By RJ Mitchell
This week marks the 25th anniversary of Jansher Khan’s record-breaking seventh World Championship title which saw the great Pakistani overtake compatriot Jahangir Khan to become the most successful man ever at the sport’s premier event.
Jahangir had notched six World Championship trophies between 1981 and 1988, when he claimed his final world title by defeating Jansher himself in Amsterdam, in a straight-game masterclass.
Yet Jansher, the younger of the two Pakistani greats by almost six years, was to have the last laugh when he defeated Jahangir in Karachi. He came back from a game behind to win in four games, claiming what was his fifth world title.
But when it came to the capturing of his record-breaking seventh world title in Nicosia, Cyprus, on November 11, it was to be an Englishman, Del Harris, from Essex, who stood in his way.
Now, both men have shared their perspectives of that never-to-be-forgotten day in Cyprus that has gone down in the annals of the sport.
“When I got to Nicosia, with every win and every round I came through, the pressure grew,” said Jansher.
“If my memory is good, then I did not start that well and dropped a game in the opening round [to the Englishman John Ransome] but I finished that match strongly in four sets and that settled me down.
Khan went on to lift eight World Championship titles
“From there, I don’t recall that I lost another game until the final with Del Harris. But I think Peter Nicol, who was in my half of the draw, went out early and, in the quarters, I beat Simon Parke in three and then got Anthony Hill in the semis and also won that in straight games.
“I must be honest and admit that with every round I progressed I did feel the pressure growing and the way I coped with that was to take it one match at a time, never look beyond my opponent and stay in that moment.
“To be honest, from my first world title to my eighth and last, I felt pressure but there is no doubt about it, with the chance to break Jahangir’s record and set a new record, my seventh title was the one I felt it the most in.
“The minute I had levelled with Jahangir by winning a sixth world title in 1994, there was a new pressure to beat his record and it just grew and grew for a year until we got to Cyprus in 1995. Sometimes I could not sleep for thinking about it.”
When he made the final, an epic 101-minute four-game match ensued in which the golden boy of English squash, Harris, came mighty close to taking Jansher’s crown, and his perspective of their encounter is a fascinating recall.
Harris, now a fire-fighter in his native Essex, was by no means cowed by Jansher’s reputation or by the fact he had never beaten him, as he bid to write his own chapter of squash history by becoming the first English men’s World Champion.
Speaking to SquashXtra, Harris said: “I still remember the final well, I’d had three very tough matches to get there and I was pretty tired going into it. But my squash that week was probably the best I’d played, so I just went in and gave it my best shot as the pressure was all on Jansher with him trying to break Jahangir’s record of six world titles.
“I remember it being tight for the first three games and I was playing well and keeping with Jansher. I had game balls in the second and missed out on that game to go two down, and if I’d nicked it that would have made a big difference to me.
Del Harris in action
“I managed to win the third after another tight game, in which I think I saved three match balls to win a tie break, but the fourth game I started to tire a bit and I think the previous matches finally took my legs.
“Maybe the one frustration is that Jansher got quite a lot of very soft lets and some very dubious calls at big points and that took some momentum from me at key times, but overall I was pleased with my performance and I gave it absolutely everything.
“At the end of the day you have to take your hat off to Jansher, he beat me and became the first seven-time World Champion before eventually going on to win eight world titles, but I wasn’t far away from him that day and he knew he’d been in a match.”
That last sentiment is one that the legendary Jansher is happy to endorse, while his recall of their encounter is refreshingly candid in his admission of how close Harris came to pulling off what would have been a huge shock.
“When I got to the final, I knew that Del Harris would be tough,” said Jansher, who has spent more months at World No.1 than any man in history.
“We had played a few exhibition matches on a short tour of England and they were really tough games. Although Del had never beaten me up until then, we had some hard games also in tournaments, he was very strong and athletic and he had a powerful physical presence, but he also had good touch and I knew he fancied his chances, as they say.
“That final lasted over 100 minutes and it was without doubt the toughest of my eight victories and nine finals. There were two tie breaks in that match in the second and third games and the crucial one was the second, which I won, although he had game balls to go level.
“But the key in winning that match was my volley. This was something I had been looking to add just to take time away from my opponents and become more aggressive and it was vital in that final and perhaps I surprised him.
“I think Del saved maybe three match balls to win the third [17-16], I felt that had taken a lot out of him and in the fourth I was comfortable. I will always remember the moment I won it, as the crowd went nuts. I don’t think I ever experienced a reaction like it, but maybe that was because it was a piece of history and maybe just how hard the match had been.
Jansher (left) takes on the great Jahangir (right) during the 1988 World Championship final
“I remember serving and just being determined to hit the side wall and not give Del a free shot and after he returned down the back hand wall I squeezed him with a decent length, he gave me the loose ball and I played a backhand kill and that was it, it didn’t come back and I had done it.
“It was a surreal moment, and we shook hands and then I got to my knees to give thanks to Allah while the fans were going crazy. I will never forget it, this was the sweetest moment of my career.”