April issue 2010

By | Sports | Published 9 years ago

There was once a time when nobody would dare predict a non-Pakistani champion at the British Open, World Open or any other major international squash tournament. First, it was Jahangir Khan who rode roughshod over his rivals to bag one title after the other. Then it was his successor Jansher Khan, who remained world number one for a record 10 years.

But that was in the ’80s and the ’90s. For the last 12 years or so, not many Pakistani players have been able to even qualify for the big events on the Professional Squash Association’s World Tour. And those who do can’t get beyond the first or second rounds.

Barring the barren period that began with the retirement of Jansher Khan in the late ’90s, Pakistan is easily the most successful nation in the sport’s history, having produced legends like Hashim Khan, Azam Khan, Qamar Zaman, Jahangir Khan and Jansher Khan. From the ’50s right up to the ’90s, Pakistani players ruled the world of squash.

What really went wrong with Pakistan squash?

There are multiple reasons for Pakistan’s squash decline.

The players will tell you that they’ve been dogged by the apathy of the country’s sports authorities. Top officials of the Pakistan Squash Federation (PSF) complain about the lack of interest shown by the sponsors in squash. They also blame the non-serious approach of the national players and claim that the boys want all the rewards but don’t want to work hard to achieve them. Former greats blame both the federation and the current lot of players for the downfall.

The thing is that not a single Pakistani player has managed to climb into the top 10 since the exit of Jansher Khan. It’s a huge downslide for a country which used to have around five or even six of its players in the elite club back in the ’80s.

“That’s because nobody cared to plan for the future,” says Jahangir Khan, easily the most successful squash player in history. “People at the helm of Pakistan squash thought that we will keep on producing world champions. But that’s not how it works. There are a lot of factors involved in the making of a champion and, unfortunately, I don’t see even one such factor in the current scheme of things,” he tells Newsline.

Jahangir fears that squash is on its way to becoming a ‘dead sport’ in Pakistan. He certainly has a point.

The gloom is visible everywhere, from the junior level to the senior ranks. From the mood and morale of the players to the officials’ apathy, you can find countless reasons why things are going from bad to worse for Pakistan squash.

Pakistan’s uncertain security situation has further worsened matters. National squash players used to get opportunities to rub shoulders with other professionals on the World Tour in world ranking events at home. But the PSA has stopped awarding tour events to Pakistan because of security apprehensions.

They say that when things touch rock bottom, they start getting better. But for Pakistan squash there are no such signs.

To make things better, the PSF will have to take a series of concrete steps without wasting any more time. Firstly, it will have to launch a major campaign to lift the sport with all-out efforts to improve the standard of coaching and facilities across the country.

The federation should also establish a think tank that can help diagnose the problems and come up with the right solutions.

In fact, the PSF will have to make efforts to change the entire culture of squash. It will have to somehow take the game out of the clutches of a few families and bring it to the masses.

But that is a long-term target. It would take at least 10 years to achieve and, that too, through a series of concrete steps like the establishment of squash courts and academies across the country and the training of players as well as coaches.

As a nation, patience is not our virtue. So there is also a need for short-term measures to be taken simultaneously. One such measure would be to appoint a foreign coach. Pakistan has tried various home-grown coaches in the past decade without achieving the desired results.

The PSF can also try out the idea of sending their top players to academies abroad. Nicol David, the reigning women’s world champion from Malaysia, is living proof of the fact that spending time at quality squash academies can really boost your career.

At the moment, Pakistani players are not really getting the right training. There are camps and then there are trials. Teams are selected and then sent for international events. Leading players train with national coaches before major events but fail to achieve any worthwhile results.

But in spite of the fact that there is no improvement, PSF continues to persist with the same arrangement. It will have to rethink this policy.

It will also have to rethink the policy of isolating people like Jahangir and Jansher Khan, who can actually contribute a lot to national squash.

Many would argue that Jahangir and Jansher have done little for Pakistan squash after retiring from the game. That’s true. But frankly speaking, it’s not their job to run Pakistan squash. It would have been great had they established their own academies and produced champions, but that’s not the case. They should be brought on board and their expertise utilised.

The federation should also rethink its policy about punishing or rewarding the players. One of the reasons why our former players were able to make it big on the international stage was the fact that they got ample support from the authorities. They got free air tickets and even daily allowances to play tournaments abroad. That facility should be provided to all leading players but there should be proper monitoring.

It’s true that some of the players have misused that facility in the past but that only happened because the PSF was not vigilant enough. Just because some players abused a facility doesn’t mean that other players should also be deprived of it.

Instead of awarding big cash prizes to junior players, the PSF should introduce scholarships for leading colts with the best of them getting training abroad. Paying the boys in cash on winning junior titles only tempts them to carry on playing on the youth circuit. There have been countless cases when overage players have played and won junior titles just for the money.

Squash has never been a major spectator sport in Pakistan but it is one of those games that has always attracted the attention of sports fans just because of the laurels won by the legendary Jahangir and Jansher Khan. Interest in the sport has diminished over the years because our performance has dipped drastically. If squash has to survive in Pakistan, it will have to produce champions. It’s not an impossible task because the talent is certainly there. What’s needed is the will to do it.

This article is part of a larger report of the health of sports in Pakistan: Game Over

The writer is ranked among the battle-hardened journalists covering sports. As sports editor for The News, he covers sporting action extensively in Pakistan and abroad.