The sporting world, much like other industries, is facing unprecedented and dire circumstances due to the obvious global situation. However, most sports in Pakistan, barring cricket, were already on the fringes of existence pre-COVID-19. One such sport is squash. It was once heralded as a national pastime and inspired millions to pick up a racquet and head to ‘gymkhana’, a country club or sports centre.
The socio-political history of squash in Pakistan goes even deeper than that—a bunch of ball boys learnt how to play the game after their colonial overlords exited the courts they built on usurped land. These ball boys then went on to dominate the game in the mid-20th century, in turn, inspiring millions—including some of the greatest athletes to ever play a sport all the while making a statement that they too could take something that didn’t belong to them and add their own flavour or touch to it.
Yet, due to corruption and poor governance, squash is nothing more than something people once played in Pakistan; the personification of an old adage that once described the might of Pakistan’s sporting antics.
There is no doubt that squash has diminished from most peoples’ consciousness at a global level and the lack of domestic sports in Pakistan after 2009 have contributed to the game’s waning popularity. However, the issues around the decline of the sport in Pakistan are more significant than that. It’s almost as if the country failed to capitalise on a sporting opportunity that was placed on a pedestal for it. And what a pedestal it was.
Pakistan’s past antics in the game are still breathtaking. Its athletes remarkably won 30 British Opens and 14 World Opens in the men’s game. These are records that still place them at the top of most rankings.
Jahangir and Jansher Khan alone amassed 14 World Open titles and, alongside their predecessors, they had a hold on the game that was arguably superior to the dominance of the Nadal-Djokovic-Federer trio in tennis. To add to that, Jahangir Khan has also been referred to as the most dominant athlete ever. Alas, all of this gradually diminished after the retirement of Jansher Khan and, just like that, Pakistani athletes no longer made up the crème da le crème of squash.
It is important to add that this was never the case on the women’s side of the game which saw its successes more recently with the likes of the Khan legacy torchbearer, Carla Khan. Her career revolves around a high ranking of 21 and the famous defeat of one of squash’s greatest female athletes ever, Nicol David. There was also Maria Toorpakai who went on to become the second Pakistani woman to break into the Top 50s of the PSA squash rankings.
With a handful of women in the top 200 rankings today and three men in the top 100, Pakistani squash players are still competitive, relatively speaking, but they are a far cry from their predecessors. The blame shouldn’t be put on them. Rather, it should focus on the institutions and authorities that manage the game. For the better part of the 21st century, Pakistani squash authorities have had to deal with investigations and allegations, both internally and externally, from squash authorities, players and their families. In 2016, Pakistan was in the spotlight for a controversy that was at the forefront of the squash world when Pakistan won the World Junior Team Championship while fielding over-age players to win the title. Their passports stated they were older than their actual ages.
Hence, several stories were published across the media alongside complaints from other squash associations and players for unfair dealings. And rightfully so, most sports associations do a far superior job of managing potential issues that may arise in regards to background checks and the likes. But this issue was already publicised since at least 2012 and went on for most of the decade.
Adding to this, former Pakistani squash players and coaches almost always look abroad to hone their skills or perhaps utilise them to gain an education or make a living out of the game. This squash ‘brain-drain’ has led to major losses in the already small fortunes of Pakistani squash. Former players and coaches now ply their trade overseas such as Rehman Gul coaching the Mexican National Team or Shahid Zaman, Jamshed Gul Khan, Khalid Atlas Khan and Jahanzeb Khan coaching in the US, and many others based across the UK, US and Canada.
On this note, Carla Khan, while speaking to Sportageous, stated that there is a lot of ‘politics involved in squash in Pakistan; there are different squash families that can’t work alongside one another. Plus, the players are not given the right chances by the governing bodies.’ She cited this as the reason why many leave Pakistan to improve their game or coach abroad where they are respected like other players, as they rightfully deserve.
One only has to speak to squash professionals, who are no longer involved with the game domestically and willing to share, to see the clear nepotism and corruption rife across the game. The blame should be directed towards the governing bodies who have essentially forced these departures upon former athletes and coaches, who, in turn, have had no choice but to find greener pastures abroad due to the likes of minimal investment and recognition and unprofessional treatment received at home.
With the continual failings of squash authorities and bodies in Pakistan, very soon, the stats, records and legacy that its players still hold onto will diminish and the great game will continue to be squashed at the highest level.
There are several mitigations that can potentially be implemented to perhaps fix the game but with COVID-19 already making it difficult for the best athletes of the country, squash players will be heading back to the service box with no support. Adding to this, with the continual failings of squash authorities and bodies in Pakistan, very soon, the stats, records and legacy that its players still hold onto will diminish and the great game will continue to be squashed at the highest level.