New Assassin On The Block

If I had a pound – no, let’s make that a 2000 Indian rupee note – for every time I’ve heard a sporting figure described as the ‘new kid on the block’, I’d be rich. Well, richer than I already am, which is ‘not very’. Then there’s the popular soubriquet ‘baby-faced assassin’, used primarily to describe male competitors blessed with youthful features and a measure of sporting success. Again, I can hear the metaphorical cash registers ‘ker-ching’, or at least I could if any still existed.

But then along comes somebody referred to, by the media at least, using both epithets. I refer to Egyptian player Karim Abdel Gawad who recently reached a career-high ranking of World No. 3 after winning the 2016 World Championship and the Qatar Classic in the space of ten days.

Gawad’s successes were presaged two months before the World Championships when he failed to assassinate Ramy Ashour in the final of the 2016 Hong Kong Open. That match went the distance with Ashour eventually winning 3-2. But Gawad had run the former World No. 1 close and, in their next encounter, in the World Championship final, would turn the tables, Ashour retiring injured at 1-2 down. To reach the final, Gawad had beaten another fellow Egyptian, Mohamed El Shorbagy, for the first time ever in a world-ranked tournament. Their semi-final was another titanic struggle, Gawad eventually coming through in 90 minutes.

Eleven days later, in Doha, Gawad did it again, this time beating El Shorbagy 3-0 to take his first ever PSA world-ranked tournament. In the post-match interview, it transpired that they had first played each other at the age of eight.

Where his well-earned success leaves Gawad in terms of his ‘new kid’ and ‘assassin’ nicknames isn’t clear. But, at 25, the same age as his childhood rival Mohamed, it’s unlikely that he’ll hang on to at least one of his current monikers forever.

And that new 2000 Indian rupee note? Well, that’s another story.

Sources

Thanks to Squash TV and Wikipedia.

Hello and Goodbye

Fifteen years ago, I paid a flying visit to a city which has now established itself as a venue for major sporting events. At the time, Doha – the capital of Qatar – had already hosted one World Open squash final (in 1998) in which Canada’s Jonathon Power had beaten Scotland’s Peter Nicol.

Just under a year later, I was working in the Gulf and attempting to follow Nicol’s 1999 Word Open progress in Cairo. In the pre-internet era, this involved the combined use of short-wave radio, occasional (and often imaginatively-censored) local newspaper reports and second-hand gossip gleaned by telephone from a number of expatriate Egyptian colleagues who were themselves in direct telephone and text contact with their squash-loving Cairo relatives.

World Open Final 1999

World Open Final 1999

As the tournament progressed, this strategy proved to be highly effective due largely to the continuing presence in the draw of Cairo-born Ahmed Barada who, like Nicol, was again challenging for the title. By the time the semi-final stage had been reached, I had started to make arrangements for following what was looking increasingly like a Nicol – Barada final when I received a call from my local agent, Fatih, another Cairo expatriate and Barada fan.

“Your visa runs out tomorrow,” he announced. “You have to go and get a new one.”
I was somewhat surprised but not immediately terrified at being thrown out of the country on World Squash Open finals day. Fatih’s efforts in managing my work contract to date had drawn on skills which could only be described as Machiavellian. So, I had no doubt that he would have a plan to rectify my imminent visa-less status.

“Where do I go?” I asked, expecting to be directed to an unidentifiable building on an unnamed street where I would experience bureaucratic torture and a limitless wait.

“Doha,” said Fatih. “I’ve booked you on a flight with Gulf Air tomorrow evening. You’ll be back by ten o’clock.” I waited for him to add his usual “Insha’Allah” but none was forthcoming.

I made a quick calculation. Gulf time was two hours on from Cairo time so, with any luck, I’d be touching down when the finalists were knocking up.

The evening was spent sitting in a hotel coffee shop following the semi-finals with two Egyptian colleagues using the telephonic component of the three-pronged strategy I had been using throughout the tournament. As I’d expected, both Nicol and Barada reached the final, Barada beating reigning champion Jonathon Power (who was forced to retire) and Nicol beating fellow Scot, Martin Heath.

The following day, a Friday, I turned up at the Hilton Hotel sports club for my weekly squash round robin session followed by a visit to the coffee shop to peruse the newspapers. As I expected, neither the Gulf News nor the Khaleej Times included any report of the semi-finals but did present selected first and second round results from Monday and Tuesday. Despite this, the letters pages of both newspapers were, as usual, full of entertaining cricket-themed correspondence from expatriate Indians working in the Gulf.

As it was getting dark, I flagged down a taxi and miraculously arrived at the airport without even once feeling that my driver was about to cause, or at least play a leading role in, a serious road accident. The return flight to Doha plus airport terminal waiting time took all of four hours during which time I read several chapters of my book, drank three coffees and acquired another 3 month entry visa.

One slightly more worrying taxi journey later I was sitting in the Forte Grand coffee shop following the 1999 World Open Final – again using the expatriate Egyptian / telephone method.

The final, won by Peter Nicol, was played on a glass court in sight of the Great Pyramids of Giza in front of a crowd consisting almost exclusively of Barada supporters. My Egyptian colleagues were naturally disappointed; no Egyptian had yet won the World Open and Barada was considered to have a great chance of winning the competition.

Since then, Egypt’s World Open fortunes have taken a dramatic upswing with seven of the thirteen tournaments played being won by Egyptian players. Coincidentally, three more World Open tournaments have been held in Doha, the latest of which saw Ramy Ashour beat fellow Egyptian Mohamed El Shorbagy.

Well, you know, one of these days I might actually get a chance to see a World Open tournament live.

But first, I’ve definitely got to leave the airport.

Sources

Thanks to Wikipedia for their entries on “World Open (Squash)” and Ahmed Barada. Thanks also to Nashwa Abdel-Tawab for his review of the 1999 World Squash Open final: “Lucky By The Pyramids.”.

English Gold

In winning the squash men’s singles gold medal at the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, England’s Nick Matthew repeated the feat he had first achieved at the 2010 Games in Delhi. The Delhi final was Matthew’s first as it had been for his opponent, fellow Englishman James Willstrop, who was also destined to finish as silver medallist in Glasgow.

Yet Matthew’s achievement in reaching two consecutive finals was not exceptional. The previous three men’s singles finals had all featured another prominent Briton and erstwhile England representative.

Scotland’s Peter Nicol.

Born in Inverurie, Aberdeenshire, Nicol represented Scotland in the 1998 Games in Kuala Lumpur, the first in which squash made its appearance. In a tight five-game match, Nicol beat Canadian – and reigning World Open champion – Jonathon Power to the gold. By the time both players had again reached the final four years later, Nicol had switched his allegiance to England, claiming that he felt he was not receiving sufficient support from Scottish Squash, his sport’s national governing body. Unsurprisingly, many of Nicol’s compatriots resented this switch, even going so far as calling it traitorous. To the satisfaction of some, perhaps, Nicol lost 3-1 to Power in the gold medal match.

Amazingly, four years later and still representing England, Nicol reached his third consecutive men’s singles final. This time, it was in Melbourne where, once more, he met a reigning World Open Champion in the form of Australian David Palmer. In a tough four-game final, it was Nicol who outlasted the tenacious Palmer to take gold. Amongst the team-mates congratulating Nicol as he came off court in Melbourne was Nick Matthew, the newly-crowned British Open champion. Matthew was to finish outside the medals in fourth place but four years later would start his own gold collection.

Nicol himself had announced his retirement shortly after his success at the 2006 Games, a quarter-final defeat in that year’s World Open being his last competitive match.

But what of 2018 when the Games are due to be staged in and around Brisbane on the Australian Gold Coast? Well, I certainly wouldn’t bet against an Englishman reaching the men’s singles final.

After all, he might not be.

Sources

To find out more about the careers of Nick Matthew, Peter Nicol, Jonathon Power and David Palmer, see Wikipedia. Details of all Commonwealth Games squash competitors can be found at the Commonwealth Games Federation website.

Jansher’s Last Title

In the 1990s I was living in a small village in Hertfordshire about 35 miles north of London. As far as my own participation in squash was concerned, I played at local clubs and helped to organise competitions at one of them on the Cambridgeshire border. It wasn’t, and still isn’t, a highly-populated area. Yet 40 minutes away by road was the Galleria Shopping Centre at Hatfield. And from 1996 to 1998, the top eight male squash players in the world gathered there to compete in the World Super Series event.

Jansher Khan

Jansher Khan

In March 1996, local boy Del Harris from Essex took the title, beating Australia’s Brett Martin 10-8 7-9 9-4 6-9 9-2. It was the second noisiest squash match I’ve ever witnessed. En route to the final, Harris had knocked out World Number 1 Jansher Khan in the noisiest. It was Khan’s first defeat on the World Tour for over two years during which he had beaten Harris in the 1995 World Open final in Nicosia.

Twelve months later, Jansher and Martin contested the final, Jansher winning 9-7 9-5, 9-2. As in the previous year, point-a-rally scoring was used with a tennis-style ‘advantage’ system coming into operation should the score reach 8-all.

In 1998, two of the world’s top eight players, Jonathon Power and Ahmed Barada, were absent through injury, their places being taken by world-ranked number 9, Del Harris, and number 10, Simon Parke. To the surprise of many, it was Parke who reached the final where he found himself up against Jansher, now ranked World Number 2.

Simon Parke

Simon Parke

To say that Parke was a popular figure at the time would be an understatement. In December 1995, he had been diagnosed with testicular cancer. The following month,  he underwent surgery followed by treatment which included chemotherapy. Just four months after his surgery, he had returned to the professional squash circuit. Now, playing as well has he had ever played, he had a shot at Jansher, who was then British Open champion and had won eight titles in 1997 alone.

Despite vociferous local support, the match proved a challenge too far for Parke who lost 15-12, 13-15, 15-11, 15-10. But, unbeknownst to me and the rest of the Galleria audience that Sunday evening in March, the encounter was have a final twist in its tail.

Having won 99 tournaments during his long and illustrious career, Jansher Khan would not win another title again.  

Sources

Thanks to Squashtalk for their listing of Jansher Khan’s 99 titles.

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