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Did the Khan’s quash the growth of Squash?

What is it that makes squash relatively unsuccessful in viewership and fan base, relative to the juggernauts of football, basketball and cricket? What was the role of Jahangir and Jansher Khan? How have the Egyptians taken over the Squash world?

 

Squash is a sport that many people have at least heard of. It is tennis, but not quite. It is badminton, but not quite. Squash for me was a sport I grew up around. Jahangir Khan and Jansher Khan were household names as I was growing up.

My father was a national champion at the university level, my family members had a keen interest in its stars of yesteryear, and I played a fair bit of it in my teenage years. Yet, I couldn’t help but wonder, why did no one else ever talk about squash? Was it not popular or was it considered to be one of those sports you play, but do not watch?

In hindsight, my curiosity was not unfounded. You see, squash was a very popular sport, particularly between the 60s and the 90s. In Pakistani households, it had been at par with cricket or field hockey. The likes of Mahmoud Karim, Hashim Khan and Azam Khan dominated the sport in the 40s, 50s and 60s, winning 16 consecutive British Opens amongst one another. It was no surprise that people loved the sport in that part of the world.

A brief history of Squash

Similarly, Australians tuned in to squash regularly to see the woman who some consider being Australia’s greatest ever athlete – Heather Mckay. She obliterated pretty much anyone who stood in her path, winning the British Open 16 times (from 1962 to 1977), and that too, consecutively! If there was ever a survey on the greatest women athletes of all time, she would be up there with the likes of Serena Williams and Steffi Graf.

It was in the 1970s though that squash, as a sport, really began to take off. The World Squash Championship was launched in 1976, when the mighty Australian legend, Geoff Hunt, beat Pakistani Mohibullah Khan, to be crowned the first men’s squash champion. He went on to win three more of these titles against another Pakistani great, Qamar Zaman, between 1977 and 1980 (the 1978 edition did not take place). Having dominated the game throughout the 70s, he was a household name across the coastal cities of Australia. In 1981 though, having beaten a 17-year-old in the final of the British Open only recently, he returned once more to defend his crown, against the same opponent.

Jahangir and Jansher khan: The kings of squash

This was not meant to be though, as he took on the same youngster, from the mountain regions of Pakistan. This kid was the torchbearer of a Pakistani squash legacy. His father, Roshan Khan, was the 1957 British Open champion. His brother, Torsam, and cousin, Rehmat, also played – all of whom coached him. This also marked the beginning of an unbeaten run that lasted 555 matches and nearly 6 years, a world record for the longest winning streak by any athlete in any elite sport. Let that sink in for a minute.

His name, as any squash enthusiast would know, was Jahangir Khan. At the age of only 15, he became the youngest player ever to win the World Amateur Individual Championship. And at 17, he was ready for round two, having lost to Hunt in the British Open, he took on the players across the World Championship, sponsored by Audi, to eventually beat Geoff Hunt in the final and to take the crown. In turn, becoming the youngest champion of the tournament, mind you, a record he held for nearly 23 years.

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This also marked the beginning of an unbeaten run that lasted 555 matches and nearly 6 years, a world record for the longest winning streak by any athlete in any elite sport. Let that sink in for a minute. 555 matches! Personally, any athlete, even at the most elite level, can only dream of performing at that level.

After his loss to Ross Norman in the final of the 1986 World Championship though, Jahangir won the title once more in 1988 and took 5 more British Open titles.

Throughout the second half of his career, Jahangir developed an intense rivalry with another Khan, Jansher Khan or The King, as he was known. Much like his rival, Jansher came from a squash-playing family (his brother Mohibullah Khan played for several years) and possessed the skill and zeal to become one of the greatest squash players of all time. He went on to win the World Championship a record 8 times and remained the number one squash player from 1988 to 2001.

This marked the end of Pakistan’s squash dominance, which lasted several decades. An unlikely story: woven with colonialism, elite British sport, army past times and a whole bunch of Khan’s. Today, one wonders what was it that led to the decline of Pakistani squash? Or rather squash as a whole?

Where did the game go?

I mean there is no doubt that squash is renowned today for its use by athletes as a supplementary sport, in other words, a sport that enables them to train and maintain fitness for their professional game. The stop/start nature of the game, the agility, the hand-eye coordination and strategic thinking are all perfect skills to develop and incorporate in virtually any sport that one plays.

Forbes Magazine released a list of the Top 10 healthiest sports in the world. Take a guess which one, by far was at the top? Yep, Squash!

Why is it then that I recently had someone ask me ‘is squash that sport where you hit the ball on the wall with a racquet?’

Some Pakistanis claim the poor state of sport in their country led to the demise of squash’s development there, while others believe the resource allocation towards cricket marginalised the growth of squash. You also hear comments about how other countries gave up investing in squash, due to Pakistan’s dominance, particularly that of Jahangir and Jansher.

Shahjahan squash khan player
Shahjahan Khan Squash” by Shahjahan Khan (User:Skhan0200) is licenced under CC BY-SA 4.0

Squash, however, has allegedly been on a decline around the world. For starters, the lack of representation within the Olympics has been a worry for the Professional Squash Association (PSA). Despite having bid to include Squash in the Olympics, it will not be featuring at least, until after the 2024 Olympics in Paris. This, of course, significantly impacts the growth of the sport, and limits its ability to reach out to mass audiences. Since 2003, the men’s edition has more or less been led by Egyptians, with the likes of Amr Shabana, Ramy Ashour, Mohamed El Shorbagy and Ali Farag, amongst others, winning 10 of the last 16 world squash championships.

Additionally, the lack of viewership and small-time, albeit growing, sponsorships means squash players at the very top earn approximately US$150,000-$250,000 on average, annually, across the men’s and women’s versions of the game. This is a disincentive for players who may be interested in picking up the sport, with several young talents having pursued careers as athletes in other, more lucrative sports.

Perhaps the key factor in the following of the sport though is real estate. You see, squash courts require a lot of space, maintenance and management, especially if you intend to open a squash centre. Therefore, booking them out also costs a lot of money.

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In Europe, this can range from €15-€30 for 30 minutes to an hour. Similarly, in Australia, it can be $25 for the hour. Playing this sport regularly is expensive, and does not result in the sort of revenue that a business owner aims for. Hence, it is easier for them to use these spaces for other investments, such as building apartment blocks.

It is more likely that a combination of these factors has led to the decline of squash, particularly from its golden age in the second half of the twentieth century.

The Renaissance

Squash fans, don’t fret just yet though! Despite the doom and gloom of this piece, things are looking up for squash. In the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, 1.8 million people, in the UK, tuned in to watch the men’s and women’s final of Squash. For a sport that is not even close to being in the Olympics, those numbers are paramount!

And if that isn’t anything to go by, much like Pakistan in the late twentieth century, a new and unlikely nation has been dominating the sport. In Egypt, where people’s hearts are captured by football, and the national team, with players such as Mohammed Salah, squash does not seem to fit into the narrative.

Yet, British colonialism once again left its mark in a rather unlikely place. Barring the brief successes of Abdelfattah AbouTaleb, an Egyptian squash player who won 3 British Opens in the 60s, players from Egypt failed to reach the heights that their compatriots hold today

Since 2003, the men’s edition has more or less been led by Egyptians, with the likes of Amr Shabana, Ramy Ashour, Mohamed El Shorbagy and Ali Farag, amongst others, winning 10 of the last 16 world squash championships.

Mo El Shorbagy squash maestro
Picture Credit – @maelshorbagy (Instagram)

Meanwhile, in the women’s edition, every single tournament has been won by an Egyptian since 2015, and the last 3 were played by Egyptians on both sides of the court! Nour El Sherbini has conquered the court having won 3 of the last 4 finals, and she is only 23 years old.

Egypt is now hosting major tournaments, quickly developing world-class players and is assisting in the resurgence of the game that many fans of generations-old from countries like Australia, the UK and Pakistan can only wish they could have.

As the game grows across the Nile, the PSA is increasing its ‘oomph’ factor in promoting the sport. They have better sponsorship deals that include organisations such as Qatar Airways, Dunlop and JP Morgan Chase. The increased emphasis on the use of technology has enabled the efficiency of the sport to increase and the game is also becoming more exciting to watch with shorter formats and improved quality. In terms of playing the game, the switch from housing courts in squash centres to multi-sport complexes is also doing the game wonders.

Yet, there is no doubt that people are sceptical and not entirely sure if the sport is truly ascending towards greatness. There are still people who believe the dominance of the Khan’s led to the fall of Squash.

Current world number one, Ali Farag, in response to the omission of squash from the 2024 Olympics, might have summed it up best –


Zushan Hashmi is a sports enthusiast who works in the policy space in Australia. He is an avid fan of climbing, football, cricket and all things sport. You can follow him on Twitter.
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