just draw’ was restored in 1958 and Hashim beat me again in the final.”

But the following year, the ‘crown prince’ took over. In 1959, Azam won the coveted title for the first time, beating his nephew Mohibullah in the final in straight games. He went on to win the title four times in succession.

“The most memorable of those four triumphs was that of 1960. I trounced Roshan Khan [a distant relative] 9-1, 9-0, 9-0 in the final. It’s still the shortest final in the history of the tournament, lasting just 19 minutes.”

This had other repercussions. The paying public felt short-changed, so the organisers decided to introduce a play-off for third position for losing semi-finalists before the final.

Azam was at the peak of his powers when he last appeared on the professional circuit in 1962. That year, he had won not only the British Open and British Professional titles but also the most important hardball tournament, the US Open, for the first time. Azam then had to retire from competitive squash due to an Achilles tendon injury. The injury healed in 18 months but he never returned to the circuit.

“Yes, the Achilles healed but another wound never healed. I completely lost interest when my 14-year-old son died in 1962. Thereafter my squash activities were confined to my club.”

There was a brief interlude – and it was in the land of his birth. “I was on a private visit to Pakistan in late 1963 when the Pakistan Squash Federation [PSF] invited me to play in the National Championships. On their insistence, I reluctantly agreed. I had remained crippled by the injury to my foot for about a year and a half and not only was completely out of practice but also found it painful to play. Moreover, I hadn’t played on cement courts for several years. I still managed to win the final, overcoming Roshan Khan, who was ranked in the world’s top three at the time. A few days later, I also won the Pakistan Open, again defeating Roshan in the final.”

“I settled in England in 1956. Since then, I’ve been to Pakistan off and on. My last visit was in 2000, when I was invited to a function organised by the PSF to honour Jahangir Khan.”

Why did he leave Pakistan?

“Although I was a coach in the Pakistan Air Force, I’d been employed as a porter, with a monthly salary of 60 rupees (equivalent to five British pence at the current exchange rate). In 1953, when I reached the semi-final of the British Open on my maiden appearance, I was promoted to ‘electrician’ and my salary rose to 100 rupees per month. But the following year, when I finished runner-up, far from being promoted I was demoted back to the level of porter. The reason given was that the post of electrician no longer existed.

“As I said, the Air Force only provided us with a return ticket; during my stay abroad, I had to take care of my own board and lodging. And unlike these days, there were very few tournaments which offered prize money. Principal among them were British Open, the British Professional, the Scottish Open and a few hardball tournaments in the USA and Canada. So it was difficult to survive.

“In 1956, I played an exhibition match against Hashim Khan at the New Grampians Club in Shepherds Bush. After the match, the owner of the club approached me and offered me the job of coach. The offer included a salary as well as accommodation. I had no option but to accept it.

“The owner wasn’t in good health and in 1957 he asked me to take over the club. I didn’t have the financial resources to buy the club, so he asked me to pay in instalments over a period of five years. That’s how I became to own the club.”

Hence Azam’s association with the club is more than half a century old. And during this period it has been associated with the emergence of several outstanding players.

“The very person who halted the Khan era in British Open history, in 1964, was a product of this club. Mike Oddy of Scotland ousted the defending champion Mohibullah Khan in the semi-final, thus achieving the distinction of being the first Briton since 1953 to reach the final – which he lost to Abou Taleb.”

The club is also linked with the development of arguably the greatest squash player Britain has ever produced – a story that sheds light on what Azam might have achieved had he continued with his squash career. Read it in Part 2 of this article, coming soon.

King Khan
http://www.squashplayer.co.uk/features/azam_khan_02.jpg Ijaz Chaudhry continues the story of Azam Khan, four-times winner of the British Open.

The Egyptian Abou Taleb had won the British Open three years running, from 1964 to 1966. He then threw down a challenge that if anyone beat him, he would pay him £500 – at least £5,000 in today’s money.

“At the instigation of a couple of club members, I accepted the challenge,” recalls Azam Khan, now 81 and proprietor of the New Grampians Squash Club in London. “The challenge even appeared in the newspapers. But Taleb chickened out, saying that he should be given £1,000 before the match because if he lost he wouldn’t be able to face people in Egypt and would have to settle in another country.

“The members of my club then said that they wanted to bring in some young player and hand him over to me. Thus entered Jonah Barrington. At that time, Barrington worked in a mill. He used to come early in the morning to have squash training from me and then left for the mill. Despite this ‘hurried’ training, I made him ready to challenge for the very next British Open, in 1967.

“The day before it started, Barrington played a match against me and could take only one point in three games. He was so depressed that he wanted to withdraw from the tournament. But I knew the prevailing standard and encouraged him to go ahead.”

The rest is history. Barrington not only won the 1967 Open but went on to win the title five more times. But after winning his first title, he again played against Azam – only to lose in the same manner as before.

“After 1963, the British Open title remained outside Pakistan for more than a decade. But I played a part in the next Pakistani victory. Air Marshal Nur Khan, who had become chairman of Pakistan International Airlines in 1973, made earnest efforts to revive Pakistan’s squash fortunes. When he came to England, he invited me to return to Pakistan to help. But I couldn’t leave London as I had to look after my club as well as my family.

“Nur Khan persisted and suggested that some Pakistani players be sent to England to be trained by me. I agreed and put forward the names of Qamar Zaman and Mohibullah Khan Jr. For six weeks, they prepared for 1975 British Open under my supervision. And Qamar Zaman ended the long drought by bringing back the title to Pakistan. The following year, Qamar Zaman was again asked by Nur Khan to avail of my coaching. But Qamar refused and, as you know, Pakistan had to wait for the emergence of Jahangir Khan in the early 80s to regain the coveted crown.”

Like the sons of the great Khans of his era, Hashim and Roshan, Azam’s son Wasil excelled in the sport that had brought fame to his father. Once hailed as one of the hottest young properties in English squash, Wasil won his county title at the tender age of 15 and later a British Junior Open title. He could not fulfil his early promise, but his daughter, Carla, has been active on the professional circuit since 1999. Interestingly, a few years ago, she changed her allegiance from her country of birth, England, to the country of her grandfather’s, Pakistan. Carla reached her highest world ranking of 21 in 2004, a year in which she defeated Nicol David, now world no.1.

When it comes to describing his style of play or the strong points of his game, Azam is evasive. “This is for others to do,” he says. Here is how Jonah Barrington describes Azam 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 arranging 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. There was none of this stamping and pounding that one hears so frequently these days; he moved like a ghost, silently hither and thither. Yet wherever you hit the ball, he was there.

So why has Azam remained in the shadow of the other great Khans? This intriguing question alludes to the numerous rumours that the Khans had their own rules of ascendancy: that the younger ones were allowed to rule the roost not when they were better, but when the elders decided that their time to step up had arrived. It is certainly ‘suspicious’ that in the three British Open finals Azam lost, his opponent was his elder brother, Hashim.

Azam neither confirms nor denies the rumours, but says simply: “Respect for an elder brother is very much ingrained in our Pushtun culture. The words bhai sahib [respected brother] meant everything to me. He was my coach and mentor.”

A member of the most successful family the game has ever seen, Azam Khan was also directly involved in the grooming of world champions from his adopted land as well as the country of his birth. He was a great champion in his own right. But for two factors – first respect for his brother and later mourning for his son – Azam Khan might have been the greatest squash player of all time.

Perhaps he was.

Sports’ greatest tragedy

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Published in The News (a leading Pakistani English language national daily
by Ijaz Chaudhry

On the seventh of September this year, a Yak-42 plane carrying 45 people collided with a communications mast seconds after taking off from an airport near the Russian town of Yaroslavl before plunging to the ground in a ball of flames.

On board was the town’s ice hockey team, Lokomotiv Yaroslavl, for their first match of the season in neighbouring Belarus.

The team was one of Russia’s best having won the Russian championship three times and boasted star players who had appeared in North America’s prestigious NHL including three Czechs, one Slovak, and a Swede.

The disaster prompted the authorities to postpone the start of Russia’s ice hockey season, while hundreds of fans at a suspended match in the city of Ufa broke down in tears.

There have been quite a few air disasters taking lives of members of notable sports teams but the Munich Air Disaster is the most recalled mishap in the history of sports.

The Munich air disaster occurred on February 6, 1958. The British European Airways Flight 609 crashed while taking off from a slush-covered runway at the Munich airport in West Germany. The plane was on its way back from a European Cup tie in Belgrade. On board was the Manchester United football team, supporters and journalists. 23 of the 44 passengers died.

Manchester United were the best-known team in England. They were popularly called the ‘Busby Babes’ because of their manager Matt Busby and age of the players which was unusually young.

Among the dead were eight United players, four of them, Byrne, Edward, Pegg and Taylor had all been capped by England, and Whelan was a Republic of Ireland international.

BUSBY BABES WERE SPECIAL

‘Busby babes’ was based on Matt Busby’s visionary concept of youth scheme in which older players were replaced by youth team products, rather than follow the traditional approach of picking established players from other sides.

Back from the Hitler’s war in 1945, he initiated his scheme of recruiting boys straight from school. His ideas immediately paid dividends as the lads won the FA youth cup all the first five years after its inception in 1952.

Now the time had come to implement the actual master plan at the bigger stage.

The Manchester United manager had displayed great courage in throwing away the old boys. It is worth mentioning they had not done badly; had won him the FA Cup in 1948 and the League in 1952. But the 1952 champions had grown old together and the decline was dramatic. The next season, they lost six of their first 11 matches. At this stage, Busby started promoting more and more of his youth team.

Within three years, the show was set for Busby Babes. The squad with average age of just 22, won back-to-back Championships in 1956 and 1957.

Prior to the disaster, they were placed 4th. However with just one defeat in last 11 games, a hat-trick of the titles could not have been ruled out.

IMMEDIATE AFTERMATH

Seven of Manchester United’s players died immediately while the most talented of them all, Duncan Edwards succumbed to injuries after two weeks of heroic struggle at the hospital in Munich. For Johnny Berry and Jackie Blanchflower, severe injuries meant that they never played again. Busby himself suffered multiple severe injuries and remained in hospital for two months after the crash, most of the time in Oxygen Tent. He even had his last rites read twice.

There were speculations that the club would fold, but a United team mainly jumbled from reserve and youth team players completed the 1957-1958 season. United only won one league game after the crash, finishing ninth in the league. However they were able to reach the final of the FA Cup.

ENGLAND’S LOSS

Manchester United managed to revive after a few seasons but England’s loss was greater. At least three players would have been invaluable for England’s national team. Taylor was the finest all-round centre forward in the country with ratio of goals per game more than any other United player in the 20th century.

Byrne was widely regarded as the best full back in the land while Duncan Edwards was undoubtedly “the best footballer” in England. Colman and Jones were exciting prospects and left-winger Pegg who had already played for England would have served them for a long time.

Had they been available for the 1958 and more particularly 1962 World Cups, England would have definitely shone better. Former England captain, Jimmy Armfield has even said, “There is no doubt with Edwards, Byrne and Taylor we would have won the World Cup in 1958 and 1962.”

BUSBY MASTERMINDED THE REVIVAL

Busby was back very next season (1958-1959) and remarkably rose a second generation of Busby babes which included legends like George Best and Denis Law. After a build up period of a few years, Man U were back with a vengeance. They restarted their success story by lifting the FA cup in 1963 followed by two league titles in three years in mid-sixties. And a decade after the great tragedy, Manchester United became the first English club to claim the biggest prize of them all, the European Cup in 1968. Two of the crash survivors, Bobbly Charlton and Billy Foulkes starred in that victorious campaign; Charlton scored a brace in the final while Foulkes had netted a vital goal in the semifinal.

Charlton had already achieved the highest glory. He played a stellar role in England’s finest hour, winning the World Cup in 1966. A year, he also won the coveted “European Footballer of the year” award.

Both Busby and Charlton were later also knighted.

Munich Air Disaster is a saga of struggle, success, tragedy, heroism, hope, resilience, resurgence and glory (individual and collective); the greatest of all the fiction writers could not have envisioned.

Haroon Rahim: The greatest tennis player Pakistan has ever produced

Published in THE NEWS (a leading Pakistani English daily) October 28, 2007

He not only appeared in the main draw of three of the four Grand Slam tournaments: Wimbledon, US Open and French Open but he also has the honour of winning matches in all three of them

By Ijaz Chaudhry

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During this year’s Wimbledon championships, interest in tennis among people of Pakistan was the highest in decades. This sudden and short lived attention to tennis in the country was due to the fact that Aisam-ul-Haq became the first Pakistani to play in the main rounds of Wimbledon, the most prestigious of all the tennis tournaments, since Haroon Rahim in 1976. Aisam reached the second round where he lost to the former Wimbledon champion Marat Safin.

As it had happened after such a long time, many sports followers got inquisitive about past performances of Pakistani tennis players. The query about the “greatest Pakistani tennis player of all times” also sprang up.

A number of Pakistani players before Aisam have figured in the main draw of Wimbledon. The list includes Mahmmod Alam, Saeed Hai, Munir Pirzada, Saeed Mir, Munawwar Iqbal and Haroon Rahim.

Out of them only Saeed Hai and Haroon Rahim appeared in grand slam tournaments other than Wimbledon.

However, Haroon Rahim easily stands out. He not only appeared in the main draw of three of the four grand slam tournaments: Wimbledon, US Open and French Open but he also has the honour of winning matches in all three of them. Moreover he won matches not only in singles but also in doubles in the main round of each of these three.

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He is also the only Pakistani to reach the quarter-final of any grand slam (1971 US Open, doubles). In addition, he has the unique distinction of being the only Pakistani to win ATP title either in singles or doubles — Haroon won both. And he attained a world ranking of 44 and no other Pakistani has ever come even close to that.

Born in Lahore in 1949, Haroon got early encouragement right at home. His father, a civil servant, was a tennis fanatic and encouraged all his children to play tennis competitively.

Apart from Haroon, not only his two other brothers, Zufiqar and Sarfraz but sister Shahnaz also won the national championships of Pakistan.

His was a precocious talent. Haroon became national champion at the age of just 15. He also represented Pakistan at the Davis Cup at the same age. Both are Pakistan records till today. Then onwards there was no looking back. Apart from representing Pakistan, he also started playing in the international professional circuit.

Soon he was awarded tennis scholarship by one of America’s top universities, UCLA (University of California, Los Angeles). At UCLA, under the tutelage of famous coach Glenn Bassett, Haroon’s talent really flourished. He led UCLA to win NCAA title in 1970 as well as in 1971. His team mate in 1971 was one Jimmy Connors who later became one of tennis’ all-time greats and also remained Haroon’s doubles partner for some time on the pro-circuit. Apart from winning the team title, Haroon also won the NCAA doubles title in 1971 with Jeff Borowiak. In singles, he reached the semifinal of easily the world’s most competitive collegiate championships.

Haroon turned professional, when still a teenager, in 1968 and remarkably made his debut in the grand slams’ main round the very same year.

He remained active on the professional circuit for around a decade. During this period, he appeared in grand slam events a number of times.

Haroon’s best results in Grand Slams

Singles:

Australian Open

French Open  Second Round

Wimbledon    Second Round

US Open        Third Round

Doubles:

French Open  Second Round

Wimbledon    Third Round

US Open        Quarter Final

Though Haroon could not land a grand slam title he did win five ATP titles (two singles and three doubles).

It is pertinent to mention that ATP tournaments along with Grand Slam events form the first tier of the professional tennis circuit followed by ATP challenger (2nd tier) and Futures (last tier).

Haroon won his both ATP titles in 1976 and against very distinguished opponents.

The first at Little Rock against former Wimbledon runner up, Alex Metreveli, and then the second at Cleveland, against the former record holder of the fastest serve, Australian, Colin Dibley. His three doubles titles were won at Oslo, Norway in 1974, North Conway in 1975 and Little Rock in 1978.

He twice finished as runner-up in ATP tournaments, in 1972 he lost to the US Open winner Manual Orantes in the final.

In ATP doubles apart from winning three crowns, he lost in the final the same number of times. In one of these, his partner was his team mate at UCLA, legendary Jimmy Connors.

Haroon reached a career highest ranking of 44 in 1977. He was respected and feared by all the top pro-circuit players and defeated top players like Connors, Ashe, among others. Haroon married an American girl and lives in the US.

Youth always looks for role models in every sport. For any Pakistani youngster taking up tennis seriously, Haroon should be the inspiration.

His accomplishments at all levels are quite awesome: National champion at 15, Davis Cup appearance also at 15, Winning scholarship to the best ‘tennis university’ of US of his time, Excelling at NCAA, Shining at grand slams, Winning ATP titles, Defeating most of the top players of his time at least once.

Achievements of Haroon should serve as a motivation to Pakistan’s up and coming tennis players. It remains to be seen if any Pakistani player in future can come close to attaining these heights.

Heavens are waiting for you at Kalam

My travelogue in ‘The News’ (Pakistan’s second largest English-language newspaper) published on 29 July 2001

Visit Kalam in Swat which is comparable to the scenic spots in Switzerland or the South of France, writes Ijaz Chaudhry 

Swat is a large beautiful mountainous area in the Malakand division of NWFP which has a number of spots/places worth visiting.

One of them is Kalam. It takes about nine to ten hours from Rawalpindi by car to reach this picturesque place. Public transport, mostly wagons from Pirvidahi Bus Stand, Rawalpindi, take a couple of hours less. From Rawalpindi, one reaches Nowshera via the Peshawar road and turns right for Kalam. The road is excellent and quite wide throughout. The landscape alters gradually. From the brown barren hills of the Potohar area, the hills gradually become green. The number of trees also increases in direct proportion. The temperature, on the other hand, decreases. In Kalam, the weather is ideal from May to August.

However, it should be mentioned that if some people do not want to subject themselves to a long car journey (though quite comfortable) or want to save time, there is the option of air travel. There are daily flights from Islamabad to Saidu Sharif (subject to the weather of course). And from Saidu Sharif, public transport for Kalam is easily available.

On reaching Kalam, one comes across a plethora of hotels. These hotels cater for all income groups but even the rates of the most ‘expensive’ ones are also reasonable.  Unlike many other such places in Pakistan, these hotels are well-kept.

One of the most striking features of the area is the River Swat running through the whole valley in a majestic style. There is also the eye-catching sight where River Shu and River Utroor join the river Swat itself. Most of the hotels are on the river front and a few of them are even built on the river. Here, sometimes one gets the feeling as if the hotel is floating on the river.

All around are hills covered with lush green plantations.  This greenery has a wide variety thus preventing the scene being monotonous.  At some places there are rows of pine trees, while at other points the greenery comprises of smaller plants. The air is very clean and the whole ambience is mesmerizing. This feeling is not peculiar to Kalam only.

There are quite a few other places to explore, nearby. The closest is Ushu, hardly 30 minutes drive from the central Kalam where there is a rather narrow stretch of the River Swat − a spot worth spending a few hours. Many small restaurants are located on either bank of river.

Further up from this place is Mahoodand Lake. The route to Mahoodand Lake is very rough and hilly, and one can only travel there by jeep which can be easily hired from Kalam and even from Mutiltan near Ushu. From the latter, jeeps can be rented for less. From Kalam, the rent of a jeep varies from Rs. 800 to 1,200, depending upon the number of visitors and the resultant demand at that particular time of the season. It takes about three hours to reach Mahoodand from Kalam. En route, there are a couple of mesmerizing spots. One of them is a waterfall cascading down in almost a straight line. Kiosks have been established in these tiny locations offering cold drinks, biscuits, etc.

On arriving at Mahoodand, an extremely clean and large lake welcomes you. The sprawling green lakeside area adds to the beauty of the site. A couple of small restaurants even offer tents for those interested in camping. Some people bring their own tents. Boating facilities are also available in the lake.

Yet another place, commonly frequented is Utroor, also a couple of hours drive from Kalam. On the way is a restaurant-cum-park-cum-zoo. Utroor on its own does not have much to offer but there is an extremely captivating lake not far from it. The lake is only accessible on foot and the trek is difficult and steep.

So much for the sightseeing. There are culinary attractions as well. Trout is a delicacy of Kalam not be missed and is available in most hotels, big and small. Some hotels even have their own fish farms, from where the fish is picked up and readily cooked.

What if one wants to do some shopping, especially ladies, and bring home some mementoes or gifts for near and dear ones. Kalam caters for this as well. It has quite a sizeable bazaar. Apart from the items of daily utility, the shops also sell Swat caps and beautiful dresses with famous Swati embroidery.

However, what is the most pleasant (and surprising) about the bazaar is the attitude of the shopkeepers. Unlike several other tourist destinations in the country, the Swatis are not bent on fleecing the visitors. Almost all the prices are reasonable.

Another place which can be and should be seen during this trip is Malaam Jabba, which is very much a resort in its own right. It can be visited en route to Kalaam or on returning from Kalaam. After a two and a half hour drive from Kalam, a left turn near Khazakhela leads to Malaam Jabba, located at a height of more than 7000 feet. It has a wonderful PTDC (Pakistan Tourism Development Corporation) hotel and a chairlift. People throng this place mostly during winters because it has been developed into a very good ski resort.

So do visit Kalam which is comparable to the scenic spots of Switzerland or the South of France. And we are fortunate enough to have it in our own motherland.