Pakistan ruled the world of squash for a very long time. The country has won two of the most prestigious titles in the game — the British Open and the World Open — more than any other nation. But Pakistan’s last victory came in the 1998 World Open. Since then there has been a constant decline. Today, not a single Pakistani ranks in the top 45 of the Professional Squash Association (PSA) rankings.
Still, occasionally, some junior player’s success in the age group events brings a glimmer of hope. In the 2020 British Junior Open held in Birmingham, Hamza Khan of Pakistan won the Under-15 title. It was after eight years that any Pakistani had emerged victorious at the annual junior event.
Peshawar boy Hamza has a strong squash pedigree. The former World No 14 Shahid Zaman is his maternal uncle and the legendary Qamar Zaman happens to be a close relation. Zaman’s late wife was the sister of Hamza’s father.
Talking to Eos about his early journey, Hamza gives credit to his father Niazullah. “My father had represented Islamia College and the Peshawar University in inter-college and inter-university sports. He used to take me to the Hashim Khan Squash Complex where he would coach me. I usually practiced for half an hour like the other visitors there. Then, I appeared in the U-11 trials for the PAF Academy Peshawar, which took place at the same complex. I defeated all the other seven boys, including the then Pakistan U-11 champion, and got selected,” says Hamza.
From there onwards, squash became an integral part of the young man’s life. “We used to undergo intense physical training under an instructor in the mornings. Then after school it was back to the academy again, and from 2pm to 6pm it was all training and practice matches,” he says.
In January this year, Pakistan’s Hamza Khan won the British Junior U-15 Open Championship. It was no mean feat, as it filled sport lovers in the country with renewed optimism for Pakistan in the field of squash. Eos catches up with the young star to know a bit more about him
And then success arrived in the very first competitive venture. “When I won the Chief of Air Staff U-11 in 2016, I was called by the Pakistan Squash Federation [PSF] for training in Islamabad,” he says.
Soon, he was participating in international events. “Here, too, I had immediate success, winning the U-13 titles at both the Qatar Open and the Doha Open in 2017. My first big tournament was the British Junior Open U-13 championship in January 2018 where I reached the semis,” he says.
This was followed by a major title. “At the Asian Junior [U-15] in September 2018 in Chennai, India, I faced an Indian player in the final. Of course, he had crowd support and I felt tense. But once the match started, I was completely focused. It turned out to be an easy final, a straight-set win for me.
“In December 2018, I lost the final of the US Junior Open U-15 tournament after defeating the top seed in straight sets in the semi-final. Only a few days later, I made my second appearance at the British Junior Open in January 2019, this time in the U-15 category. I reached the fourth round without losing a set. But here I lost to Egypt’s Kareem El Torky [who finished third] in four sets.”
The same year Hamza competed at the U-19 level. “In early 2019, I was a member of the Pakistan squad which won the team title at the Asian Junior [U-19] championship in Thailand. In July/August, I even appeared at the World Junior Open in Malaysia, also an U-19 event. At 14, I was one of the youngest competitors there. After a straight-set success in the first round, I was leading two sets to nil in the next match. But my opponent, who was much older and far more experienced, won the next three. Still, it was a good learning experience. However, I retained the Asian Junior U-15 title in September the same year in Macau.”
And then came the big event, the British Junior Open 2020 U-15 in Birmingham. “I was pretty confident this time. My seeding was No 2 on the basis of my performance on the international junior circuit. Moreover, I had done extensive training and was fully prepared, physically and mentally,” he says.
The preparation reflected on the court as Hamza had a smooth sailing. He won all his six matches, including the final against a home player, in straight sets. “It was indeed my finest moment. More so, it was after eight years that any Pakistani had been victorious at the British Junior Open. The Pakistani squash officials in our contingent ran inside the court after the final point to celebrate the victory and congratulate me,” he says.
On reaching home, Hazma got a great welcome back. “I was overwhelmed by the warm reception at the Islamabad airport by my family as well as the PSF officials. Later, I was also presented with cash prizes of 500,000 rupees by the Air Chief, who is also president of the PSF, and 300,000 rupees by the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa sports minister,” he says.
He gives credit of his success to all, saying that PSF supported him since the age of 11. “The federation has always provided me with fine coaches. Presently, my coaching team is headed by Rahman Gul in Islamabad while in Peshawar, Tahir Iqbal trains me. They have also provided me with physical instructors. Then for my international tours, PSF bears the expenses for my travel and stay abroad. I also remain in touch with my uncle Shahid Zaman, who is now coaching in the US. He watches my match videos and gives useful tips. All this would not have been possible without the backing of my parents.”
Looking forward, Hamza aims high. “I will be preparing in full earnest for the World Junior [U-19] championship scheduled in Australia this June and I am hopeful of a good show there. I view the age group events only as a stepping stone. After the World Junior, I intend getting myself registered with the PSA to participate for the pro circuit.
“My ultimate goal is to bring back the big titles, the British Open and the World Open, to Pakistan,” he says.
Published in Dawn, EOS, March 1st, 2020