The lad from Leeds has lit up the junior scene in Malaysia
By ALEX WAN – Squash Mad Asia Correspondent
Squash Mad writer ALEX WAN interviews Andrew Cross, the lad from Leeds who brought Malaysian junior squash to new heights.
In 2007, at only 21 years of age then, Andrew Cross took a bold step to accept his first full time coaching assignment where he travelled 6,500 miles from Leeds to Kuala Lumpur.
Seven years down the road, Andrew now speaks the Malaysian language pretty fluently, has a Malaysian girlfriend, knows some of the Malaysian roads better than I do, and is one of the most well-liked coaches in the country.
On the squash front, he has groomed a pool of highly promising Malaysian juniors who have been delivering results consistently in the regional and global level.
Juniors under his care have won numerous British Junior Open titles, the Asian Youth Games and most recently, his boys upset England en route to finish fourth in the team event, Malaysia’s second best ever finish at the World Junior Championships.
In April this year, his work was recognised by the Asian Squash Federation as Junior Coach of the Year.
Andrew is not your conventional “strict” junior coach that I am more accustomed to. He has his soft approaches which garners a different, and probably a higher, kind of respect from his trainees. As such, he has a very close relationship and rapport with them. Not only do juniors speak highly of him, but also their parents, which in Malaysia, is a very powerful and important group of people.
One of the most common things people say of Andrew is that he cares for the kids and he goes the extra mile in everything he does. So much so that he has even gotten his parents involved. In the last four editions of the British Juniors, the entire Malaysian entourage was put up in his family home by his parents.
Andrew speaks to Squash Mad about his journey in Malaysia, the issue of retaining talent and squash in the Olympics among many other topics.
Well done on your boys finishing fourth at the World Juniors in Namibia. You must be pretty pleased with that.
In Namibia the boys did a fantastic job of finishing in fourth place. We would have liked to have gotten a couple more wins but unfortunately, we came up against some better teams on the day.
The World Juniors is a very difficult event and by the next event, lots of teams would have developed and progressed. Hopefully we would have done the same too, especially as only two of the boys in this team will be eligible then.
We saw some juniors from many countries who are relatively unknowns in squash. Do you see this as a sign that the competition is only going to get tougher in future?
It’s great to see the sport being played in so many countries around the world and progressing so quickly. The Botswana team was always on the courts practicing and watching as much as possible.
They had a young team as well, which should serve them well for the future. Then there was a young boy from Guatemala that looked quite promising as well, so there are lots of countries to be aware of.
OK let’s get down to you now. Congratulations on the Asian Squash Federation (ASF) Junior Coach of the Year Award. Tell us what it means to you.
Obviously it’s good to be recognised. I have to thank SRAM (Squash Rackets Association of Malaysia) for recognising it first, and then obviously ASF for giving me the recognition of Junior Coach Of The Year. For me to win this is obviously very good but it’s much more of a team effort – the players, the physical conditioning staff, physios, psychologists and the other coaches, to those inside the office and all these people helping in what we’re trying to do.
Without the help of our sponsor CIMB, we wouldn’t be making it to a lot of these events so we must not forget them, as well as the National Sports Council.
What made you choose to come to Malaysia in the first place?
I was based in Pontefract at that time and Jamie Hickox (who was then the Malaysian national coach) used to bring players to the club on a tour of the UK. In 2006, he told me of a position that would be available the following year. I discussed it with Malcolm (Willstrop) who thought it will be a good experience for me. I was still doing my Economics degree then and had to wait till I finished before I finally moved here in September 2007.
What made you choose coaching as a career?
At that time when Jamie told me of the offer, apart from doing my degree, I was also working in HSBC’s fraud department and coaching some juniors at Ponterfact. Between the options I had, sitting in a desk from 9 to 5 just didn’t interest me. I decided I was still young and should get out and see the world.
Malcolm Willstrop is also a major reason why I chose coaching. I went to Pontefract on my eighth birthday and started training under him. The enthusiasm that he has and the passion for the game inspired me to become a coach. Malcolm taught me a lot about life in general and he insisted on discipline.
You’ve been in Malaysia since 2007, what’s keeping you here till now?
Obviously I enjoy it. I love the kids, especially the current group I’m working with. Things just work between us and we have a good relationship. I know what they expect of me and they know what I expect of them. So far, things just work and there are results to show.
It’s a very different way of life to what I was used to in England. Some shops and restaurants are open 24 hours and the city just never seem to sleep.
I have had the opportunity to work with a lot of coaches here and I feel that every day, I’m learning something new about the game which is helping me within my own coaching style, which is still evolving all the time.
I also get to meet many coaches and players during the KL and Malaysian Opens that small talks here and there help me so much.
Peter Genever, the Malaysian head coach (right) is so meticulous, I don’t think I have met another coach that works in such small details, some things I had never even noticed. My daily chats with him are very interesting and I am learning a fair bit from it.
It wasn’t all smooth sailing, I heard.
In 2008, due to various reasons, I was asked to step down as the world junior women’s coach. It was a choice between going home or stay here to work in the sports school and show people I could achieve success. It was a pretty strange feeling something just wasn’t right at the time.
There was quite a sense that I needed to prove to myself that this was the right choice to come to Malaysia. At first I didn’t really understand the culture of the players but luckily things are much better now.
It was also my girlfriend who convinced me to stay and show it to people I could achieve success in the school, which back then was not highly regarded, especially the quality of education.
I stayed on and my first two students, Teh Min Jie and Syafiq Kamal, have now both graduated and are playing full time. They have also excelled in their SPM exams (O levels equivalent), especially with Min Jie, who scored straight As. The school now is probably in the best position it has been for years but it’s a continuous process to keep up its success.
We’ve seen many promising Malaysian kids who went abroad for studies and never came back to pursue a squash career. Do you see a solution to this problem of retaining talent?
Obviously it’s difficult. There’s really not much we can do about it honestly and the thing is, I don’t see a solution to it. We go to tournaments such as the British Juniors and I’ve seen it myself, someone from an American university approaches a player and offers them certain things.
A lot of the parents and the kids themselves, they see it as a fantastic opportunity, which it is, to get pretty much a free education in many cases, and they get all the experience of playing squash which they enjoy. It’s just something we cannot compete with.
Obviously, we have a certain vision for the players and we hope that, or we try our best to give them that vision. A strong relationship between player and coach would hopefully mean that the vision is implanted in the players mind and over time you work towards achieving that.
Top English coach David Pearson said that Malaysian players need to train away from home for exposure. Is this something we’re looking at for our juniors?
We’re looking to do it a bit more often but obviously it depends a lot on the calendar, where it can be squeezed in. Like for Syafiq Kamal (who spent a month in Pontefract training under Malcolm Willstrop), it worked out quite nicely because he’s just finished his exams and he was there to play the British Juniors and then he could continue after and do his training.
Overall, I think if they can go abroad to play, then that’s good for them but also there are good things here in Malaysia as well. England in particular has a strong league system, something which we cannot compete with due to the size of the country.
How has Syafiq benefitted from his stint?
He’s benefitted a lot from that. Some of the stuff I’ve been trying to get him to do, sometimes when somebody else tells you in a slightly different way, it can be interpreted a little better, which is what happened.
Apart from the technical side of squash, he got exposed to league matches. He played PSL on his first night in England and the number one string match was between James Willstrop and Nick Matthew, so you won’t really get to see a much better league match than this. He also gained a lot of life skills as he was thrown into the deep end. He had to organise himself with a lot of stuff and he had to communicate in English.
Pontefract is also a good place because there are many nationalities there, so there was a lot of people for him to meet. The staff and a lot of the members he knew already from his previous visits there so hopefully this will have made his transition a bit easier.
When he was in Australia recently with Ng Eain Yow to play in a PSA event, there were a lot of people he already met, so he could communicate with them on things like accommodation and how to get around.
Having gone through the English system yourself as a student and player, and now you are working in the Malaysian system, what are the major differences, particularly, what can Malaysia learn from England?
The Malaysian kids have got everything from a very young age so there is no reason they can’t perform. From a young age, kids get strength and conditioning coaches, psychologists and physiotherapists. All these are not provided in England until you reach national level towards the end of your junior career.
There are plus and minuses. In the English system, it is very changeable and you can be dropped pretty quickly. But they have something to fall back on. They’ve got a good club system where there are good club coaches who can help those not in the national set-up.
Here in Malaysia, if you’re not in the national setup, there’s the option to go back to the state. But if you’re over 19, the state can’t help you and you’re basically on your own. So there’s nothing much to fall back on, which makes it a difficult system.
Azlan Iskandar (former world number ten) and his team recently introduced the SSJM tour which is now the next stepping stone for our juniors making the transition from junior to senior, as well as keeping those past 19 years old (ex-national juniors who did not transition into the senior team) involved in the game. It gives the juniors different people to play with and the different styles which is very important. Nafiizwan Adnan (Malaysian number two) plays a lot of them so the juniors get a good chance to go up against him and see what the difference in standard is.
The Commonwealth Games saw squash doubles, which has often been criticised, earn quite a few praises. Is it something you feel we (the squash fraternity) should put more focus on?
Doubles was interesting to watch, and in general, the Commonwealth Games came across well on television. It looked like a superbly organised event and one that was well received by the audiences worldwide.
Could doubles become a tour on its own? I’m not sure. But I think a lot of people would like to see some of the Egyptians pairing up together.
What do we need to do to further improve our chances for Olympic inclusion?
We’ve definitely improved as a sport in the last ten years. One thing we need to look at is an improvement around the let area. The lets, no lets and strokes just confuse people and is not appealing to those who do not fully understand it.
In the other racket sports, everything is very clear cut and most people understand it. I have watched matches where there have been more than a 100 decisions and it’s just not interesting even for squash lovers, so how will it be interesting for people that don’t understand the game?
When we bring events to public places like shopping malls, we hope to expose people to the game and hope that they will bring their kids to the local squash court to try it out. But when they watch it and the score board is not moving, it doesn’t quite help.
But how do we eradicate that? I think it’s very difficult and I do not see a clear way to solve that. I know PSA has taken some action so we will see in the next couple of months if things change at all.
FACT FILE: The Malaysian motto is: “Bersekutu Bertambah Mutu” meaning “Unity is Strength”
All action photos by Kng Zheng Guan
All other photos courtesy of Andrew Cross