Squash: Where English means the best

Iain Fletcher finds cause for home comfort in world of squash
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The Independent Online
LILY-LIVERED, soft and untalented are adjectives all too frequently used to describe English sportsmen, and often with some justification. So it is a bit of a shock to hear that one talented young athlete from another country has chosen to base himself here because of the "hard and disciplined training, quantity of excellent players and hunger that English players show".

It is even more extraordinary considering there are no financial benefits to the move, other than the better he becomes, the better he will perform and the more money he might win.

Two years ago the then 17-year-old Ong Beng Hee was at the top of Malaysian squash and "cruising because there was no one to challenge". The dismissal of his coach prompted a rethink and he decided that if he was going to feature in the major tournaments like the British Open, which starts tomorrow in Aberdeen, he would need to expand his game, and that meant his horizons as well.

A few phone calls were made and Ong arrived in Chingford under the tutelage of Neil Harvey to join a training group that included Peter Nicol, the current world champion and world No 2. "I couldn't believe it when I arrived because I was easily the worst player in the group and had to work hard not to be embarrassed," Ong said last week. "Neil said to me that if I wanted to become any good I would have to work hard, and when that was over I would have to work even harder. It has definitely worked because I am now ranked 44 in the world and just two months ago I was 71.

"The important thing for me this week though is to qualify for the British Open. It is one of the hardest and most prestigious tournaments and on Sunday I should have to face Mark Cairns who is about 25th in the world. This is a hard match but I need to start winning these."

A hard match today indeed. And, Ong hopes, another step on the road towards the tiny elite who can make a decent living from squash. Until then, finances are a struggle, especially having moved 10,000 miles from home to train?

"You know, it is so difficult because the prize money isn't great in the satellite tournaments, but I spend very little in England and to pay for my coaching I give Neil a small percentage of what I win. In truth he is supporting me, as are the National Sports Council of Malaysia, who pay for all my flights. Without that I could never compete in places like America or Pakistan because of the expense. If you travel abroad and fail to qualify then you are out of pocket. Do that too many times and it gets expensive."

Ong does receive sponsorship money from Dunlop and last year when he became world junior champion 40 billboards featuring him appeared on roadsides around Malaysia, but still he struggles.

"The billboards were great, but I did them for free to help my sponsors. If I do well in world squash then the sponsors in Malaysia will back me and that means financially I will be secure. It would also be great for squash in Malaysia to have a player in the top 10 for the first time, but until then I have to keep working hard."

Starting this week. "Of course. But I am not the only one struggling. Lots of English players work very hard for little support if they aren't in the country's top five or six. They are still fantastic sportsmen but they suffer through Britain's excellence in squash. I play this game for love, though. It is a great game but I won't complain when I get financially OK. I won't have to go back to school then."