Focus on retaining squash talents

MALAYSIAN squash received the best possible boost for the year by winning two titles at the recently-concluded British Junior Open in Sheffield.

For a nation that has long depended on Nicol David to bring glory on the international stage, this is a sign of good things to come.

Both S. Sivasangari and Aifa Azman played superbly to defy the odds in beating much-fancied Egyptian players to win the Girls’ Under-15 and Under-13 titles respectively.

Even Ng Eain Yow, who has already proven himself at the British Juniors with two titles in the past, came close to making it a best-ever showing by Malaysia ... only to lose in the final of the Boys’ Under-17 category, also to an Egyptian.

Still, it was a tremendous effort by the 15-year-old who is following in the footsteps of Ong Beng Hee at the junior stage.

If these players, all within the age bracket of 13-16, were to keep up their performances, it will not be impossible to produce another world junior champion.

For the record, Malaysia has had a dry run at the world junior stage ... with Nicol the last person to win it in 2001.

Malaysia also has not produced a men’s world junior champion and team events have always eluded us.

The Squash Racquets Association of Malaysia (SRAM) have said there are plans to host the 2016-2017 world juniors, and even produce winners by then.

That is ambitious and that is good, and honestly, that should be the way.

But looking ahead, SRAM need to get a few important details right first ... or else it’ll just become empty talk and promises.

The most important thing that SRAM need to look at is retaining their players.

SRAM have a poor history of retaining players especially school leavers.

Tan Yan Xin, a British Junior Under-13 winner in 2006, and Low Wee Nee, national No. 2 Wee Wern’s younger sister, who was an Under-15 runner-up at the British Juniors in 2007, are just two examples of players who showed potential but stopped representing the country when they left to pursue their studies in the US.

A few more recent cases were the likes of Yong Sue Ann and Affeeq Abedeen, promising youngsters with good potential, who have also left.

The lack of monetary rewards is a factor and the lure of scholarships from top American universities such as Harvard is pretty hard to say no to.

And it’s hard to blame these players for leaving ... because after all, how long can they continue as players? What if they get a serious injury?

Plus, it all boils down to whether the players see a future for themselves after their junior career ends.

Wee Wern has constantly reminded me that had she not won the British Juniors Under-19 title in 2009, she might have ended up studying as well.

If SRAM are serious about producing players for the 2016-2017 world juniors, and to take over the mantle when Nicol and Beng Hee eventually call it a day, then they have to start motivating the current batch of juniors now.

And that means making good choices and listening to the right people.

Which brings me to my next point, favouritism and the selection policy.

I was present during SRAM’s annual general meeting last year, and it was quite clear to me that some parties, parents mostly, are unhappy with how SRAM selects players for big tournaments like the Asian Juniors.

While it is impossible to make everyone happy, the least they can do is have transparency and clear guidelines on the selection process.

That way, at least the states-based players will not feel so aggrieved when their names do not appear on the list despite playing well in one tournament.

That should also give the Bukit Jalil-based players a goal to work towards in order to improve themselves.

Or else, what’s the point again, in absorbing players from the states at 13 or 14, housing them at Bukit Jalil and making them go through vigorous training ... only to tell them that they are not going to be selected for tournaments.

It can be quite demotivating for a young player.

A proper selection policy should also be applied for the senior squad.

What’s the point of choosing a player who can’t work well as a team player for a team event? It’s bad for morale.

It doesn’t matter if we fail to win, what’s more important is the exposure the younger players stand to gain.

Lastly, it’s great that SRAM have a good sponsor for the junior development programme. However, they really need to step up in terms of securing more sponsorship. There should not be an over-reliance on just one company and the ministry.

In a nutshell though, this has been a fantastic start to the year. And SRAM should ride on that success to push squash to greater heights instead of being contented with what we have already achieved.

The writer is excited about the future of Malaysian squash as long as the squash community stays strong and united in the next few years.

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