Saturday 21 March 2009
Brian Viner: Nicol stretched to the limit by squash's race for Olympic prize
Until Wednesday morning, I hadn't played squash for more than 15 years, having given up when I decided it was doing me more harm than good.
But on Wednesday I was tempted back on to the court by the former world champion Peter Nicol MBE, no less, and found it a vastly changed sport from the one I first got to know, in a variety of crumbling sports centres, in the mid-1970s. For a start there was the racket. Nicol handed me something shaped vaguely like a snowshoe, with a frame made of titanium and graphite and other things that would survive a nuclear attack, let alone the odd bash against a wall. Then there was the scoring system – the first to nine, scoring on every point regardless of who serves, all of which was news to me.
After Nicol had generously allowed me to muster a few points against him, albeit while I generated enough sweat to drown a cow, we showered (I'd forgotten the bliss of the post-squash shower; in fact, I'd still be in there now if I'd been able to phone my wife to say I'd be away for another few days) and found a comfortable sofa into which to sink my traumatised body. There, Nicol told me that the game has changed even since he retired, less than three years ago. Professional squash, at any rate, has got considerably faster, and even physiques have changed. At 5ft 10in, Nicol was once the optimum height for a squash player. But the current British No 1, James Willstrop, is the height and shape of the second-row forwards who will today contest the line-outs at Twickenham and Cardiff.
As for technique, it is the Egyptians, apparently, who have had most influence these past few years. The present world champion, Ramy Ashour, can do the sort of things with a squash ball that Shane Warne did with a cricket ball. And Egypt has duly gone squash-crazy, although the process began with Ahmed Barada, the David Beckham of the Nile Delta, who has become a movie star on the back of his squash career. In 1999, Barada played Nicol in the world championship final on a glass court in front of the Pyramids at Giza. There were five thousand people there and millions more watching on television to see him become world champion. Except he didn't. Nicol did. And had to be smuggled in a blanket back to his hotel afterwards? Not quite, he said, although within seconds of the match ending, the only 10 people still in their seats were his family and friends. Everyone else had gone.
Nicol is among those spearheading a commendable campaign for squash to be admitted to the 2016 Olympics. It was on a shortlist for admission in 2012, and got more votes from the International Olympic Committee members than any of the other proposed additions – karate, golf, rugby sevens, roller sports, softball and baseball – but not quite the required two-thirds majority. The Last Word is happy to lend its weight (slightly reduced after Wednesday's exertions) to this campaign. Squash is impressively global (there are 20 million players, and 13 nations represented in the world's top 16), with nothing elitist about it (the average cost to play is just $4), while an Olympic gold medal would represent the pinnacle of achievement in a way that it never will in tennis, squash's illustrious distant cousin, which in the humble view of this column has no place in the Olympic Games.
The ISS Canary Wharf Classic, featuring eight of the world's top 10 players, starts on Monday. Tickets and information from: www.canarywharfsquash.com
Willis hedges his Ashes bets after getting burnt in 2005
David Willis, chairman of the National Sporting Club, put his brother Bob, the former England bowler (below), on the spot at the NSC's British Sports Book Awards lunch this week. Willis reminded the audience that at the 2005 awards, brother Bob exhorted those present to stick their mortgages on Australia to win that summer's Ashes. This time, Bob was more circumspect. England have slightly less than an even-money chance of regaining the forthcoming Ashes, he reckoned, and delivered a small stab of fraternal revenge by telling brother David, who had introduced him as the most not-out batsman in the history of Test cricket, that the distinction actually belongs to Courtney Walsh.
All swings and roundabouts for the lives of Brians
This is an unusually satisfying week in the lives of Brians everywhere, especially those of us who grew up with the taunting reminder ringing in our ears that we shared a name with the snail on The Magic Roundabout.
First came the premiere of a film about one great sporting Brian (Clough), and today another great sporting Brian (O'Driscoll) has a chance to captain Ireland's rugby union XV to a Grand Slam.
What a shame that Mr Lara retired, although I don't expect England's bowlers, struggling to dislodge the West Indies batsmen as it is, would concur.
Lower than low
Whether Cesc did, or whether Cesc didn't, I had to laugh while listening to Sport on Five in my car the other night. The programme followed a news bulletin containing the latest from Austria on the Fritzl trial, and then up popped Mark Bright to say, voice practically trembling with emotion, that "spitting is the lowest thing one human being can do to another".
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