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Poor Peshawar village home of squash dynasty
Despite its fame, promises to develop the village remain unfulfilled
By Javed Aziz Khan
PESHAWAR, Pakistan — When airplanes makes their final approach to Peshawar International Airport’s lone runway, they fly over the ramshackle houses of historic Neway Kelay.
But this poor town has an even greater claim to fame: It has produced seven squash world champions for Pakistan, including five from a single family.
In fact, they are the only squash champions the country has produced.
The “Champions Villa” in the village, located about 2km west of the Peshawar cantonment on a road leading to the tribal Khyber Agency, is a small unkempt building that is currently used by the grandchildren of Hashim Khan. He was the first of the champions from the Khan dynasty.
Once, there were plans to develop Neway Kelay as a model village in recognition of the Khans. But those promises went unfulfilled. Former squash player Farmanullah, who became a businessman, says the town doesn’t have even a single squash court.
Dreaming of becoming champions like the great Jehangir Khan — and finding a way out of poverty — dozens of youngsters from Neway Kelay ride Chinese-made bicycles or take speedy Bara buses, their racket-bags hanging from their shoulders. Their collective destination is the practise courts in the cantonment.
Many work as ball-boys or perform odd jobs on squash and tennis courts, mostly run by the Pakistani Air Force and other government departments. The youngsters hope to play a game before paying members arrive.
“I am optimistic about becoming a champ one day, like Hashim Khan. You know Hashim Khan was a ball-boy before he stunned the world by winning the British Open”, said Mohammad Rashid, a 14-year-old ball-boy from Neway Kelay.
Hashim Khan emerged as the first champion from the village and from Pakistan when he beat four-time British Open champion Mahmudul Karim 9-5, 9-0 and 9-0 in the final of the British Open (the Wimbledon of squash) in 1951, shocking squash lovers worldwide.
He won the game’s biggest tournament for seven years: 1951 - 1956 and again in 1958. A relative, Roshan Khan, interrupted his winning streak in 1957.
From 1954 through 1963, every British Open final became a family show — a duel between the Khans from Neway Kelay.
Roshan Khan won the British Open every year from 1959 to 1962. In 1963, the championship tradition carried down to Roshan’s son, Mohibbullah Khan.
Pakistan did not win the tournament for the next 11 years, but another denizen of Neway Kelay, Qamar Zaman, brought it home in 1975 by defeating compatriot Gogi Allaunddin. Even then, the best was still to come.
Jehangir Khan, son of Roshan Khan and brother of Mohibbullah Senior, is arguably the best player who ever lived. Advised by a doctor never to play squash after a childhood illness, Jehangir emerged as British Open champion in 1982 by beating Hiddy Jahan 9-2, 10-9 and 9-3.
He won the British Open ten consecutive years, clinched the World Open six times and remained unbeaten in 555 successive international matches over six years. Even among his family of champions, his achievements stood out.
“Neway Kelay has produced seven world champions for the country who have ruled over the game for 37 long years. The town is in fact a nursery of champions”, Zaman told Central Asia Online.
He said Peshawar has 35 squash courts. But, access isn’t universal. According to him, government officials reserve some courts for their own exercise, leaving those who want to make a future in squash on the outside looking in.
“Around 200 boys are playing in our courts. Among them, Amir Atlas is No. 20 in the world, Farhan is among the top 30 players and Mansoor Zaman enjoys a ranking among the top 80 players”, Zaman said.
Neway Kelay’s status as home of squash champions is inseparably tied to the Khan family. The family’s passion for the game has rubbed off on others in the village, leading them to see squash as a way out of poverty, even though the game’s players and fans are mostly middle and upper class.
Some budding players are jealous of the attention given to the youngsters from the champion family. Others blame the cancellation of scheduled tournaments due to the law-and-order situation as a major reason for the decline in their world ranking.
“Five major tournaments could not be held here, due to which our ranking dropped. Had we played these championships, most of our players would be in the top 100 of the world”, said Nosherwan Khan, an 18-year-old star who is preparing for the World Open, to be held in the United States this August.
Zaman said the country also lacks a champion at the moment to bring back international laurels, but he’s optimistic about the future of Pakistan and Neway Kelay in the game.
“Look, this is a cycle”, he said. “Presently, players from other countries are dominant, and we are not producing champs. I don’t see anyone in the existing lot. But from among the next generation, yes, I am sure we will produce more champions very soon”.