The venue was the French city of Marseille and the event was the 2017 Men’s World Team Squash Championship. Pakistan, the former world champions, began the contest with high hopes of qualifying for the last-16. But they were below-par and under-prepared. The Pakistanis were hammered by Egypt and even lowly Switzerland blanked them 3-0 in a qualifying match last Wednesday to kick them out of the race for the quarter-finals.
The debacle in Marseille is yet another setback for Pakistan squash. But the catastrophic showing by the national team didn’t come as a surprise to me. Over the years I have seen Pakistan squash slump and despite efforts made by the Pakistan Squash Federation (PSF), there has been no respite. It’s crystal clear that whatever they have been doing isn’t working.
As a sports journalist I have a special attachment with squash. I played the sport and covered it all over the world during my days as a sports reporter. I have seen the glory days of our squash when the great Jahangir and Jansher Khan ruled the international circuit. That’s probably the reason why I feel for the sport perhaps a bit more than most of my other fellow sports scribes. It pains me each time, Pakistan bow out of an international squash event without even giving a fight. In France last week, they did that again. The Pakistanis were thrashed by their opponents and our players just took the beating lying down. With the sort of team we have there was no way Pakistan could have won the championship but at least the team could have made it to the last-16. My sources told me that poor planning by the PSF and bad calls made by Pakistan’s coach Faheem Gul, resulted in what was one of Pakistan’s worst showing in the history of the Men’s World Team Championship.
After losing to Egypt, Pakistan desperately needed to beat 16th seeded Switzerland on Wednesday to qualify for the last-16. The occasion required the best from the Pakistani players and their coach. But that didn’t happen. For some strange reason, Faheem didn’t even play his best team in the match as he confined the young and talented Shah Jahan to the bench. He fielded Farhan Zaman, Amaad Fareed and Asim Khan in the must-win encounter. All three of them were beaten by their Swiss opponents.
Nicolas Müller took 42 minutes to overcome Farhan Zaman 11-3, 14-12, 9-11, 12-10. In another match, Dimitri Steinmann proved too good for Amaad Fareed beating the Pakistani 11-6, 9-11, 11-3, 11-4 in 36 minutes. Reiko Peter completed the rout as he defeated Asim Khan 11-6, 7-11, 9-11, 11-7, 11-8 in 50 minutes.
It must have been a disappointing moment for Shah Jahan, son of former world number 8 Zarak Jahan Khan, to see Pakistan going down without him getting a chance to do anything about it. That’s because like his father, Shah Jahan is a fighter who is always ready to give his best for Pakistan.
I still remember Zarak’s never-say-die attitude when he was a leading squash professional back in the nineties. Despite the fact that Zarak wasn’t a tall man, he had a great reach. He was an acrobat who would somehow return the ball to his opponent from seemingly impossible positions.
To me, the high point of Zarak’s career came in the 1993 Men’s World Team Squash Championship which took place in Karachi. Then, Pakistan’ squash stars were Jahangir and Jansher. Zarak was more like a sidekick. Despite the fact that the two JKs were part of the Pakistan team, it were defending champions Australia who were the favourites for the coveted crown. Fully aware that this could be Pakistan’s last chance of winning back the world title, Jahangir came out of retirement to boost his team’s chances. At that time Jansher was the undisputed king of world squash, having won all the major titles on the international circuit. But even then, the Aussies with players like Rodney, Martin, Brett Martin, Rodney Eyles and Tristan Nancarrow appeared to be the better team, something that they proved in the previous edition of the World Championship.
The two arch-rivals progressed to the final of the championship which was played at the brand-new Asif Nawaz Squash Complex in DHA, Karachi. In the semi-finals, Pakistan edged England 2-1 while Australia prevailed over Finland with the same margin.
I still remember the atmosphere at the Asif Nawaz Complex when Pakistan and Australia met for the world title. The venue was jampacked. Karachi had never witnessed a squash match of such magnitude.
Jahangir rose to the occasion as he took Pakistan 1-0 ahead beating Brett Martin 6-9, 9-1, 9-5, 9-3. Next came in Zarak who took on Eyles. It turned out to be the match of the tournament. Buoyed up by a vocal crowd, Zarak raced to a 2-0 lead as he won the first two games 9-4, 9-2. But Eyles, who went on to win the World Open title in 1997, bounced back with a vengeance winning the next two games 9-6, 9-2. The final game was enthralling to say the least as both the players fought hard for each and every point. Zarak played with a big heart as despite the fact that Eyles seemed to have the upper hand, he never gave up. There were times when Zarak made stunning returns and in the end won the game 10-9 to give what turned out to be Pakistan’s last World Team title. In what was a dead rubber, Jansher overwhelmed Rodney Martin 9-2, 9-0, 9-0 to complete a famous victory.
I have seen the young Shah Jahan play on court and I must say that he has both the looks and determination of his father. Faheem should not have ignored him in the match against Switzerland. The PSF bosses should investigate into the reasons behind Pakistan’s pathetic performance in the championship. They should also take steps to make sure that Pakistan raise a stronger team for future international events. Otherwise, they will continue to suffer the ignominy of crashing at the first hurdle in major events like the World Team Championship.