In Part 1 of our 2-part feature with Australia squash legend, Geoff Hunt, he shares his insights into playing against the likes of Jonah Barrington and Qamar Zaman, the arrival of Jahangir Khan, Egypt’s dominance of the game today and his coaching career in Qatar.
In part 2, we hear about squash in Australia by Geoff Hunt and his thoughts on important squash events such as World Squash Day, and how technological innovations can be used to grow viewership and promote the game.
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Zushan Hashmi: When Peta Murphy, Australia’s MP, spoke about her love for squash at the Australian parliament during her inauguration speech, her colleagues laughed. Taking that in the context of the wider perception around squash in Australia, what, in your opinion, has led to this in the country?
Geoff Hunt: Well, for starters, they do play political sides in the parliament, don’t they? They often try to find their opponents’ Achilles heel and they’re more often than not probably quite naive to the game and haven’t necessarily played it before.
It’s such a lovely game to play. It’s terribly sad to think that they would go down that route and make fun of the game but I’m hoping that instance was just a political statement and nothing too serious, because unfortunately for squash, we had an era where we had a pay as you play centres and people were putting up squash courts as a commercial enterprise, but that isn’t the case here anymore.
Originally, when I started playing in Australia most of the squash courts were in private clubs, and they were associated with a tennis or social club. There were also a few council courts, but what happened was that the game became very commercial. And unfortunately, as a consequence, with the rise of other activities and opportunities for leisure, squash started to fall away a bit.
‘In 10 years time we could be in a much better situation than we are now because things are moving towards growing the game.’ – Geoff Hunt on squash in Australia
Adding to this, the squash industry didn’t really promote themselves well enough to maintain their status in the community and eventually facilities ended up being sold off for other things because of land value.
It appeared to everyone that the game was dying and there was not much left in the game. Whatever the perceptions of the game were, to some extent we were losing facilities and there wasn’t much investment over that period of time from states or councils into the infrastructure of the sport.
This could have probably happened if it hadn’t gone down the commercial track in the beginning, in my opinion. Have a look at all the money that was invested in other sports and sporting facilities, in our game, we didn’t think about it because we were happy with the commercial setup, as it was easier for someone else to put their money in. I think that was a mistake, as we didn’t try to develop community squash centres.
When you have sports facilities with squash centres, there’s no doubt about it, they’re very popular and they are played all the time. So there are courts around Australia that survive and are prospering, but there just aren’t a lot of those around anymore.
Now it’s about building back up and getting more facilities throughout the country and fostering their development through support and health via our taxes, to some extent, as well as private enterprises.
In its heyday, squash was shown by global media outlets, the government would give the sport due attention and it essentially captured the attention of the masses. What has gone wrong with viewership numbers today?
With facilities disappearing, the popularity isn’t there and it’s more difficult to get sponsors to run events and therefore, things have gradually gone downhill from there. In recent years though, the PSA has done a good job in building the game back up again, its profile, its visibility and the enjoyment you get watching it on TV.
If you compare it to the olden days you can actually understand squash and see the ball on TV. There have been tremendous strides, and I think in its own way, it’s gradually gaining a bit of momentum.
For example, I had some of my friends tell me they saw squash on TV the other day, and they enjoyed it, and I also heard from a friend who attended the Commonwealth Games in 2018 that they watched a few games and had a great time. So the enjoyment opportunities are there for people, it’s just a matter of being able to put it in a way that people can see it.
The dilemma at the moment is being able to get enough funding together via associations and sponsors to actually put something on regularly that is meaningful and that people will come along and see. While it’s not an easy process and it might take time, if this becomes the sole focus of the squash world it’s certainly worthwhile pursuing.
Obviously, being in the Olympics would help, but I don’t think that’s the only answer. You can’t just rely on the Olympics to promote the sport, we need to keep developing and we need to get the top players out and promote the sport. It’s a matter of being able to find ways to promote the sport and the appropriate means of presenting it because once you watch the game, you’ll be hooked!
We’ve been fortunate to be in the Commonwealth Games, which has supported the game of squash really well. I mean, we got good crowds every day, here in the Gold Coast. I look forward to seeing more of that in the future.
I’ve heard everything from ‘modern innovative technologies are the future of the game, to them being the end of it’. For example, people are very divided on innovations like interactiveSQUASH, and there are new technologies such as Racketware, which are growing. Where does your thinking lie regarding these innovations and technology, and them enabling squash to go further?
Look, there’s no doubt about it. You want to make this game as attractive as possible to the general public and get them to play and watch the game. Take World Series Cricket for example, when they switched to the coloured kits to make the game more attractive, we did that in squash as well.
They’ve done a lot of different things more recently, for example,they’ve changed the scoring system to some extent and we can live with these changes, they may change the game and the concept to some extent, but people still get the enjoyment out of the game just by playing rallies and against each other in whatever format it is.
I think events such as [World Squash Day] are invaluable because you are exposing people to a game that they might never have seen before.
I’m all for innovations, but I think you need to still maintain the integrity of the game and it needs a fitness component, a skill component, a mental component, and you really need to maintain those aspects of it.
As long as they’re there and you don’t deviate from them, I’m sure there are lots of other things you could do with technology nowadays such as the video referee, which makes it more interesting for the general public to see you in slow motion and so on.
What are your thoughts on promoting the game with events or designated days such as World Squash Day and what else do you think people can do to help grow the awareness around the game and promote it as well?
I think events such as these are invaluable because you are exposing people to a game that they might never have seen before. Sure, you might have a portable corner or a wall somewhere with people coming along to have a look and a hit, but you need to expose the game and the more you can do that, the better off the game is.
Getting schools interested in playing the game is also important and a great means to have young people involved in general fitness and improving their mental health. It also gets the parents interested and then they might come along and play as well.
That’s an area where I’d like to see a big push to try and do the best we can. This will be my biggest focus, to try and help the development outside of schools, as well as within the schools, and supporting important days of squash too.
Where would you like to see the game be within Australia by the end of the decade?
The key thing Squash Australia’s current administration has done well is that they’ve actually looked at and seen what resources are available to the sport across the various systems at the council, state and national levels. And by doing this they have maximised the potential to utilise funds and spend on developing different programs, whether they are indigenous programs or whether they focus on females or junior players and this is important.
In 10 years time, we could be in a much better situation than we are now because things are just moving towards growing the game. There are a lot of good ideas and we do have a solid national program for players.
The standard is not extremely high at the moment, but there are some good prospects within Australian squash, who could be developed and fly the flag of Australia down the track so it might take a few years to get up and running again but I see in 10 years time we could be a lot healthier than where we are today in terms of how the sport sits.
The game itself is also becoming bigger at an international level across the Americas, Europe and Asia and Australia will definitely carve out a place across this space in the coming years