Long read: India coach Chris Walker recalls battles with Pakistani squash great Jahangir Khan
Chris Walker, India’s new squash coach and former world number one. 4, sits naked. A few neatly placed squash balls save the redness. It was for a photo shoot in the 80s. An ingenious idea from a photographer friend to attract potential clothing sponsors; he was then the No. 1 player in the United Kingdom, and without a clothing contract. So why not get naked? “It worked, I got one immediately!”
Walker sits on the toilet potty. The Queen of England is waiting for him on the squash court to inaugurate the tournament. When he finally emerges, a panicked sentry shouts, “I found him!” And asks him to hurry up. “The Queen waits while Walker sits on the throne,” headlined the Evening Standard the next day. Walker scoffs at the memory.
He’s doing his best to circumvent pandemic hurdles to coach the Indians – “I have high hopes and I’m confident we can do something special” – but that’s in the future. It is his past that fascinates us for the moment. A long career that has allowed him to see the greatness of Pakistan’s squash sultans up close: Jahangir Khan and Jansher Khan in the late 80s and early 90s, and his fierce fight against David Palmer in the final of the British Open 2001 which he lost after leading 2-0 which he still revisits from time to time. But before going to Birmingham 2001 for a little masochism, it is better to go to Karachi 1993 to marvel.
The greatest squash player of all time, the Pakistani Jahangir Khan awaited him in the semi-finals of the World Cup. “Jahangir would shatter opponents – mentally and physically. All-out, relentless attack, you can feel it breathing down your neck. There was nothing left of you at the end of a match against him. You might have earned a few points in the games, but he would have so brutally left you breathless. It was sensational,” raves Walker.
At his pomp, over an astonishing five-and-a-half-year span, Khan has never lost a match, winning a ridiculous 555 consecutive matches. A miracle that people have gathered around the glass walls in courts around the world to catch a glimpse of it. Around this time, Channel 4, a UK television network, sent their man to Khyber Pass in Pakistan with Khan to trace his story. A scene stands out. The men sit curled up, rifles tilted on their shoulders. Uncles, neighbors, friends of Khan’s older relatives. What do they think of Khan? “Achaa hai, ab jawaan hai. Aage jaake acha khiladi banega! (Well, he’s young, he’ll get better in the future!)”, we confide. The documentary host convulses in amazed laughter, a soft smile stretching from Khan’s lips. No wonder he racked up 555 triumphs; they are not easily influenced in the mountains.
But in 1993, the rumor at the time was that Khansaab had come out of retirement to play in the tournament. “I play 60% for the home crowd here,” Khan said before the game. Walker had played it a few times before, lost it all, but was faster; at 26, three years younger than Khan; and thought this might be his big chance, again. Also, the Karachi court was a “dead” court and “it was fine with me, I thought”. Khan was back in a flurry even though Walker would win a game and it was 1-2.
“The court was dead and I thought now my better physical shape would make the difference.” But the balls got a little soft, soft, after 45 minutes of Khan beating them, life slowly slipping away from them. “Now there wasn’t a lot of rebound. It discouraged me. But Jahangir went all out with his shots. I don’t know how he did it, but he did it. It was sometimes difficult to recover the ball. He played so many shots. It was over in the blink of an eye, Walker was running in tatters, but his pride was intact. “I once read a book by my squash hero Jonah Barrington, ‘Murder in the Squash Court – The Only Way to Win’, on my way to a tournament and was swept away by the bloodthirsty spirit described in the book, I won that tournament. Jonas is of course right. It’s a bloody and grueling sport, you get murdered. Khan got me in, okay!”
The deadliest loss though, one he still revisits every so often in his life with a grimace, was the 2001 loss in the British Open final to David Palmer. He was leading 2 games to love, but would run out of gas to lose the next three. “I still think about it. The British Open was my childhood dream; it was the trophy I wanted so badly. Yet it was a miraculous run that year. Unsure of his future, he had walked away from the sport, choosing to travel the world for six months.
“The love for the game was back at the end of the trip and I started training. I also had to go through the qualifying rounds that year to qualify for the main draw. I had a grueling five sets in the tournament and I guess I was physically finished by the final. It was pretty noticeable in the match. For the first two games he was all over Palmer, mixing up his drop shots, his volleys, his pace and angle of cross-court changes, but once fatigue set in and Palmer began to crush him, the match began to slip away.
Considering he was evaluating his career just a year before the tournament, it was a stunning achievement. “Still, I was leading 2-0…” There is a pause in the WhatsApp call and it is not due to internet buffering. The question springs up: “Are you still haunted by this?” Walker refutes but admits it bothers him. “But I played and beat Palmer in a match the next year. So it was a nice feeling, I had my revenge. And I know I was good enough to win that British Open if not. It’s for the body Murder on the squash court, but the memories linger.
“The funny thing is that immediately after the defeat, one of the first people I spoke to after leaving the pitch was Jahangir Khan, who had retired of course but was there. And that he said, “Chris! Why didn’t you play more moves?! Hahaha! Thanks Jahangir, you should have shouted that at me in the middle of the match. Why didn’t I play more moves, indeed?” Crazy times. I loved those years.
Squash is not easy on the body. Forget to play, even looking at it makes you wince. Squatting body contorting at obtuse angles; blinding turns; hands, legs and heads pulled in all directions into claustrophobic glass walls – “What’s not to like?” Walker laughs at this observation. Walker had both of her hips replaced a few years ago. Jansher Khan underwent several back surgeries last year. Jahangir Khan’s brother’s heart stopped on the court in the middle of the game. “It is indeed a physically exhausting sport – and yet such art, such skill is involved.” That’s all.
Jahangir Khan’s elder brother died in the field, heart stopping. Jansher Khan, another great squash player from Pakistan who led 19-18 in personal battles with Jahangir, underwent several back surgeries last year. Walker himself had both of his hips replaced a few years ago. “You must be extremely fit.” Like Jahangir, but what distinguishes the Pakistani champion who allowed him to win the British Open 10 times between 1982 and 1993 and to be world champion six times?
“Jahangir has always been relentless with his power and his ability to hit the ball with such precision. And he was getting the ball rolling so soon – literally breaking you down and leaving you with nowhere to hide. You’ll crumble at the end of the game. a game against him. He did that time and time again and people couldn’t get along with it. No wonder it took five and a half years for anyone to beat him.
Jahangir’s career would forever be tied to Jansher Khan, in the minds of fans of a certain vintage, and Walker explains how Jansher beat Jahangir.
“So at some point Jansher tried to figure out how to ring the cat and make a name for himself. He doesn’t have Jahangir’s physical presence, so he wasn’t going to win the speed and power game. So he has to figure out how the hell tire this guy out, how to make him vulnerable enough to get points and win a game.
“Jansher’s philosophy was, ‘I’m going to keep Jahangir on the court for an hour and a half so he’ll at least be tired enough to play a game of squash against him! Until then, he’ll absorb the pressure for an hour , become incredibly effective for an hour and a half before he can start applying his skills which he obviously had because he’s a great player he has shots, strategies but none of that will work for the first hour and a half against Jahangir!” Walker laughs. “So you have two totally different players. He had to develop this strategy just to outplay Jahangir. The other players can beat normally and beat at their own game.”
It’s time to get in the hot seat. Jahangir or Jansher? “I have to say Jahangir by a tiny margin because he was unbeatable for five and a half years – it’s unbelievable! Jansher had complete confidence in himself in how he was going to beat Jahangir and you had to be strong mentally for him to start doing. At his pomp, Jahangir’s play was something else. You didn’t come into matches against Jansher with apprehension that he was going to break you. Jahangir could and regularly did. .
Jahangir’s reputation was such that professionals were booking plane tickets when they learned they were tipped to play him in the third round. “They would book their flights for the next day. Ridiculous, really. I would always book at the end of the tournament. If I lose, hang in there, watch and learn. What message are you giving to your own spirit if you accept such a loss? »
Jahangir might have asked his opponents questions to which they had no answers, but the question that totally baffled Walker came from the queen. That day when he kept her waiting. “Well, not quite true. She was late and that’s when I rushed to the bathroom! Once I greeted her – and was advised not to shake her hand but just bowing, she glanced at the glassed-in courtyard behind me and asked, “Have you ever played in any of them?! I said, ‘actually yes, we use these portable glass courts all over the world.’ And she said, “Oh good! So you’ve had some practice. Good luck!”