World Champion Nick Matthew Presses The Case For Squash

In a world of just and fitting deserts Nick Matthew would have spent last week as a feted celebrity touring the broadcasting studios – and in each of them, as his agent relishingly upped the ante outside, the self-effacing champion would have demurely pooh-poohed the clamorous assertion that his weekend's work indisputably promoted him to the 2011 shortlist for sportsman of the year alongside Mo Farah, Rory McIlroy and Mark Cavendish.
In the event Matthew had graciously accepted his trophy and the acclaim of the Rotterdam crowd and prepared to fly home to the north of England knowing that there he would be, to all intents anonymous, in spite of having just become the first player in 15 years to defend successfully the World Open squash title, the old game's most meritorious.
Only narrow-eyed nerdy devotees of the small-print newspaper stats are actually aware of Matthew's blazingly significant achievement. Descriptive coverage was non-existent. His triumph, nevertheless, at least coincided with the World Squash Federation's renewed bid for Olympic participation at the Games of 2020. It was barmy that golf – golf! – beat squash for inaugural participation in the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics, but the telling clincher these days is television appeal.
In spite of its 20 million players in 185 countries, squash, by its very nature, will be always be hard-pressed to translate to telly's flat screen blandness its unique snake pit ferocity, rat-a-tat machinegun speed and intimate competitive intensities. The federation says its campaign for 2020 guarantees all-glass courts and intricate HD camerawork. A pity is that 2020 is much too far away to provide superstar status for the engaging 31-year-old Matthew.
Television was not always the be-all, end-all yardstick. A quarter of a century or so ago squash was the future, the unstoppable up and coming pastime. Two or three times I was even sent to cover the PIA world championships in the mid-1970s in Pakistan and on a rest day the organisers took us up to the ancient walled city of Peshawar, up around Khyber Pass-Kipling country.
There we were shown the uncovered courts at the onetime British RAF Officers' Club, where in the 1920s a tiny-tot Pathan ball-boy had been introduced to the blue-blood English public school game. His name was Hashim Khan and he was to teach himself – playing alone by moonlight for hour upon hour after cleaning the courts – to become top-dog patriarch, the Don Bradman-Bobby Jones-Stanley Matthews of the game, a totem even we English schoolboys in the 1950s would speak of in awe.
This year aptly marks the 60th anniversary of Hashim, by then squash pro and chief mess steward and a dumpy, barrel-chested 35-year-old, being sent to London as a wheeze by those RAF officers in their Empire outpost to try his luck at the All England (i.e. world) Championships at the Lansdowne Club. He travelled for days in the hold of a transport plane. The Lansdowne did not like bare feet, so they sent him out in his first pair of plimsolls (from Woolworth's in Oxford Street).
Nobody could get near him. Hashim conceded only five points in the final and went on to win the title seven times. The Daily Telegraph reporter wrote: "His success comes from some oddity in his stocky physique which renders him fantastically mobile. Hashim's unique footwork is combined with ungainliness of style but fearsome speed of shot. Add this to his infectious cheeriness – he often chuckles even during a hard rally – and here is a personality squash is hardly ever likely to forget."
Nor has all sport itself. By happy fluke I knew the next true-great world champion. In the early 1960s in London's Chelsea-South Kensington borderlands a regular haunt was a genial bistro, Nineteen Mossop Street, where often, after last orders, we latenighters would be joined by a tall, dark, brooding young man who had spent his evening at the Fairy Liquid and up to his greasy elbows as washer-up.
He was paying his way to attempt an admittedly ludicrous and obsessive ambition – to become world squash champion. And in 1966 – and for five years thereafter – so the remarkable aspiration came to pass for the phenomenal Jonah Barrington.
After Jonah came the cool, classy Aussie Geoff Hunt. Then, for what seemed like decades, there was Hashim's young kinsman, the seemingly just as unsurpassable Jahangir Khan; and then another, almost to the turn of the century in the onliest Jansher Khan.
Then squash retreated, silent and muted into the provincial shadows and undergrowth. It could well be the age of the amazing Nick Matthew now. But, for shame, not many seem to know about it.
By Frank Keating for, visit:

British No1 has just retained the World Open squash title in Rotterdam, a remarkable feat in an all but forgotten sport.