What could have caused this precipitous decline? The reasons are multiple, but the main culprit is lack of adapting to the latest trends in squash
he game of squash is evolving at a rapid pace and since its inception more than a century ago has seen many eras of change. Most of us have seen two such eras. The first lasted till the mid-eighties and was characterised by rallies of attrition, immaculate lengths, delicate drop shots and a never-ending reserve of stamina. The aim was to tire out the opponent and move in for the kill. The game was mostly predictable, lacked ingenuity and the fittest man won. This style gave way to the second and also the current era, which is known for power play, deceptive shots, shorter rallies and winners.
Bridging the two eras is Jahangir Khan - the Conqueror- who is widely recognised as the greatest squash player. He appeared on the professional circuit in 1980 and grew with the game. He embraced changes brought about by the transition and became the best in the world. He continued sweeping all before him for most of his illustrious career and retired in 1993. Jahangir breathed a new life into squash and has many achievements to his credit, including the unique honour of being the first squash player to earn a million dollars in prize money and sponsorship deals. After Jahangir, a multitude of squash greats have won multiples of millions.
Jansher Khan - the Punisher - took over after Jahangir retired. For Pakistan, this was a change of guard and Jansher not only consolidated Pakistan's stranglehold at the top, but took the game to new peaks of popularity. His game was marked by unrivaled reach, impeccable court coverage and inch perfect nicks. Whereas the nick was considered a lucky hit before him, Jansher made it a deliberate shot. In later day squash, winning shots became a regular feature of the game.
Four events have shaped the face of modern squash. Starting with the introduction of lighter graphite rackets with wider frames in the 1980s, the game became more explosive. Reduction in tin size to 17 inches in 1990 gave a further boost to shot play. The 1990s saw the introduction of all glass wall portable courts with improved visibility for spectators, which enhanced viewership and gave an unprecedented boost to squash's adoption. Finally, the new 15 point scoring system in 1989, reduced to 11 points in 2005, sealed the future direction of squash as a game of skill and power with less dependence on stamina and endurance.
Jansher stayed at the top of world squash for a record 97 months between 1988 and 1998. His departure in 1999 was a watershed moment for Pakistan as it ended almost five decades of the country's undisputed dominance in the sport. This had started with Hashim Khan's first British Open win in 1951 and was consolidated by Azam Khan, Roshan Khan, Qamar Zaman, Mohibullah Sr, Jahangir and Jansher. In the twenty odd years since Jansher's retirement, Pakistan has not seen any of its players in the top 20 PSA rankings. The bad part is there is no one in sight who could push Pakistan back to the top.
What could have caused this precipitous decline? The reasons are multiple, but the main culprit is lack of adapting to the latest trends in squash. While the world has moved on, Pakistan squash is still stuck in the 1990s, relying on stamina and fitness, giving little consideration to skill. Lack of sponsorship, inadequate coaching on modern trends and lack of a proper infrastructure for finding and grooming new talent are some of the other factors.
At present, Egypt holds the sway in international squash. With their highly aggressive and accurate playing style, Egyptians are delightful to watch. They have a never-ending arsenal of explosive winners, mostly from the front of the court. They are more reliant on skill and have taken it to a whole new level. Their squash features shorter rallies, economy of movement, precision, deception and explosiveness. They have helped in making the game shorter, more artistic and more appealing to watch. Their mastery and control can be gauged from the fact that since 2006, the PSA rankings have at best featured six Egyptian players in top 10 and at worst, this number has been four.
This new explosiveness has come with a price. It has shortened players' reign at the top, as the vigour is more taxing on the body. In the older realm, a champion could remain on world's top ranking for years on end, but the current champions can hardly remain at the top for four to five years before a younger, more enterprising player takes over.
Tayyab Aslam, the current Pakistan number one, is ranked 44th in the world. Pakistan has three more players in the top 100. In a recent television interview, Tayyab was quite eloquent on why Pakistan has lost its hold on the game and what can be done to bring Pakistan back on the international squash map. He believes that Pakistan should invest in future champions by revamping its coaching regime. He also believes that without proper sponsorship, many talented youngsters would continue to be wasted as they cannot afford foreign travel and are left with limited playing options within Pakistan. He is a proponent of international exposure as it is the best way to learn new techniques and skills.
Contrary to Tayyab's views, most past Pakistani greats believe that hard work, commitment and discipline from players can see Pakistan reclaim its lost glory.
Both viewpoints are sound and the road to the top would require a mix of both. With the induction of foreign coaches, strict discipline and a game plan that focuses on finding and honing potential champions, we stand a good chance of regaining our lost glory.