James Willstrop - hidden star of the sport the Olympics left behind

Here's a question -- in which sport does Britain boast the top two male players in the world and two of the top four women yet did not win a single medal at London 2012?

The answer is squash.  And the reason for its conspicuous lack of success in Britain's golden year is that, as yet, squash is not an Olympic sport, despite years of lobbying for inclusion. It has featured in the Commonwealth Games and the Asian Games since 1998 but never in an Olympics.

That might change this time next year.  Having missed out in London and again in Rio in 2016, squash has turned to Mike Lee, the bid strategist behind London 2012 and Qatar's controversial securing of the 2018 World Cup, to steer their campaign for a place at the 2020 Olympics.  Squash will learn its fate when the International Olympic Committee meets in Buenos Aires next October to elect the host city and decide which new sports get the nod.

It will be too late for James Willstrop and Nick Matthew, who will go into next month's World Championships in Qatar as one and two in the world.  One or the other would have been expected to win gold in London, but at 29 and 32 years old respectively it is unrealistic to think that either would still be competing at the highest level eight years from now.

If only they had been around in the 1980s, when squash attracted some high profile sponsors and enjoyed much more interest from the media than it has in recent years.  Then the sport was dominated by Pakistan's Jahangir Khan.

To be world squash champion is no minor feat.  Few sports provide such a grueling test of a ball player's mental and physical endurance and, what's more, it is played in 185 countries.  World Squash Day, an event staged earlier this month in support of the game's bid for 2020 Olympic inclusion, involved 32,000 players from 700 clubs.

Just how tough a feat is graphically described in Willstrop's book, Shot and a Ghost, subtitled A Year in the Brutal World of Professional Squash, which was deservedly named on the longlist for the 2012 William Hill Sports Book of the Year award.

It is a reflection of how squash has slipped off the radar despite the success of its British players -- Matthew will be attempting to win his third world title in Qatar -- that the book, a project encouraged by the Daily Telegraph journalist, Rod Gilmour, attracted only scant interest from major sports book publishers and only modest offers from smaller houses, eventually emerging as a self-published title.

A minor book it is not, however. Willstrop opens his soul with considerable eloquence and gripping honesty not only to describe the rigours of playing sport at the highest level but to take the reader into his own world, well beyond the confines of the 60-odd square metres in which he plies his trade, one in which he has had to cope with the premature death of his mother, the strict regime set for him by father Malcolm, who is something of a coaching legend in squash, and growing up as a young man apart in the earthy Yorkshire town of Pontefract.

Simon Redfern, whose measured, succinct reviews of sports books are a must-read in the Independent on Sunday, described Shot And a Ghost as "an engrossing read".  Whether the William Hill judges see it that way will be revealed on Monday, when the shortlist for the 2012 award is due to be revealed.

Read more

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The handshake that touched the soul of hat-trick seeker Duncan Hamilton

Buy Shot and a Ghost: A Year in the Brutal World of Professional Squash direct from amazon.co.uk


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