Dubai: Growing up in Pakistan, Abbas Khan loved athletics and cricket. Then in 1968 he attended the final of the Punjab Open featuring his cousin Hidayat Khan. The young Abbas Khan stepped on a squash court for the first time, and loved the feeling. Hidayat got the enthusiastic youngster under the tutelage of the legendary Roshan Khan, father of multiple world squash champion Jehangir Khan.
Within a year, Abbas had played and won the Under-16 Sindh Province Squash title, and by 1971 he featured in the final of the Pakistan Juniors. In 1973, Abbas stepped out Pakistan for the first time, and his visits to Europe saw the youngster feature in the prequarter-finals of the 1975 British Open followed by titles at the 1977 French Open and 1978 Monaco Open.
When Abbas first came to Dubai to participate in a tournament way back in 1980, squash was one of the sports that were at its peak in the UAE. Another visit, and two years later, Khan accepted an offer to take charge as squash coach with Dubai Police.
In 1984, Khan enrolled one of his most high-profile students — Shaikh Ahmad Hasher Al Maktoum, who went on to become UAE national squash champion for a record ten years in-a-row. But more importantly, Shaikh Ahmad etched his name in history books when he gave up squash in 1997 to go on to win the gold medal in double trap shooting at the 2004 Athens Olympic Games.
Abbas now heads the Technical Commiitee of the UAE Squash Association, while also doubling up as national team coach. He misses the good old days when squash rubbed shoulders with football in the UAE. But the glory days of yore are bound to return, if only the association, authorities, entities, sponsors and players all work together, as he recounts in this chat with Gulf News:
GULF NEWS: Squash in the 1980s and 90s and present day. What has the evolution been like to someone like you who has spent nearly 35 years in the UAE?
ABBAS KHAN: When I first came to the UAE there were perhaps just ten squash courts here. But from my position first as a player and as someone who could do something for the sport, we pushed for the well-being of squash. By 1992, the UAE had become the first country to have an all-glass squash court where we held the World Cup featuring the top 64 players. Jansher Khan went on to win that tournament and the UAE got an opportunity of seeing the best in squash. Later, the Dubai Country Club did quite a bit by continuing the inflow of top players for their annual Dubai 3s tournament. The sport grew steadily and in 1994, the UAE Squash Association was formed. Today, we can proudly say that there are more than 1,200 squash courts in the country.
Q. But today squash is not exactly in the same position. What happened?
A. Well, the other sports arrived. In the 1980s and 90s people in the UAE only knew football and squash. We used to have such big squash leagues in many divisions featuring more than 300 or even 400 players every Monday. And then slowly other sports came. Suddenly the population of the UAE increased and other sports like tennis, table tennis, badminton and golf entered the scene. At the same time, people got busier and squash was one of the sports to suffer as a result. There are people playing squash today, but perhaps it is not what it used to be. Most of the modern buildings, villas, compounds, hotels and communities have squash courts, but there aren’t many competitions, leagues and tournaments taking place like we used to have then. And this is a source of concern.
Q. What can be done to bring back those glory days?
A. I think we have an ideal infrastructure for sport in the UAE. This country hosts so many of the big international events already, and that is so good to inspire our youngsters. But now, we need to think on how we can derive maximum benefits for the young ones through these events and famous sportspersons coming to the UAE. I think we ought to take the next step forward. Merely organising grand international tournaments is not the answer, and promoting Dubai or the UAE is no longer enough. We have to start thinking on long-term benefits for the country and its future generations. Sports today is a business that needs to have a continual supply line. It needs to be run like a factory that keeps on producing sportspersons. There can be no stoppage in the supply of players. We ought to keep in mind that players are not ready-made. They need to be made and developed, and that can happen only after a lot of pain and sacrifices.
Q. If there are so many squash courts then it also reflects on the health of the sport in the UAE, doesn’t it?
A. Having so many courts can also simply mean too much commercialisation of the sport. Maybe a similar thing is happening in tennis as well. It is normal to see a group of 20 or even more youngsters get training on a small area of 30x15 feet by one coach. Maybe there are a couple of kids in the group who are special, but there is little hope that their true potential will be realised. This way we keep losing genuine talent due this commercialisation of sports. If the talented youngsters do not get special attention at this growing up age then we can never continue breeding sportspersons. From my experience, a sportsperson can learn and improve his skills in a sport till 18 years. After that, it’s all about adding experience. There is nothing more left to learn. Coaches need to seriously look into this aspect instead of just focusing on making money.
Q. But with so many courts, we can be assured of the sport being in good health, right?
A. Yes, that’s correct and yet we need to have certain discretion. The Dubai Sports Council is doing a great job by bringing in some big events to the UAE. But along with this there are other aspects that need to be considered. There is a lot of money spent on the big events such as tennis, badminton, table tennis and squash. But the authorities also need to pay due attention to the development of these sports at the grassroots level. As an example I always look at tennis, table tennis or golf. Dubai hosts one of the biggest events on the international calendar, but what has been the payback for the country? The authorities, be it the Ministry of Education or the UAE National Olympic Committee or any other relevant body, need to intervene and ensure that grassroots are not neglected.
Q. What is the way forward?
A. I am working on a special project that I prefer to call ‘The Box’. Our children and their future lie in a box. Starting from a school bus or the school itself or the narrow confines of their apartment or in a shopping mall or in front of a computer — the reality is that they can do nothing without being in a box. In contrast, we had the freedom of the great outdoors. My intention is to approach the Ministry of Education and urge them to introduce ‘The Box’ programme as one of the subjects in the schools’ curriculum. The programme would centre round the whole purpose of pulling our kids out of the box. Once they are out of the box then they can aspire towards growth that is both mental and physical. Perhaps, the schools themselves can take the initiative of bringing in coaches who will educate young minds in various sports. This is one sure way the kids will get access and education to various sports that they can pick up while they are still at the right age to do so. We owe this to ourselves as our children are the future.
Q. How can the general public be included in this scheme of things?
A. I think the biggest issue we have as expatriate communities in Dubai or the UAE is the lack of recreational and leisure spaces. I think there is an urgent need for the concept of Community Centres in empty spaces especially in high-density areas such as Bur Dubai, Ghusais and Deira. There should be a nominal charge for entry at these centres, but they should be people-friendly so that anyone can turn up and play sport at leisure. Some countries in Europe even have areas set up in malls where one can go and play sports. Among other things the UAE is known for its malls and one of the things that can be seriously considered is setting up ‘sporting corners’ in these malls where anyone, including tourists to the country, can come and play sport.