Gogi Alauddin – Defying the Odds

My interview with Gogi Alauddin Published in ‘Squash Player’ (the official magazine of World Squash Federation), 2011 Issue 4.

Pakistan has produced a number of squash stars. But Gogi Alauddin, a Punjabi, was the first and to date the only non-Khan/Pathan squash great to emerge from Pakistan. He tells his remarkable story.

My father Ahmad Din was a coach at the Punjab squash courts, the only decent squash facility in Lahore, Pakistan’s second biggest city, in those days. I came from a poor family of four sisters and two brothers. I had started playing squash at an early age but had not thought about taking it as a career.

A high ranking English engineer W.T.Smith, working at the Mangla dam, used to play at the Punjab squash courts. Smith saw something in me and urged my father to work on my game. Squash was an expensive game given my father’s meagre income. Some top industrialists of Pakistan including Babar Ali and Shahzada Munno, who also played at those courts, came forward and helped by providing me with rackets, shoes and even milk.

Gogi Alauddin
Gogi Alauddin

All this motivated me to achieve something. I got totally focused and worked really hard. My daily regime included 13 km run and 10,000 skips with a rope, apart from the court practice. As there was no suitable competition in Lahore, I used to play against two players simultaneously. People talk a lot about my lob. I had really worked on it: used to station a person close to the back wall of the court whose job was to retrieve my lobs sent from the front part of the court. That gave me control and precision over this difficult stroke which later helped me immensely during the playing career; the strongest part of armoury.

The first competition I entered was the Punjab under 14, winning it easily. However, I knew that winning competitions at my home province didn’t mean much as all the big names in Pakistan squash, the Khans, came from outside the Punjab which had no squash legacy. Almost all the training camps were conducted in Peshawar and most of the coaches were also Pathans. My father always told me, “Gogi, you have to cover more ground”. All that didn’t deter me and I strived harder to gain national recognition.

Gogi in action against great Jonah Barrington
Gogi in action against great Jonah Barrington

My major breakthrough came in 1967 when I wore the national under 18 crown. That gained me the selection for Pakistan, that too the seniors, for the World team championships in Australia, the same year. Though selected as a stand-by, I played quite a few matches winning most of them and drew appreciation from the Australian press. I continued doing well on the national circuit during the next couple of years. Meanwhile, things improved on the Punjab squash scene. Some really dedicated, influential and enterprising people came at the helm: Justice Sardar Iqbal and Mr Muneer became the president and vice president respectively of the Punjab Squash Federation. They financed my trip for the 1970 British Amateur Championship.

It was my first international appearance in an individual competition and was also unseeded. Only a decent performance would have satisfied me and my supporters. I won match after match, and, to my own surprise, fairly comfortably. And then I was playing the final where I beat Reedman, Australia’s national under 23 champion in straight sets. In fact, I won all my six matches in the same manner. “The Times” of London observed, “this astonishing championship reminded that the men at the top must work harder than ever to resist the exciting advance of the new generation”.

Next year, I was again competing at the British amateur. Though I was the defending champion but was only seeded eighth. Again, I defied the odds and won the title but this time I had to toil hard and had a grueling five set final. Thereafter, I figured in a number of tournaments in Britain, winning most of them.

Squash received a real boost in early 70s. Sponsorship increased, and the Benson and Hedges series, master minded by Jonah Barrington, played a pivotal role in making squash a professional sport. I joined the band wagon and turned pro in 1973. Soon I had contracts with a number of companies including Adidas, Yellow Dot, Fred Perry and Dunlop.

I made immediate mark on the pro circuit as well, reaching the final of the British Open in 1973 where I lost to Jonah Barrington. I was destined to reach the final once more. In 1975, I was fairly confident to win the coveted title. My opponent in the final was my compatriot Qamar Zaman whom I had been defeating quite easily.

Even the London Telegraph predicted that it would be a one-sided final and Gogi would lift the crown this time. But my over confidence was perhaps my undoing. I lost the final thus missing out on the golden chance; easily the greatest disappointment of my career. I never again reached the final of the British Open.

My most memorable success came in the 1976 Pakistan Open. It was the first mega event staged in my country and was covered extensively by the national television. In the semifinal, I came across the invincible Geoff Hunt. It was an enthralling encounter and I managed to beat the maestro after a two hour and five minute marathon. Then I won the final against Mohibullah Junior.

That was the zenith of my career. I remained in the top 5-6 for the most part of my professional career but never reached the final of either the British Open (again) or the World Open. I was often regarded as the near man of squash; reached number two ranking in the world but was number one. Likewise, I never won the British Open though I twice played the final. When I left the professional circuit in 1985, I was still ranked among world’s top 10 but a knee problem had started bothering me. Hence, I thought it better to leave the scene and take up coaching in Kuwait.

About my style of play; only others can describe. This is what the legendary Geoff Hunt says about his contemporary,I played Gogi numerous times over a number of years and when he was playing well he was difficult to beat. His style of play differed from most because he used a lot of slower paced shots like drop shots and lobs to systematically open up the court and beat his opponents. He was very accurate with great touch never giving you an easy shot to play. Combining that with his on court agility and great ability to read where the ball was going made him a formidable opponent.

Perhaps the main thing that stopped him winning more tournaments was that he was not a powerful hitter therefore unlike some of other top players his attack relied entirely on his placement. As good as that was it still meant his opponents had more of a chance to retrieve his drive shots because of their slower pace. I remember playing a match against Gogi where one rally went for 10 minutes and was over 400 hits. This shows you what he was like when he put his mind to it.”

Pakistan squash’s revival in 70s, owes a lot to Air Marshal Nur Khan, the chairman of Pakistan International Airlines. He initiated the PIA Colts scheme. Young promising boys were spotted and given a monthly stipend. We were coached and sent to participate in international tournaments with PIA footing the travel. Whosoever performed well on the international circuit was given permanent employment in PIA. The incentives didn’t end there. If any of us achieved some major success in prime events, he was rewarded with a departmental promotion; I was moved to group six on reaching the final of the British Open. That provided us with the security so badly needed as squash in our times didn’t bring much money — winning the British Open brought only 500 pounds.

My natural lean frame coupled with the intensive physical workouts meant my weight during the playing days mostly remained around eight and a half stone with a waist of 30 inches. Hence the sobriquets of pipe cleaner and match stick man.

It was always my desire to give something back to the game that has given me everything. I was sent by PIA for a two month coaching stint in Malaysia. In 1985, I went to Kuwait and spent five years with a high profile club, coaching members of the royal family among others but had to flee the country when Saddam Hussain’s troops entered, losing some valuables. In 2003, an Egyptian firm approached me to coach in USA for four months but I couldn’t go because of my mother’s illness.

The most tragic moment of my squash life was Torsam Khan’s death. I was sitting in the front row when he died in action on the squash court during the 1979 Australian Open. We were also sharing the same hotel room. It was simply unbelievable. Torsam Khan, elder brother of legendary Jehangir Khan, was ranked unlucky 13 in the world at the time of his death.

Yes, it is surprising that no real star emerged from Lahore after me. I had no one to look to but after my successes, I think Lahore had a role model. My own nephew Sohail Qaiser was the next hope. He began his international career in a storming fashion: winning the world junior championships in 1982, breaking into the world top 10 and also winning the British open under 23. I think his fitness regime was not professional. A tendon injury, when he was still in his early 20s, ended his progress.

Favourite all time player is no one but the great Geoff Hunt. Apart from the technical excellence, he was also physically very fit and mentally strong. There were so many of us, Pakistanis, breathing down his neck. For a long time in the 70s, the Pakistanis occupied rankings from no 2 to no 5. We always discussed among ourselves how to bring Geoff down but he was too intelligent for our plans. More than anything else what endeared me the most was his gentlemanly behavior. If he felt the umpire had given a wrong call in his favour, he used to stroke the ball out of play. I have seen Hunt doing this even in the British Open final against Barrington.

The decline of Pakistan squash really pains me. I put the blame on the players. They are not dedicated. As compared to our times, Pakistani youngsters today are very much blessed in terms of facilities. There are so many modern courts. National federation provides them with very good coaches right from the early age. There are a number of tournaments in the country. Yet, they are complaining all the time. The boys are not prepared to work hard and the hunger for success is missing.

I am trying to do my bit. Presently I work as the head coach of the Punjab Squash Rackets where I train top four boys in each of the four categories: under 13, 15, 17 and 19. The boys have the talent but, as said earlier, lack the will.

The rags to riches story of Gogi Alauddin should be an inspiration to all. How a person overcame lack of finances, facilities and competition. Through sheer determination and hard work, he defied all the odds and reached great heights.