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GLOBAL GALLERY MARCH 2001 Martin Bronstein's astigmatic view of the world of squash.

© 2001 All rights reserved.
photos © 2001, D Tessier, R Beck and V Winchell

March 21, 2001, LONDON. © 2001 SquashTalk

I was about to sit down and phone Peter Nicol, because a very reliable source had told me that this year he would play for Scotland in the world team championships, something he has refused to do in for five years, although he did win a gold medal for Scotland in the Commonwealth Games in 1998. (If you Yanks hadn't made that historic decision in 1776, you could participate in the Commonwealth Games. Now you just have to be content with the Pan-American event).

My hand was poised over the telephone when it rang. It was World Press Officer Howard Harding. "Go out and get The Times," he said cryptically. And then added: "Front page."

This was not like the usual affable Howard. I did as I was bid and Wham! Right there, bang smack in the middle of the front page, was a head shot of Peter Nicol. Not just a small photo but one measuring 9" X 7". The headline read "Scotland serves up England Winner." The opening paragraph read: " England is poised to celebrate a new sporting hero in the way that England knows best: by importing a ready-made star." This was really quite incredible….this story got more front page space than when Nicol actually won the world title.

After that front page story, things moved fast and this morning (March 21) England's SRA held a press conference at Lamb's Club in London. All the big guns were out including Mike Corby,v-p of the WSF and president of the SRA as well as owner of Lambs.

Essentially the conference was to put an end to the rumours as Nicol signed on the dotted line and became an England player. To put it briefly, Peter Nicol, who has lived in England for the last ten years, is using the 3-year residential clause to acquire English status, which will, from May 1 next year, allow him to play for England.

This is a terrible blow to Scottish pride; you really have to be British to understand the state of undeclared war between England and Scotland. The Scots have a disdain for the 'sassenachs' (the name given by the Gaelic inhabitants of Great Britain and Ireland to their 'Saxon' or English neighbours), while the English, with their usual superiority complex, file their northern neighbours in the same 'funny foreigners' file that includes the rest of the world. Peter was quite a fervid Scot in his own way, wearing the kilt and full regalia on formal occasions and getting piped on to court at major finals. (It is a tribute to Nicol's admirable personality that I can still like him even after inflicting bagpipes on me.)

It is a strange situation that has existed between Nicol and the Scottish squash authorities. There has always been an invisible fence between them. Strange because Nicol's father, Pat, was once the Scottish National coach. At today's press conference, I asked Peter how it all started and why the two parties could not get together for their mutual benefit. I'm still none the wiser. He said it has always been like that. He gives the impression there was never antagonism, just antipathy. "They have never given me any help. I have played for Scotland since I was a kid, but they have never done anything, or made any offer to help me," was part of Peter's reply, indicating a deep resentment that cannot by described as antipathy.

There are still many sports administrators around the world who feel that one should represent one's country for the honor of it, and not money. When I asked Neil Harvey, Peter's advisor, coach and manager, whether he had asked Scottish Squash for too much money for Peter to play for Scotland in Cairo in 1999, he laughed. "They have never offered any money. They could not even come up with £200 ($300)."

The Scottish reaction was most indicative; all they could talk about was next year's Commonwealth Games and that they were adamant that Nicol would not play for England because they would object to the Games authorities etc. etc. etc. They were not upset about his defection for any other reason than the Gold Medal.

Both England's SRA and Scotland's SRA get Lottery money. England have put together a beautifully thought out World Class Performance programme and use their £1.1($1.65) million annual grant in the very best possible way. Players get varying amounts of cash (up to ($35,000), are given programmes and goals and if they don't reach them - they are fitness tested twice a year- they get thrown off the programme.

More important, there is a huge back-up of physios, dieticians, sports psychologists and computer analysts that is now producing the most professional group of squash players England has ever known. Scotland does a means test and anyone earning over $35,000 a year will not get funds. England also does a means test but only to ascertain the amount of cash. Peter Nicol wants in on that programme. "It is not about the money," Peter repeats. "It's about the support."

Then I asked the question that, for me, got rid of all the misunderstanding. "Does Scottish squash have the same sort of support programme as England?" Peter's answer was simple. "No." What Nicol wants was the sort of backup that would help him keep his body in shape to perhaps stretch his career by another year. He's now 27 years old and could look forward to perhaps another three or four years at the top. With really good body maintenance, he could stay for another five years. England offered that support, Scotland didn't. It was all about a top athlete who loved his sport, wanting to play at the top level for as long as he could.

Forget the flagwaving, the jingoistic breast-beating and the conspiracy theories. Peter Nicol wants to play squash and if his body breaks down, he wants a team to on hand to help him recover. According to Harvey, the decision to sign for England was made when Nicol saw the support team for the England players at the Tournament of Champions in New York this year. "Just incredible. And when I saw what they could do with the computer analysis, I was knocked out," Harvey says.

I feel sorry for Scotland. With Nicol, Martin Heath and John White, they would have almost certainly won the world team championship two years ago and again this year in Melbourne. Martin Heath won't don the Scottish shirt either - he's much more pointed in his condemnation of Scottish money going to foreigners. So White will head up a team that really has little chance of finishing in the top six. If the Scots bleat about nationalism, perhaps they should remember that White, Neil Frankland, Stuart Cowie and Senga Mcfie have all accepted the Scottish shilling to abandon their homeland to plays for Scotland. Peter going the other way more or less makes it even. Will heads roll at Scottish Squash? I doubt it.

Looking forward to Melbourne in October, I must say that Australia's new group of youngsters, led by David Palmer and Paul Price, look good to beat the ageing England team, with Egypt and Canada as threats.

Peter Marshall has written the story of his squash life. It is called Shattered, and with every good reason. In the mid-nineties Marshall was the one player in the world who had the mental strength and determination to wear down and finally defeat Jansher Khan. And he was making admirable progress towards that end when he was struck down with a mysterious complaint. The fittest man in squash suddenly found it hard to walk upstairs. His body ached with pain but such was his strength of mind, that he played anyway.

Sadly that mental strength that had made him, destroyed him. Marshall had succumbed to Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, caused usually by overexerting the body while suffering from a virus, and thus affecting the immune system. From a high of number two in the world, biting at Jansher's heels and worrying him, Marshall slid down and although he briefly rose to number nine three years later, he has never regained that level of play again.

This is a book that every young squash player should, alongside their parents, coach and doctor. It is an inspiring tale of an unusual squash player - he used a two handed grip - overcoming all the obstacles and experts and persisting in his own unique way to climb the heights.

But it is also a warning about overtraining and ignorance of the body. If England's world class programme had been in effect then, Marshall would have had some proper advice and avoided four years of hell. Which brings me to Jonah Barrington's misguided thundering in the introduction. Jonah writes: "When I think of Peter Marshall's story I find it hard not to get angry….. Peter has had to battle not only with his illness but also with the stupidity and prejudice of people … there are many doctors and journalists who should feel ashamed."

He doesn't name the doctors or the journalists of course. I suppose he had to find a villain somewhere. What Jonah should have questioned were those close to Marshall, those who allowed him to destroy himself. Why journalists?

Marshall was supported, his story chronicled sympathetically, by all who knew and admired him - which was every journalist I know. And why blame the medics? Marshall writes in his book that it wasn't until 1998, two years after he went down with CFS, that British Department of Health officially recognised CFS. Even now, diagnosing the complaint is very difficult. There is certainly more knowledge about it in 2001 than there was in 1996 when it was called Yuppie flu.

Marshall writes as if he had no idea what was happening to him and he spent three years trying to find a treatment. But Marshall was not the first squash player to suffer. Nicky Spurgeon, a very promising England player, won the British under 23 championship while suffering from a cold. She never played competitively again and has never recovered her full fitness. I wrote about Spurgeon numerous times in both the national press and in the squash magazines five years before Marshall was brought low. Surely somebody must have put two and two together to connect Marshall and Spurgeon.

Even now there are conflicting reports on correct treatment. Marshall made two superhuman comebacks - in one world open he beat both Brett Martin and Jonathon Power, only to be destroyed by the complaint again, putting him almost back to square one. He travelled all over Britain and North America trying what he now sees as quack cures, from homeopathy to magnets.

Strangely, it was when he changed his mind-set, accepting that he would never play competitively again and the use of a mild form of anti-depressant, that he made a real recovery in that even after hard matches, there was no regression. As I write, Marshall is nursing a leg injury and claims - apart from age - no ill affects. This is a very special man, his disappearance from the world scene because of CFS, one of the great tragedies of squash.

Shattered By Peter Marshall with Nick Kehoe. Mainstream Press, Edinburgh

[How to obtain the book]

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