Tutored by top coaches and handsomely sponsored by the government and private sector, the Egyptian setup has been continuously churning out champions
quash has evolved from a game of attrition to one of precision. The key to good playing skills are picking the ball early and as parallel to the side wall as possible. Another underlying principle is to dominate the court’s centre or ‘T’ and dispatch the ball to far corners of the court, making the opponent run for it. An arsenal of lethal drop shots, precise lobs, deceptive boasts and good lengths complements the shot combination. The aim is to keep the opponent guessing and catching him off balance to force errors and weak returns.
This description may look simple but aligning a game plan around it is what separates a player from a champion and makes squash one of the most intense sports.
Squash has seen many greats and their legacy continues to carry the sport aloft. While this rich inheritance has been upheld and further enriched by some nations, others have failed to add the ingredients of innovation to it. As with any disruption, changes in squash require strict adoption and nations that resist or are slow to adapt to them are fast phasing out of contention.
Egypt is at the forefront of successfully adopting these changes and has reaped the benefits. This has been possible through a highly committed and methodical process that starts from the multifarious squash academies operating in Cairo and Alexandria. Their aim is to identify young talent -- 10 years old -- and groom them for the next 6 or 7 years to make them world beaters. Thousands of youngsters in these academies are subjected to a rigorous training regimen till the best among them are ready to take on the world. Tutored by top Egyptian coaches and handsomely sponsored by the government and private sector, the setup continuously churns out champions. Running these academies is a major task, but equally important is giving due coverage and promotion to squash players. As a result, Egyptian squash players have become genuine role models for the young and are household names. These steps have made squash the second most popular sport in Egypt after football.
Ahmad Barada started it for Egypt in late 1990s. His squash skills and enterprise, combined with his magnetic personality provided a recipe for success for generations of Egyptian players willing to change the shape of squash. And did the Egyptians ever nurture Barada’s efforts to perfection!
With 7 men and 5 women players in top 10 PSA world rankings, and a battery of hopefuls in top 50, there is little more the Egyptian players can do to prove their stamp of authority on the sport. But their hunger drives them and it appears they will not rest till they have some more top rankings in their kitty.
Conversely, some erstwhile inspirational squash playing nations are disappearing fast from top rankings. Pakistan is a prime example; Australia presents a similar rot. England, France and Canada, once sizzling with the best squash had to offer, are none the better in world rankings. In short, those who refused to change have been reduced to mere spectacles of their past glory.
The adoption of squash in these countries is far lower than it once was. Fewer people are playing the sport as more avenues of physical activity are available. Squash facilities have continued to dwindle, and so have the number of players. Moreover, for beginners, the first exposure raises questions rather than evince an interest. For instance, as opposed to other sports, where contestants face each other, squash players have to face the front wall. Hence a basic understanding of the game is required for a player venturing into it.
Things will look up if these nations work hard with the aim of flipping over a few squash tenets, toppling some conventions and going at it with verve and dedication. Their struggle to the top would require replacement of old playing norms with newer, more novel concepts. And the idea is catching on. Just like Ahmed Barada got the ball rolling for Egypt, players from other nations have started to inject the modern ingredients into their game recipes to mark a departure from traditional playing style.
Paul Coll of New Zealand is leading the pack. He joined the professional circuit in 2010, and many an engaging battle later became the world number 1 squash player in March 2022. He is still holding on to this position, but the Egyptians are keen to dethrone him and reclaim the apex spot. How much longer Coll holds off the Egyptian challenge cannot be predicted, but he has beaten the Egyptians at their game and in doing so has introduced his own brand of squash, which is marked by fitness and explosiveness that sees him calmly controlling the T and playing short, explosive rallies with a full range of squash shots. His on-court effort frequently sees him diving to retrieve the ball and has earned him the title of Superman.
Paul Coll has won the 2022 edition of the British Open and he has his eyes on the World Open title, scheduled in Cairo in May. He is in sizzling form and seems poised to annex the premier squash title, which he has never won before. But with several top Egyptian players in opposition and an ancient Egyptian culture keeping guard, victory may seem a little daunting. If Superman goes on to steal the show under the watchful eyes of the Sphinx, he will not only consolidate his position at the top, but will also take the blessings of ancient and modern Egypt with him.