Kausar Fatima is optimistic about the future of a popular sport
Resurgence of Squash – There was a broad-based consensus that the days when squash reigned supreme in Pakistan were gone for good but with the victory of Hamza Khan in junior world title the hopes have been rekindled that the good name secured by Pakistan in this popular sport may be resurrected. Squash is rated to be a middle-class game with very little expenditure required to build a court to play and just a racquet and a ball were enough requirements to sweat out. Its hectic pace dictates its short span and it could be easily included in fast urban lifestyle. All major clubs in Pakistan have squash courts and employed trained markers to play as partners.
Squash was originally invented in the celebrated Harrow School in London known as a nursery of ruling class of Britain and it shortly gained currency worldwide. British colonial officials spread it all over the subcontinent and it was picked up by markers whose entire families excelled in it. Mostly played in the northern parts of the subcontinent owing to cold weather conditions it trickled down to hotter places where it was played early in the morning or after sunset when weather cooled a bit.
It was in the 1950s that squash came to the notice of Pakistanis when an obscure Pathan Hashim Khan from Peshawar won the British Open Championships. Hashim Khan, who lived to the ripe age of 100, was a trainer with the British Indian Army whose former officers encouraged him to play in England and he never looked back. Hashim Khan four times defeated the reigning champion Mahmoud Karim of Egypt and carved a niche for himself.
It was essentially this lineage that dominated the international squash competitions. Between 1950 and 1997, Pakistan squash players amassed a whopping 30 British Open titles, 14 World Open titles and plenty of local titles. Pakistani players Hashim Khan, Roshan Khan, Qamar Zaman, Jahangir Khan and Jansher Khan dominated the world squash circuit for years on.
Amongst them Jahangir Khan was rated as probably the best squash player of all times. During his career he won World Open six times and British Open for a record ten times! Between 1981 and 1986 he was unbeaten in competitive play for five years and during this time he won an unbelievable 555 matches. This was not only the longest winning streak in squash history but also one of the longest unbeaten runs by any athlete in top-level professional sports. His mantle was ably picked up by Jansher Khan but after 1998 when he was defeated in British Open, Pakistan gradually faded away from competitive squash.
Like everything else in Pakistan, decline in sports, particularly squash was the result of 9/11 and subsequent terrorism that gripped the country. The terror attacks on cricket teams of New Zealand and Sri Lanka closed doors of international sporting competition for Pakistan. Bereft of competing on the home turf, the sporting talent withered. International participation ensured widespread chances of sponsorships and exposure to foreign competitions but with no one coming to Pakistan these avenues closed down. The result was that there were no Pakistani players in squash that are capable to reach even the preliminary rounds of international championships. Squash ‘Khans’ hailed from KP that still is a battleground of terrorism. They tried to establish a local academy but were hounded out after rise in terrorist attacks.
The usual difficulties with management also have played havoc with squash. Jahangir Khan, President of World Squash Federation twice, refused to work with Pakistan Squash Federation citing dominance of non-professionals in the management. There appeared to be no check on sports bodies particularly those managing sporting activities of government and corporations who treat these bodies as their personal fiefdoms. They did not listen to any reasonable advice as they are convinced of their own ability. Consequently, funds in squash were completely dried out. Even official patrons such as PAF reduced sponsorship to squash. No regular tournaments were held regularly involving financial benefits to players. The premier national body managing squash has proved to be unprofessional in its attitude and there are complaints about their lack of interest.
However, with the victory of Hamza Khan it is expected that things will change substantially as he brought the country’s first junior squash championship since 1986. Peshawar Zalmi owner Javed Afridi congratulated Hamza while also announcing Rs.1 million as a token of appreciation from the Zalmi Foundation. Hamza Khan’s victory in the U-15 title at the British Junior Open Squash Championship was the springboard for his latest win. Sporting sources mentioned that it had not been a smooth journey for Hamza as he was asked to return from his training in the United States last year and join the training camp in Islamabad, adding that he was warned of repercussions. However, his victory has aroused hopes of the nation The Weekender.