Putting players first, Azlan builds a world-class team
Interview by ALEX WAN – Squash Mad Asian Bureau Editor
Azlan Iskandar needs no introduction to the squash fraternity. Having retired from the tour about four years ago, the former world number 10 speaks just days before his biggest challenge in hand – the Naza PSA Women’s World Championships, which he rescued after the event was called off late last year due to organisers Hallmark’s failure to secure sponsors. Here he tells Squash Mad’s ALEX WAN all about the preparations for the big event in Kuala Lumpur, and how he is growing squash in Malaysia.
Walk us through the last few months the events that brought us here today.
As you’d expect, the last few months have been hectic. I was assembling a team, I had a team but we’re more used to doing much smaller events. I managed to get my sister (Zaireen) on board which was one of the key things. She’s got the knowledge of the game, done management and organisation, and most of all, she’s someone I trust.
Of course there was very little time the funding to do such a thing on such a scale. Both Khairy (Jamaluddin, Malaysia’s Minister of Youth and Sports) and I talked about it, he asked if I would do it and we both just came to an amicable conclusion. We are both friends with SM Nasaruddin (CEO of title sponsors Naza Group of Companies), so it made things a lot easier to secure the sponsorship.
It’s been non-stop work for the last four months. People knew something was happening but we only announced it last month at a really well planned press conference.
What makes this event different or special?
We’re putting in a lot of effort into little things like making sure the car pick up is at the right times. We’ve made special arrangements with the immigration folks so the girls need not queue up to get their passports stamped.
I put myself back into my player’s shoes, what I would have wanted back then.
You know after a long-haul flight and when you have to play the next day or two after, it’s no fun having to queue an hour or more just to get out of the airport. I just wanted to make sure this was going to be special for the players.
With the ladies playing on a lower tin, how different has it changed the game?
It’s definitely gone a lot more dynamic now. The game is a lot quicker and attacking players benefit from it. Plus it makes defensive players play a more attacking game. It’s the only way forward really. When we are fighting for equal prize money for the women, we can’t have double standards like these.
While this may be the biggest ever purse in women’s squash, it is still very pale in comparison to the men. Do you think this is something that needs to change?
It is getting bigger and the PSA (Professional Squash Association) is doing its part. For this event, there was a minimum bid of US$ 170k prize money and I have already submitted for the next edition and all I can tell you is that it’s higher than this.
Your Malaysian Tour events have grown both in frequency and size (of prize money). Is this in line with what you had in mind when you started it?
Yes, I knew exactly what I wanted and where it’d go. When I first started it three years ago, it was purely a local event. I used the local players to test it out really. Most of my academies are out of Kuala Lumpur, some in very rural areas and the people there have never played or even watched squash before. Many knew who I was but they have never actually seen what I do. They were learning to play from scratch and this was an avenue for them to witness some top level squash. It was a chance for them to see how the game should really be played.
One of my main concerns at that time was the amount of players that were retiring; they were leaving the national team. People like Elvinn Keo, Choong Kam Hing and Timothy Arnold (Delia and Rachel Arnold’s brother) were fizzling out. I wanted an avenue for them to be able to continue playing. I wanted to inculcate a more positive view into these players.
In the second year, we grew and it was 1/3 local players and 2/3 PSA players. We also introduced doubles into the circuit and the reason then was to allow our juniors who were going to participate in the Commonwealth Youth Games to get some match play. It was successful because they came back with some gold medals.
But all this is also only possible with the support of (Malaysia’s) Ministry of Youth and Sports, which has been behind our initiative right from the start. Having them on board has certainly made things a little easier in terms of getting funding and support from other parties.
Players like Ng Eain Yow and Sivasangari Subramaniam; they’ve just won the Malaysian Tour events. You must be very pleased.
Of course I am. It’s great because they weren’t even getting past the first round when they first started. These events allow them to get some tournament match play. People say you only need skills to play but what they don’t recognise is you got to also get past the fear first. It’s not just the skills, and the more you play, the easier it gets. I never got these opportunities as a player and I want this for our juniors.
With more opportunities to play these events, we will also get more players who would have played big matches. We have always been a one generation, one player nation. I hope this will help us change that. We need more in the top 50 and top 20 to have a good solid team.
The Malaysian Tour events are really made for juniors like them to shine. When the time comes, I will find a way to raise the necessary funds to push up the events to a $20 or $30K, but only when the time is right. Ultimately, the goal is to have several of events that size.
Who sponsors these Malaysian Tour events?
Well, we have ASB (court makers) and then some other supporters. I am the agent for ASB and whatever money I make out of it, I pump it back I to the sport. I also make sure that ASB is giving us support for our events.
So how big is your company Sportspin and what do you guys do?
Right now we only do squash. We’ve got these Malaysian Tour events and our academies scattered around the country, so it’s pretty active. We have about 20 people including coaches and given the amount of things we have on our hands, it gets pretty busy.
You have been retired for about four years now. Are there days where you wish you were not?
Not at all actually. I enjoy my life now with my wife and kids. I’m doing different things, I’m training for the Ironman now. So no, I don’t miss it at all.
Nicol David, of course! We always want to see new blood win it but, with this important event taking place in Malaysia, I definitely hope Nicol gets through. She has me behind her all the way.
So, after all the long nights and days of hard work, is the Naza PSA Women’s World Championships ready for action?
Yeah, we’re good to go! We have a couple of last minute surprises here and there but that’s normal. I would say that we’re 90% all ready now.
Squash Mad: Thank you, Azlan. Well done on pulling everything together and good luck when the big event finally gets under way.
Official Tournament website