Arsenal's Invicible's 49-game winning run; Martina Navratilova's 74-game winning run, Floyd Mayweather and Rocky Marciano joint-record 49 fights undefeated; Babe Ruth's 40-plus home runs in seven straight seasons...
....All remarkable accomplishments which have rightly taken their place in the annals of sporting history. But one which has sadly passed a little under the radar, to the wider sporting world at least, is squash player Jahangir Khan's incredible winning run between 1981 and 1986, bookended by his four-game win over Australia's Geoff Hunt in the 1981 World Open in Toronto and his four-game loss to New Zealand's Ross Norman in the same tournament in Toulouse five years later - the greatest sporting winning streak ever according to the Guinness World Records.
This is subject of an eye-opening new book, Jahangir Khan 555: The Untold Story Behind Squash's Invicible Champion and Sport's Greatest Unbeaten Run, by sports journalists Rod Gilmour and Alan Thatcher. The actual number of wins is the subject of heated debate, something the book explores, but the Pakistani player's absolute dominance of the game, and talismanic influence on it, is not.
During his 13-year playing career, the game of squash saw huge changes to glass-backed squash courts, new scoring systems, rackets, sports science, commercial opportunities and much more - all very much on the back of Jahangir taking the game to new levels. It's a measure of the brilliance of the player that he continued to pack out stadiums worldwide even after his winning run had moved past the incredible and on to the seemingly inevitable; the routine. (In fact, it wasn't unheard of that squash journalists would be in the bar for some of Jahangir's games, such was the inevitability he would be the victor.)
Even more incredibly, this winning streak began when he was just 17, following a turbulent time in the teenager's life which the book provides a great insight to. Remarkably, given the extreme levels of physical intensity he went on to push squash to, the young Jahangir was beset with health issues, as well as learning difficulties (he only began talking aged eight). Indeed, his squash career - and so this remarkable record - may not have happened were it not for the quality of treatment he received at a naval hospital (because of family connections with the Navy). Jahangir had two hernia operations, aged 5 and 12, and doctors told him that he would not be able to play squash at all.
But, defying doctors' orders to only play once a week, and the orders of his father, a leading player himself in his time, Jahangir snuck out of the house to play nearly every day, becoming fitter and healthier in the process. At just 12, against players five years older, he got to the semi-finals of a national tournament. He became Pakistan's junior champion two years later, coached by his elder brother Torsam, who earnt a living from the game. Torsam persuaded the family to let Jahangir, at just 15, move to Sutton, south London, to train under his tutelage. Still at just 15, he claimed a shock win at the world amateur championships, the last tournament of its kind, in Brisbane, having only gained a late wildcard entry thanks to another player's late withdrawal. In the final he beat Phil Kenyon, who, having trained for it for two years. branded it the most disappointing defeat of his career.
A month later, tragedy struck as Torsam, who had been born with an enlarged heart and sometimes experienced dizziness after playing, collapsed on court in a tournament in Adelaide. He was taken to hospital where he suffered another heart attack and passed away. The book weaves a interesting portrait of Jahangir at this time - and how, over time, it proved to be a prime motivating factor in his great success. For about four months, Jahangir retreated into his shell, not playing for four months. But, gradually, family encouraged Jahangir to realise Torsam's dream for him; providing, along with his deep Islamic faith, a higher purpose to hitting a ball against a wall continuously. "It made me stronger and more dedicated to the mission," Jahangir told the authors. "It wasn't purely for myself. I was doing it for someone I loved."
Rahmat Khan, cousin of Jahangir and Torsam, was at this time around World No.12 but, such was his faith in the young Jahangir, decided to sacrifice his own injury-affected career to devote all of his time to coaching Jahangir. They devised a punishing six-day fitness regime to get Jahangir to the top, consisting of a ten-mile run at 6 o'clock, running six miles before breakfast, an hour on court, then a rest before more time on court in the afternoon...the lengths you need to go to be a champion.
Gilmour and Thatcher also tease out interesting thoughts and stories from the two men featuring at either end of the amazing winning streak, particularly New Zealander Norman. For a while during Jahangir's unbeaten run, Norman had became the Pakistani's closest rival. During this time, Norman, while undoubtedly a committed professional, away from tour enjoyed adventurous pursuits such as diving, skiing, surfing, sailing and motorcycling. And it was one such activity, parachuting, in Andover, England, which unfortunately led to a severe knee injury, as he lost control in a sudden change in wind near the ground and landed badly.
He was told by several doctors to forget about squash and just concentrate on walking again. But, strictly against doctors' order, he got back on court, with a knee brace, and not too long after started playing top-level tournaments again, winning every tournament Jahangir did not enter. After winning 3-1 in the 1985 World Championships in Cairo, Jahangir was impressed. "He has improved a lot this year," he said. "But I am better also."
It was a fitting scene which, finally, played out the end of the unbeaten run - a 3,000-strong crowd packed in at the World Open in Toulouse, "screaming and yelling at the top of their voices" like a football crowd, according to Norman, who added that the crowd definitely played its part in the proceedings. (3,000 is a big crowd for squash, given the physical limitations of a small ball and relatively small court). Norman won 9-5, 9-7, 7-9, 9-1 in 110 brutal, dramatic minutes. Interviewed recently, 30 years on from that dramatic win, he said he felt like he had climbed Everest.
The result made front and back pages around the globe and, though many made excuses for the loss on his behalf, Jahangir, testament to his character, never did, accepting the result with grace and perspective. "It's not the end of the world," he said.
Jahangir went unbeaten for a whole eight months after that loss too, until he was toppled by 21-year-old Australian Rodney Martin at the New South Wales Open in October 1987, and his all-time professional record is, though, again, some documentation is a bit patchy, thought to stand at a staggering 796 wins and just 29 losses.
In Persian his name means conqueror. He well earned that title.Suggest a correction