The history of squash: how a ball boy became an undefeated champion.

Squash: The ball-boy servants who watched, waited - and conquered

Pakistani and Egyptian players have dominated world squash since the inaugural Open Squash Championships in the 1930s. The majority of these players emerged from the families who looked after the British Officer Clubs in their countries. As young boys, they would act as ball-boys and court minders who watched the service personnel play and then took to the courts when their masters did not require them.

The one major exception was F.D. Amr Bey, the best player in the world from 1933 until he retired - undefeated - in 1938. An amateur who beat all the pros of the time, he held down a series of important government posts, eventually becoming His Excellency The Egyptian Ambassador to the court of St James in London. In this capacity, he single-handedly brought the existence of squash to the attention of the general public for the first time, as a top diplomat winning the British Open Championship was big news in both England and his home country.

No doubt this and other successes inspired the legion of young Egyptian ball-boys to improve their squash ability as it represented possibly their one and only chance to travel and better themselves financially. Not only were they hungry for success, but they also faced few distractions in the form of other sports as undertaken by Europeans. (I refer here to boys as it was not the done things for females to play sport or wear revealing clothing. However, this has begun to change and some Egyptian women are now world-class players.)

After the Second World War, Egypt's Mohammed el Karim was pre-eminent from 1947-1950 when the Khans from Pakistan came on the scene. They, like the Egyptians, came from families serving colonial masters. Some people have said that frequent gun battles in northern Pakistan led to bullet-dodging quick reactions! More prosaically, I noticed on my travels in the country a more likely explanation: boys would hit a small piece of wood into the air with a longer stick in a remarkable feat of hand-ball-implement coordination.

The Khan dynasty in squash lasted from 1951-1964 when one single Pakistani family - brothers Hashim and Azam and their nephew Mohibullah - won everything in sight. Abdullah Khan (father of the brothers) was (yet again) chief steward at Peshawar Club and at the age of eight Hashim acted as unofficial ball-boy, retrieving balls hit out of the then open courts. The officers he served came to appreciate his ability on court and even raised the fare for him to travel to London to play in the British Open.

After the Khans came Egypt's Abdelfattah AbouTaleb. He started by sweeping the courts at Cairo's National Sporting Club where his brother was the tennis professional. At first he had to make do with discarded broken rackets and burst balls, which required considerable skill; when armed with the right weapons, he soared to new levels. Like the others I have mentioned, he was hungry for success but the rewards that came with his domination of his sport also slowed him down and he had to succumb to a generation of super-fit players.

The first of these was Ireland's Jonah Barrington who reigned supreme for 15 years with exception of 1975 when the brilliant stroke player Qamar Xaman (Pakistan) intervened. It is notable that the Egyptians and Pakistanis were all pre-eminently stroke players - a style of play no doubt encouraged by the heat of open courts with no air conditioning.

A new Khan dynasty started in 1982 when Jahangir Khan remained undefeated for ten years, followed by Jansher Khan for a further six, but this was a period of exceptional change in the game with the arrival of man-made materials for rackets and glass-backed courts leading to greater TV exposure. With the sport being played in 100 countries by now, no one player (or country) was able to dominate in the same way again. Furthermore, deprived Egyptian and Pakistani youths could not compete with the sponsored professionals of the developed world.

Ian Wright

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