At one time Pakistan ruled the squash world.
Today however, they stand as a forgotten nation with no major titles to show for since 1997.
The Asian Masters Championship will begin on September 3rd in Lahore, and Pakistan’s squash brass are hoping it will be the first step in becoming the kings of the court once again.
The competition will be Pakistan’s first tournament in five years to feature foreign players. They had been avoiding the country due to security fears, and it’s hard to blame them with 2011 seeing over 600 people killed in suicide attacks.
The absence of foreign stars has dented Pakistan’s ability to compete at the highest level. The current crop of talent have looked more like court jesters in recent years, and are a mere shadow of the kings of the Khan Dynasty that dominated the game.
In the latter half of the twentieth century the likes of Hashim, Jahangir and Jansher Khan helped Pakistan win 30 titles at the British Open – which is essentially the Wimbledon of Squash. In contrast, Pakistan’s best player today, Aamir Atlas Khan, barely makes it into world’s top 50.
"hopefully the Asian Masters will begin the revival of Pakistani Squash"
Secretary of Punjab Squash Association Tariq Farooq Rana
Tariq Farooq Rana, Secretary of the Punjab Squash Association, is hoping for a change in fortunes. He told Al Jazeera “hopefully the Asian Masters will begin the revival of Pakistani Squash”.
Rana understands that Pakistani players must compete regularly against the world’s best to improve.
“This is a chance for our players to take on Asia’s best. India is participating with 19 players, while players from Nepal, Sri Lanka, Hong Kong and Singapore are also taking part.”
The organisers believe they are making a real push to get Pakistan back on track. Rana confirmed to us that a number of squash legends including the Cairo King, Ramy Ashour, will be in Pakistan to support the tournament.
“Ramy will be here!” said Rana who went on to clarify that Jonathon Power, Ross Norman, David Palmer and Jeff Hunt will also be coming.
He hopes they will not be satisfied to just sit and watch. “Hopefully we can get them involved in some exhibitions games while they’re here”.
But will inviting a host of squash celebrities, and staging the Asian Masters be enough to kick start a new wave of Pakistani dominance?
One of Pakistan’s former greats, Sajjad Muneer, does not think so.
He knows a thing or two about comebacks and was one of the “three musketeers” that got Pakistani squash back to its best after a brief blip in the sixties.
The former Australian Open Champion accepts that the plan of revival through the Asian Masters is a “noble cause”, but believes Pakistani Squash has “major structural issues” that need addressing.
“Pakistani squash doesn’t have a great future. The infrastructure has gone missing and we need to reinvigorate sports at a grassroots level”.
One thing he is completely disillusioned about is the lack funding squash receives from the government, and feels Pakistan can learn something from the Egyptians.
"Pakistani squash doesn’t have a great future. The infrastructure has gone missing and we need to reinvigorate sports at a grassroots level"
Former Pakistan squash player Sajjad Muneer
“Hosni Mubarak was a squash lover and he made Egypt into a superpower. For that you need to have competition and incentives. They pumped money into squash as they knew they could excel”.
There is some credence to Muneer’s argument. While the Pakistan Squash Federation (PSF) already struggles to make money from tournaments that have no international stars; the Pakistan Sports Board only allocates them a grant of $21,000 per year - with their expenses exceeding $250,000.
This means that many Pakistani players are deprived of playing in competitions abroad unless they can raise the funds themselves. Without funding from the Pakistan Air Force, they would not even be able to play at home tournaments.
The situation is so severe that the PSF has been forced to appeal to the corporate sector, airlines, and banks for money.
Muneer finds the situation heart-breaking. “We have fallen so far down the ladder that nobody cares. There’s total apathy, but we have a duty honour this sport! A sport that did so much for our nation!”
The former world number 8 is referring to the fact that squash put Pakistan on the sporting map.
Hashim Khan’s capture of the British Open title in 1950, just three years after the nation’s birth, gave Pakistanis a reason to stand tall as they built their homeland. The victory set the stage for the country in other sports – with Pakistan eventually becoming world champions in both hockey and cricket.
While Muneer is not optimistic that the past glories can be replicated, some might be encouraged by last month’s World Junior Squash Championship in Doha.
Pakistan reached the final, but were beaten by favourites Egypt. With the knowledge that squash could be included in 2020 Olympics, the motivation for Pakistan’s youngsters is there, as they would be at the peak of their career at that time.
Should the Asian Masters go smoothly - proving that Pakistan is safe for international sport, and if the PSF gets adequate funding, then an upturn might be on.
Who knows, Pakistan could be the kings of the court once again.