Snookered in Ooty: Squash in Tamil Nadu

In January, 20-year old Dipika Pallikal became the first Indian ever to contest the final of a World Squash Federation ‘silver event’ when she faced the Netherlands’ Natalie Grinham in the Tournament of Champions in New York.

Less than a month later, in her home city of Chennai, Pallikal was again in finals action in the inaugural WSF Under-21 World Cup. This time, the event was held before an ecstatic crowd at the Express Avenue Mall, the largest shopping complex in Southern India. Throughout the 3-match final, a significant percentage of the estimated 75,000 ‘walk through’ crowd were either surrounding the all-glass show-court or hanging over the balconies of the three floors overlooking it.

Squash Court in the Express Avenue Mall, Chennai

Squash Court in the Express Avenue Mall, Chennai

A week after the final, I arrived in the Tamil Nadu capital at the start of a journey across the subcontinent. I wasn’t exactly on the lookout for signs of squash, you understand, but sometimes you do tend to stumble across them.

Even if you’re just passing through.

Heat and Dust

With average day-time temperatures in the mid to high 30s Centigrade, Chennai in February isn’t exactly the ideal place to wander around seeing the sights. Except for Mad Dogs and  Englishmen that is. Even so, a fair amount of my time in the city was spent in the air-conditioned confines of my hotel and, on one memorable occasion, in a vegetarian restaurant overlooking a chaotic petrol station forecourt.

Despite India’s recent successes, I found absolutely no coverage of squash in the media, either in the newspapers or on any of Tamil Nadu’s numerous TV channels. Instead, there was wall-to-wall, non-stop coverage of India’s most popular sport, cricket, the main topic of interest being India’s performance in a tri-series ODI tournament being played in Australia. “Will Sachin (Tendulkar) get his 100th international century?” was the question on everyone’s lips. Three weeks later, when I was still travelling, India had been dumped out of the tournament, and he still hadn’t.

After leaving Chennai, I caught the India Railways sleeper to Vilapuram before heading for the former French colony of Pondicherry. Next stop was Madurai followed by Rameshwaram and then Thanjavur. The city was hotter, and dustier, than anywhere I’d visited so far but did provide me with the first sign of squash since leaving Chennai. In the window of the Deepu Sports shop, I spotted a squash racket.

Deepu Sports Shop, Thanjavur

Deepu Sports Shop, Thanjavur

Inside the shop, I asked one of the assistants whether I could play squash in the area. “Certainly!” she replied enthusiastically. After a lengthy pause, I cracked and asked where. “Chennai!” she beamed triumphantly. I decided not to point out that a 200 mile round trip to Chennai for a squash match might not be something that a Thanjavur-based squash player would wish to undertake. Even for a vital league match.

Back at the hotel, I switched on the TV to be rewarded with recorded highlights from the semi-finals of the Under-21 Squash World Cup. I started to feel that I was getting warmer. Figuratively speaking.

Into the Hills

Squash on Indian TV

Squash on Indian TV

To escape the heat of the plain, I did what European colonialists in India used to do in summer-time. I headed for the hills. Travelling from Thanjavur via  Erode to Mallapuram, I caught the Nilgiri Hill Railway via Wellington to Ootacamund, known to British colonialists as Ooty.

Situated at 2200m (nearly 7500ft) above sea level, Ooty, known as ‘The Queen of the Hill Stations’, is one of 80-odd high altitude towns used as places of refuge from the summer heat. The British Indian Army built 50 or so of the Stations, the remainder being built by various Indian rulers over the centuries as places of leisure or even as permanent capitals.

Before I got to Ooty, I knew that in 1890, His Highness the Maharaja of Vizianagaram presented a squash court to the Ooty Club. Nestled in the hills above Ooty, the Club is fondly referred to as the “Snooty Ooty Club” and also as “The Morgue” due to the many hunting trophies adorning its walls. It’s also the place where the rules of snooker were formally finalized in 1884 by Sir Neville Chamberlain. They’re still posted in the Club’s Billiards Room.

The Billiards Room in the Ooty Club

The Billiards Room in the Ooty Club

I asked the Ooty Club’s Secretary whether squash was still played there. “No” he said. “The squash court was dismantled many years ago and never replaced.” Despite searching for it, he still didn’t know where in the Club’s grounds the court had been located. He also told me that the rival Wellington Gymkhana Club no longer had any squash courts although he did know that the first one built there had been commissioned in 1927. However, he said, there were two courts at the Defence Services Staff College also located in Wellington.

Squash at Wellington Staff College

Squash at Wellington Staff College

So, squash appeared to be alive in the Nilgiri Hills and being played by the officer classes of the Indian Army, Navy and Air Force.

But what about the civilian population of Ooty?

Did any of them still play?

And, if so, where?

Back to School

On my second evening in Ooty, I stumbled across another sign of squash life in the Charing Cross district of the town. Painted on the wall next to the Shanghai Company Sports and Chinese Footwear shop was the legend ‘squash racket’. And, lo and behold, displayed in the window itself were several rackets….of varying vintage.

Shanghai Company Sports and Chinese Footwear shop, Ooty

Shanghai Company Sports and Chinese Footwear shop, Ooty

The mystery buyers of the shop’s rackets proved, in one instance, to be less than 15 minutes walk away from the shop. The Hebron School, located near Ooty’s Botanical Gardens, was founded in 1899 to serve the mission community of India and South-East Asia. Now, it’s a co-educational and predominantly boarding school for children aged 5 years to 19 years. And squash is one of the school’s ‘curriculum’ sports.

Slightly further out of town is the Good Shepherd International School, a full time boarding school located on a 70-acre campus near Ooty Lake. Established in 1977, the campus include classrooms, laboratories, lecture theatres and sports facilities including squash courts. All of which gave me the feeling that squash was being passed on to at least some of  India’s younger generation in the Hills of Tamil Nadu.

Outside the Shanghai Company shop

Outside the Shanghai Company shop

The day after my Shanghai Company experience, and amid reports that a leopard had been seen in the grounds of Hebron School, I left Ooty for Cochin in neighbouring Kerala. In many ways, I was sad not to have had the opportunity to meet Ooty’s squash players. But, on the other hand, I’ve never been keen on the idea of encountering a leopard on the way to the squash courts.

I don’t think having a racket with me would help much.

Acknowledgements

Thanks to The Hindu newspaper for its article on the Express Avenue Mall and to Al-Ahram for it’s report on the WSF Under-21 Squash World Cup.  Also, thanks to the Secretary of the Ooty Club for his insight into the local squash community.

Hijab Stories: Squash in Iran

In June 2011, Iran’s women footballers were banned from competing in the 2012 Olympics when their qualifying match with Jordan in Amman was called off moments before kick-off. The ban was due to the players’ kit which, following a FIFA ban in 2010, had been changed and (according to the Iran Football Federation’s head of women’s affairs) approved by  none other than FIFA’s beleaguered president, Sepp Blatter. And the kit was designed to meet Iran’s mandatory dress code for women.

Iranian squash player Nazanin Heydari

Whatever the circumstances surrounding the football ban, the reality for female sports enthusiasts in Iran is clear. In the Islamic Republic, women can only take part in their favourite sports whilst wearing full tracksuits and head coverings that conceal their hair. The code, whether driven by religion, politics or culture, is known as hijab and encompasses both the traditional head covering worn by many Muslim women and modest styles of Muslim dress in general.

But Iranian women have been allowed to compete internationally in an increasing number of sports whilst still following the hijab dress code. In weightlifting, in taekwondo, in boxing…..and in squash.

The National Squash Scene

With less than two dozen functioning squash courts in what is a vast country, Iran doesn’t at first glance seem to be in a good position to develop a sustainable squash community at a national level. Government investment in squash  is minimal yet there still exist small squash-playing communities in cities such as Esfahan, Yazd, Gorgan, Arak and Shiraz as well as in the capital, Tehran. The same lack of investment applies to the private sector although, in the last three years, international squash tournaments have been held in Rasht on the Caspian coast and on Kish Island in the Persian Gulf.

The participation of women in the game is reflected in the recent appearance of no fewer than nine Iranian players in the Women’s Squash Association Top 250 rankings for January 2012. The National Women’s squad is currently coached by Muqaddas Ashraf, a former Pakistan No.2 with the National Girls squad being managed by Iranian-born Nadjmesadat Kasfimofrad. The Iranian Squash Federation (SFIRI) also arranges coaching for National squad members by overseas  players such as Pakistan’s Carla Khan, a former World No.18.

Carla Khan with Iranian National Girls Squash Team 2009

But whatever the limited resources available to the Iranian squash community, it’s the passion and enthusiasm of its members which helps it to survive and, occasionally, to show others how to overcome seemingly immovable obstacles to achieve success. Such as the   involvement of its male and female players in squash competitions held overseas despite the restrictions placed on their participation by politics and prejudice. And to embody the achievement of that success, you need pioneers.

The Hijab Pioneers

In many ways, the relatively recent success achieved in helping female Iranian squash players compete abraaod is a tribute to the inclusive nature of the international squash community and those who govern the sport itself.

Sahar Saaremi

In March 2008, Sahar Saaremi became the first female Iranian squash player in history to take part in an international tournament wearing hijab.  The 20 year old student of metallurgy at the Sharif University of Technology wore specially designed kit recognised by Iran’s Physical Education Organisation. The Iranian Squash Federation not only gave her permission to compete but negotiated with the tournament organisers to allow her to play wearing hijab-compatible kit. Saaremi’s family paid for her to travel to Switzerland for the tournament where she lost her qualifying match.

Just under a year later, Saaremi’s pioneering experience was repeated when three Iranian girls travelled to Chennai to compete in the Asian Junior Squash Championships. Pariya Ahinejad, Siadeh Mazidi and Sogol Samodi were leaving Iran for the first time in their lives,  courtesy of their national governing body. Unsurprisingly, they draw curious looks from organisers, spectators and players alike at the SDAT stadium because of their ‘whole body’ squash kit. Although Iranian women chess players had been a common sight in the Tamil Nadu capital, it was the first time that their girls had been seen playing in an international squash tournament.

Sogol Samodi of Iran in action against Lee Ji-Hyun of Korea at the Asian Junior Squash Championship 2009

But after these initial successes, how can the Iranian squash community continue to press its case for more recognition, more support and more investment? Well, surprisingly enough, taking a leaf from football, or rather the artistic presentation of football as a  passion shared by different sections of Iranian society, may help.

The Art of Sports Passion

In 2006, Iranian film director Jafar Panahi’s cult film, ‘Offside’, about a group of football-crazy girls trying to smuggle their way into a World Cup qualifying match successfully gave the outside world a peep into Iranian society, complete with its politics, prejudices and passion, not so long ago. The film, banned in Iran, won the Silver Bear at the Berlin International Film Festival Grand Jury Prize and was both critically and commercially successful worldwide.

Not so widely known is the Iranian short film, ‘In a Closed Room’ (‘Dar Otaghe Basteh’) also made in 2006 and directed by Ali Alaie and Roya Majdnia. The film follows an  English squash player who is scheduled to coach members of the Iranian Men’s National squad. Players from the Women’s National squad also want to learn from him but are forbidden from doing so due to…well, you get the picture.

‘In a Closed Room’ didn’t gain such a wide release as ‘Offside’ but is nonetheless representative of a kind of storytelling about shared passion and community which is truly international.

And when you watch it or your friends watch it, in whatever country, it really doesn’t matter what clothes you’re wearing.

Acknowledgements

Thanks to James Hardy for his article ‘Iran’s Sportswomen: All Dressed Up and Raring To Go’ in The Times of India. Thanks also to Shirzanan, The First Iranian Women Sports Magazine, for its photographs of female Iranian squash players and its interview with Sahar Saremi ‘Think of the Future Generation’.

Bollywood Squash

My first real taste of the exotic confection that is Hindi cinema came in the shape of a Saturday matinee at the celebrated Raj Mandir movie theatre in downtown Jaipur. The 1200-seat meringue-shaped auditorium, known as ‘The Pride of Asia’, originally opened in the mid-1970s. And, over the years, it’s hosted many Hindi film premieres attended, naturally enough, by their stars, fans, members of the Indian glitterati, and assorted media hacks.

Unfortunately, the premiere of Saudagar – a sprawling three and a half hour epic set in the Himalayas – had already taken place by the time I’d arrived in Jaipur, leaving me to settle for a star-less and media-free visit to the Raj. Nevertheless, I was treated to an enjoyable, if labyrinthine, story of love, romance, politics and violence punctuated only by the occasional high-energy dance ‘item number’ showcasing beautiful women in very revealing clothes.

The Raj Mandir Cinema in Jaipur
The Raj Mandir Cinema in Jaipur

But, if my visit to the Raj Mandir was memorable, my next destination was a city which had not only given its name to the Hindi film industry, but which was at the throbbing heart of Indian celebrity culture and media gossip. The place for film stars and their significant others to be seen, photographed and talked about.

And to play squash.

Celebrity Squash

At roughly the same time as the opening of the Raj Mandir, India overtook the US as the world’s largest film producer. And, as the commercial capital of the country and a source of much movie funding, the city of Bombay simultaneously found its colonial name combined with that of America’s Hollywood movie industry to create a new and distinctive Asian entertainment brand. Bollywood!

Since then, Bombay has not only become Mumbai but has strengthened its position, both as India’s commercial centre and as the heart of the Hindi movie industry. Not surprisingly, the city has also attracted more than its fair share of celebrity residents, the more athletically-inclined of whom are able (in other words, wealthy enough) to use the exclusive sporting facilities  provided by its private clubs and five star hotels. But perhaps what might be less expected in a country where cricket is the most popular sport, is the apparent popularity of squash as an activity with which many Bollywood celebrities are happy to be associated.

Hansika Motwani

Hansika Motwani

In fact, many Bollywood stars play squash, date squash players, support charity squash tournaments and generally contribute to the image of squash as a pretty cool sport to be involved with. All, of course, exhaustively reported in an astonishing number of celebrity magazines and gossip columns.

Introduced to the game by her brother, Mumbai-born film actress Hansika Motwani, plays squash regularly. “Squash is unique. It is fast, competitive, and provides an excellent workout” she says. “One hour of squash can burn up to 850 calories.  The best part is, since you are playing a sport, you don’t feel that you are working out!” Not sure that I follow the logic of that, but never mind.

Minissha Lamba

Minissha Lamba

Another actress Minissha Lamba is enthusiastic squash player as is so-called ‘bong bombshell’ Rimmi (formerly Rimi Sen). She loves the sport and, at the end of a long, tiring day, all she pines for is a good game of squash. “The game requires high concentration, power and high energy levels,” says Rimmi, “and that’s what attracts me to the most.”

But it’s not just Bollywood’s female stars who are squash lovers.

Sanjay Suri

Sanjay Suri

 

Celebrity-turned-activist Rahul Bose plays squash as does Srinagar-born actor Sanjay Suri whose his elder brother, Raj, introduced him to the game when he was a child.  Within two years, Suri was playing Sub-Junior squash for his home state of Jammu and Kashmir, and later went on to represent the state in the Indian Junior National Championships.

 

Aamir Khan

Aamir Khan

And then there’s actor Aamir Khan, a keen squash player and former smoker who’s regularly encouraged Bollywood’s star-struck fans to quit a habit still widely regarded as cool by many of India’s younger generation. “When I smoked,’” warned Khan in one interview, “I couldn’t play squash for more than 15 minutes. Two weeks after quitting…I could play for up to an hour. Nothing is more dangerous than cigarette smoking.” Just one example, perhaps, of a Bollywood role model promoting a healthy lifestyle as well as their latest movie.

Squash Romance

Where there are squash girls and squash boys, it probably shouldn’t come as any surprise that there is a high probability of squash romance. And, in Bollywood, rumours of romance, actual romance, public displays of romance and the death of romance are endlessly played out against a backdrop of intense media scrutiny and…er…gossip.

Neha Dhupia

Neha Dhupia

Perhaps the most high-profile Bollywood squash romance in recent years was that involving actress and former Miss India Universe winner, Neha Dhupia, and India’s then Number 1 squash player, Ritwik Bhattaracharya. The former college classmates had known each other for at least a decade before they ‘got together’ at a time when both their careers were in the ascendant.

Ritwik Bhattacharya

Ritwik Bhattacharya

 

Unsurprisingly perhaps, the naturally-sporty Dhupia soon hired a squash coach to teach her the basics of the game and improve her racket skills. But, despite her new-found passion for squash – and for one of its most famous exponents – Dhupia’s romance with Bhattaracharya eventually came to end after three years. But not before the celebrity couple had received an inordinate amount of media coverage in the Bollywood gossip columns, and simultaneously raised the public awareness of squash as an activity which just might lead to love.

So, after the tale of a beautiful Bollywood starlet finding squash passion, how about the  story of a beautiful squash  starlet finding Bollywood? Read on….

The First Squash Item Girl

Dipika Pallikal

Dipika Pallikal

“She’s a very sexy and pretty Indian squash player,” announced the Indian Cinema Blog in 2010. The blog post went on to say that there were ‘rumours’ from Southern India that Chennai-born Dipika Pallikal had ‘a good chemistry’ with the film industry and ‘liked to be a friend to all film and sports people.’ Furthermore, and possibly most important of all for millions of young Indian men, Pallikal was reported as saying that she didn’t have “any boyfriends at all.”

Away from the gossip, Pallikal (known as the Indian Sharapova) is only the second Indian woman ever to break into the World top 100 squash players. Still only 19, she’s won the German, Dutch, French, Australian and Scottish Open tournaments and is currently training under Egyptian squash coach Mohamed Essam Saleh. At the time of writing she’s reached Number 26 in the World rankings.

Dipika Pallikal on Court

Dipika Pallikal on Court

And she has indeed been offered starring roles in Tamil movies which, like their Bollywood equivalents, also have a massive audience. Pallikal has so far refused, instead focusing on becoming the Number 1 squash player in Asia. However, she has started to endorse various brands and is now appearing in a range of television advertisements. Her popularity is undoubtedly on the rise.

And Bollywood, at least for one World-class squash player, is beckoning.

Glossary

An item number in Indian cinema is a musical performance that has little to do with the film in which it appears but lends support to its marketability. The term is commonly used to describe a catchy, upbeat, often sexually provocative dance sequence or song.

A female actor, singer or dancer appearing in an item number (and especially one poised to become a star) is known as an item girl. Although the origin of the term is obscure, it’s likely that it derives its meaning from the objectification of sexually attractive women. This is because an ‘item’ in Mumbai slang is a ‘sexy woman.’

And finally, a bong babe is a girl from Bengal.

Acknowledgements

Thanks to Wikipedia for its informative, not to say exhaustive, entry on the ‘item number’ in Indian cinema. Also thanks to the Indian Cinema Blog for its feature on Dipaka Pallikal.

Squash in a Rainy City

On a Sunday morning, less than 24 hours after the football player affectionately known as
Shrek
had scored a memorable winning goal in the Manchester Derby, I parked my car outside the east stand of Manchester City’s Eastlands stadium – in pouring rain.

Wayne Rooney goal versus Manchester City

Wayne Rooney goal versus Manchester City

As a Manchester United follower – and, what’s more, one of the relatively few born in Salford where their Old Trafford stadium is located – a visit to ‘the neighbours’ is:

a) Not undertaken often – or lightly.

b) Fraught with anxiety in case the team loses, thus providing City followers with bragging rights until the next encounter.

But, as I unfurled my umbrella in readiness to fend off the familiar Manchester downpour, I wasn’t feeling anxious at all. In fact, I was feeling rather excited as I started the short walk to the National Squash Centre. It was finals day in the 2011 National Squash Championships.

Squash in Manchester

Over the next seven hours or so, fifteen finals were contested in the Centre, six of them – including that of the England Deaf Squash Association’s Rebecca Macree Trophy – on the Championship showcourt. For me, it was the first time I’d ever watched squash played in, or rather relatively near to, my home town.

I first watched a squash match when I moved to the South East of England after graduating from university and immediately caught the squash bug. I can’t honestly remember even having heard of the game throughout my formative years in the North West, let alone seen it played. But, eventually, all it took was one experience as a spectator to get me interested, and then hooked.

Today, returning to Manchester is like entering a squash heartland. The National Squash Centre was opened here in 2002 as part of the Sportcity complex constructed for the 2002 Commonwealth Games. Since then, it’s hosted 9 National Squash Championships as well as a range of international tournaments including the World Squash Championships of 2008. In September this year, another major tournament, The British Grand Prix, will be contested here by many of the world’s top men players.

But as well as its success in hosting major squash tournaments, Manchester has  established a pattern of running legacy projects alongside every one of them. And it’s the establishment of this pattern which has had a major impact on the development of squash communities in the region.

So, with that in mind, what’s been happening with squash at grass roots level in the rainy city?

The Journey of Manchester Squash

For the last few years, one of the aims of Manchester City Council has been to develop squash opportunities for its residents with the purpose of ensuring that every young person can realise their potential by taking part in a squash development programme. As a result, Manchester now boasts the largest squash coaching programme in the United Kingdom. The city has its own Squash Development Officer, charged with engaging local schools, squash clubs, leisure centres and businesses, and gaining their support to form new partnerships, set up new competitions, and form new clubs.

During the past year alone, 5 new partnerships have been formed to create school to club links, over 2000 students across the city have been introduced to squash, and the Manchester Junior Open tournament has been revived. The Manchester Schools competition has also been resurrected with up to 20 teams, and a new squash club has been formed in the Moss Side area of the city, previously the location of Manchester City’s Maine Road stadium.

During my visit to the Championships I did manage to grab a few brief words with Manchester’s Head Squash Coach, Chris Lengthorn, some of whose juniors had just demonstrated their impressive racket skills on the showcourt between finals. Not surprisingly, Chris and other local squash coaches have played a major part in the ongoing success story that is Manchester Squash, and it’s easy to see why he sounded so enthusiastic about the future.

But if he appeared excited when I chatted to him, Chris Lengthorn was about to get a whole lot more excited. His sister was about to contest the 2011 Women’s Championship Final.

Family Fortunes

On the tournament showcourt, Laura Massaro (née Lengthorn) from Preston was up against World No 2, and tournament top seed, Jenny Duncalf from Yorkshire. It had been just over a week since Massaro had beaten World No 1 Nicol David in the US state of Ohio to win the Cleveland Classic. But having lost on her only previous appearance in the National Final in 2008, Massaro made no mistake this time, beating Duncalf 3-2 in a tight match. In doing so, she became the first Lancastrian woman to take the National title, as she proudly pointed out during her post-match interview.

Laura Massaro's post-match interview

Daryl Selby with the men's trophy

Daryl Selby with the men's trophy

In the Men’s Final, there was another upset with World No 1 Nick Matthew from Sheffield losing 3-2 to Harlow’s Daryl Selby in an 84-minute match featuring some astonishing retrieval by both players. In a gesture of sportsmanship rarely seen in many other sports, Matthew called his own shot down on match ball leaving Selby to savour the moment. In losing, Matthew failed in his attempt to make it 3 National titles in a row.

A Personal Note

On a personal note, I was rather pleased with my choice of souvenir supporters’ facemasks offered free to visitors to the England Squash and Racketball stand in the tournament exhibition. I picked the masks of the eventual champions – mainly because I play squash at Harlow (Selby) and am a Lancastrian (Massaro) – although I have to confess that I didn’t actually wave, or hide behind either of them. Sorry.

Laura Massaro Facemask

Laura Massaro Facemask

Daryl Selby Facemask

Daryl Selby Facemask

I was also heartened by the inclusion in the Championships, for the first time, of a Men’s Over-75 competition. I’ve now added this to my list of squash goals on the sole basis that the first winner, Lance Kidner of Hampshire, will be well into his nineties before I’m eligible to qualify as a competitor. By which time, I reckon I’ll be able to take him.

And, finally, I was extremely impressed with the National Squash Centre and the helpfulness and professionalism of the staff, stewards and volunteers. But then, coming from the North West of England,  I would be, wouldn’t I?

When I finally walked out of the main entrance to the Centre, over seven hours after I’d entered it, it was still raining.

Connections

If you’d like to find out more about squash in Manchester, visit Manchester City Council’s “Squash Development” website.

It doesn’t mention rain anywhere.

Squash in the Pink Bubble

Sitting in a pink bubble in West London on a wet Friday night in January may not seem like everybody’s idea of fun. But when the bubble contains another 250 people, a see-through squash court and some of the world’s top squash players, you may think that it’s not such a bad idea after all. And, particularly if you’re a squash lover, you’d be right.

The Queen’s Club

The recently re-launched World Series Squash Finals are being held right now at The Queen’s Club in London. Not just any old Queen’s Club, mind you, but The Queen’s Club. Although I’m guessing that she doesn’t actually play there. On a regular basis anyway. But that’s where the aforementioned inflatable pink squash venue has been standing for the last week or so. And I went to the semi-finals there last night to have a look.

The Pink Bubble at The Queen's Club, January 14th, 2011

The Pink Bubble at The Queen's Club, January 14th, 2011

To say that The Queen’s Club is a suitable location for a racket sport competition is probably an understatement. It maintains courts for tennis, real tennis, rackets and squash, at least two of which I don’t know the rules for, or anybody who plays them. And when the squash court in the pink bubble is scheduled to be dismantled tomorrow, the club’s members will just have to make do with the 45 remaining courts available to them.

The Finals Experience

Whatever the target audience for the Finals, you couldn’t fault the staging. Clear announcements, great time management, comfy seats, instant video replays, post-match interviews, on-court entertainment between matches (UK hip-hop dance group ZooNation), live commentary and expert analysis (from Jonah Barrington amongst others) via a personal Wi-Fi earpiece, and excellent catering. In fact, had the four semi-final matches scheduled all been walkovers, I suspect that an impromptu tournament and entertainment involving audience members could have been organised on the spot. Health and safety issues permitting of course.

On a social level, I met some fellow squash coaches, one of whom offered an entertaining critique of the performance of the team cleaning the court between games. “Look!” he observed. They’re all cleaning the back wall in the right hand corner even though there are just as many marks in the left hand corner.” I even joined in at one point having become fixated with the team’s cleaning strategy. All this, of course, is why going to squash tournaments is so much fun!

The Squash

The semi-finals of the women’s invitation event included former World No 1, Vanessa Atkinson, and current World No 2, Jenny Duncalf. France’s Camille Serme took Duncalf to a third game in the best-of three match before running out of steam. “I wasn’t expecting to win the second game” she said. As I never expect to win any games, I had some sympathy for her.

In the other semi, Vanessa Atkinson lost 2-0 to England’s Laura Massaro. By the way, the women’s matches were played using a 17 inch tin rather than the 19 inch tin normally used on the women’s tour.

In the World Series semis, England’s Nick Matthew again beat his fellow Yorkshireman, James Willstrop, in straight games. In this afternoon’s final, he’ll meet Egypt’s Amr Shabana who beat Ramy Ashour, also of Egypt, and also in straight games. Ashour, still recovering from a hamstring injury, said in his post-match interview, “Amr’s so quick with his hands you feel he could put the ball in his pocket during a rally without you seeing him do it.”

I must try that in my next league match.

Postscript: The Bubble Bursts

Sadly, during the early hours of the morning after the semi-finals, the inflatable venue for the World Series tournament was seriously damaged by high winds. A tear in the fabric of the building led to it being declared unsafe, then to the postponement of the finals and eventually to their cancellation. At the time of writing, no decision has been made as to where, when or whether they will be played.

Never mind, here’s a funky video which should give you some idea of the Pink Bubble experience. Enjoy!

Squash on TV: The Clinger and The Ringer

I suppose that squash isn’t such a mainstream sport that it appears regularly in light entertainment TV programmes. Well, at least not in the UK. In fact, I can remember only two occasions where a squash club setting was used as a key feature in what’s now known as terrestrial television. Once in a comedy drama and once in a much-loved comedy sketch show.

The Clinger

Clinger n A ball running right along the side wall which is difficult to hit. A clinger may be the result of a straight drive or of a cross-court drive which squirts from the nick high up between the front and side walls.

The Clinger was a 60 minute play shown on UK television in 1986 as part of a series of dramas entitled Love and Marriage. Set in a squash club and taking place over a single evening, it traced the fortunes of Alan (Richard Hope) in his attempts to impress fellow club member Samantha (Sallyanne Law).

Playing an internal league match against old hand Ernie (Ron Pember), Alan finds himself battling not just against his own nervousness, but also against Ernie’s superior court craft and his strongest shot, the clinger. Alan’s romantic fantasies slowly turn into a nightmare as he’s given the run-around by Ernie only to be handed a lucky break as the match moves towards its inevitable conclusion. Ernie collapses and dies of a heart attack thereby forfeiting the match!

Running through The Clinger were a number of humorous storylines dealing with the petty politics of squash club life including the point scoring rules for the internal leagues. These, of course, come sharply into focus following the dramatic conclusion of Alan and Ernie’s match.

An impromptu eulogy is given by club chairman Jack (Alan David) as Ernie is stretchered off court to a waiting ambulance. Jack pays tribute to Ernie and his clinger only to be lobbied by various club members anxious that, as a result of Ernie forfeiting his match, they will be denied promotion or  relegated from their league.

Naturally, Alan wins the match by default….and gets the girl.

I do like a happy ending.

The Ringer

Ringer n One who misrepresents his or her identity or ability in order to gain an advantage in a competition.

A couple of months ago I found myself in a queue in a London bookshop with Ronnie Corbett, the  surviving (and smaller) member of The Two Ronnies comedy partnership. It was recently Corbett’s 80th birthday, an event marked by repeat broadcasts of many of his best known TV sketches as well as a new programme involving a range of British comedians.

One such sketch with Ronnie Barker sees the two engaged in changing room banter after a squash match. Corbett plays the experienced club player with Barker, a complete novice who has apparently played his first game ever – wearing a business suit. Barker is seeking clarification of the squash scoring system from the humiliated Corbett having just beaten him 9-1, 9-0, 9-0. Corbett’s solitary point has apparently been won at the start of the match when Barker was still holding the wrong end of his racket.

I’ll leave it to you to decide whether Barker plays a ringer in this sketch but 25 years after its first broadcast, it still has the power to bring a smile to the face.

Squash in Pakistan – Girl from the Badlands

The Great Game

What’s your first reaction when you hear the word Waziristan? Depending on your grasp of world geo-politics and history, not much perhaps. But when you realise that Waziristan borders the North West Frontier, the territory between Pakistan and Afghanistan, then you just may associate it with tribal unrest, lawlessness and even international terrorism.  After all, this is part of the area where The Great Game was played out between the British and Russian Empires for supremacy in Central Asia during the 19th and early 20th centuries. An area branded The Badlands by the Pakistan Government and by Washington as the most dangerous place in the world. Synonymous with the Taliban and Al Qaeda, it’s rife with militant groups while tribal customs often force women to remain at home.

Streetfighter to Weightlifter

So when you hear that Pakistan’s number one female squash player, Maria Toor Pakay, hails from South Waziristan you may wonder just  how she got to where she is today. In fact, it was Pakay’s father, Shamsul Qayum, an elder of the conservative Wazir tribe and civil servant, who first noticed her combative potential – brawling with street boys in her home village of Shakai. He took her to the northwestern city of Peshawar and began training her as – a weightlifter – even  disguising the 10-year old Pakay as a boy to enter her in the National Boys Weightlifting Championship. She won in her class.

A Meeting with a Legend

But then came a life-changing event. Pakay met the legendary squash player and eight times World Open Squash Champion, Jansher Khan, himself a native of Peshawar. She took up squash and in 2004, at the age of 14, became Pakistan’s top female squash player. Gradually climbing the international rankings, Pakay is now in the World Top 100 and recently made the semi-finals of the World Junior Squash Championship in India.

Squash Champion to Role Model

Pakay’s  determination to defy tradition and champion girls’ sports in the conservative northwest of Pakistan has, perhaps not surprisingly, won her some enemies. Taliban militants who operate across swathes of the northwest oppose the co-education of girls and boys and advocate a harsh brand of law, often staging bomb attacks to try and advance their aims. Talking recently to Pakistan news agency AFP, Pakay said, “I have received some threats from unknown people who have advised me to stop playing and going out of the house, otherwise they would kill me. But they can’t detract me… I would never quit playing.”

For more on Maria Toor Pakay’s story, read Khurram Shahzad’s excellent article in The Muslim Observer at:

http://muslimmedianetwork.com/mmn/?p=6110