28th Apr 2016
BARRINGTON – THE PROPHET REVIVED
Jonah Barrington started the ball rolling. More accurately, he started the money rolling – a pioneer, a visionary, a force of nature, Barrington is the man responsible for professional squash – and today he turns 75.
On his birthday we delve into the archives and look back at the life of the man who transformed the face of squash forever with his swash-buckling moustache and charisma. When squash's first full-time player took a plunge into the unknown in 1969, he became a lonely prophet of a sport with no circuit, no television, no World Championship, and no obvious pathway forward.
That is the piece of history for which Barrington should perhaps be remembered most, maybe even more than for the ground-breaking capture of six British Open titles in the late sixties and early seventies, an achievement which generated publicity for squash like never before. While titles are often used as a yardstick for measuring the greatness of an athlete it was Barrington's philosophy, tenacity, charisma and role as the ubiquitous pioneer of squash that makes his legacy so special.
Barrington brought about the birth of professionalism. He did it as much by force of character as by the force of his squash. Although he was also an extraordinary player, it was as a driven pioneer, a passionate talker, and an inspiring visionary that he arguably achieved more.
Having reached the pinnacle of the game in the late 60's and early 70's, he embarked on a planet-circling sequence of clinics, tours, and exhibitions which laid the foundations for a world circuit which now has over 200 events across every continent, while the Professional Squash Association – the modern equivalent of the players association originally founded by Barrington, have over 700 members.
Barrington was a star almost wherever he went. He was refreshingly forthright, a magnetic story-teller, a great humorist, and an incisive commentator. He loved words and ideas, he was chatty, he delivered great quotes, he had radically new ideas about the game, and he was unafraid to be controversial.
He was even prepared, he once said, to run naked around Birmingham's Bull Ring if needed to get squash publicity it deserved.
Barrington often talked about creating a World Championship, which duly came about in 1976, though by then he was a little too old to have a chance of winning it. But by capturing six British Open titles within seven seasons, he had come to be described as the de facto World Champion. It happened because he was imaginatively tenacious and gave a far higher importance to winning than many Britons did at that time.
He became a world-beater in an era when the founding country of squash did not have so many of them.
At that time he was not a universally liked character. He could satirise the squash establishment. If he was losing he could satirise himself. "Pommie bastard," he would occasionally say. He could also be self-punishing, unrelenting, and harshly self-critical. Geoff Hunt, whose career was moulded by his rivalry with Barrington, tells tales of watching with awe as Barrington stormed out of court following one particular defeat and spent almost two hours running laps on a nearby running-track as punishment for his performance.
But that was partly because for him time was unusually short. Barrington did not make it all happen until it seemed it might be too late. He seemed for a long time to be no more than an averagely promising young player who probably would not fulfil that promise. But then, at around the age of 23 a catharsis took place. The university drop-out, the one-time deadbeat, and the frequent drinker realised that a sense of failure could be agonising and could last a lifetime. He began to make something of himself – something bigger than anyone could have imagined. He was helped by someone with a famous name.
Nasrullah Khan, an uncle of Jahangir Khan and a legendary coach at the Edgbaston Priory Club in Birmingham, provided a quiet, methodical tutelage which helped the complete transformation of a dissipated life into an ascetic one. Barrington also sought help from Azam Khan, the four times British Open champion from Pakistan who had once beaten him for the loss of only two points and whom some thought had hitherto been the greatest player of all.
With these, and later with the help of Bomber Harris, his trainer, Barrington committed himself to a ferociously strict regimen – initially perhaps as mental therapy for his earlier drift, and then to develop a capacity for lasting long matches better than anyone. Against considerably long odds, he did that.
His approach to training and self-improvement were legendary. One of the most commonly used techniques in squash today, 'Ghosting', started with Barrington, and tales abound of the man himself performing magnificently high volumes of the exercise in his underpants in the back garden of his Cornwall home. Son Joey, now SquashTV's lead commentator recalls with a great smile when, on a family holiday, Barrington constructed his own court on a sandy beach in South Africa as hundreds of fascinated onlookers watch in awe as Joey says 'a crazy man ran around playing invisible squash against himself'.
But Barrington's first British Open title, at Abbeydale in Sheffield in January 1969, though a joyous triumph, had a sombre tinge.
Barrington had allowed himself to be convinced by his Irish father into playing for Ireland, rather than England, for which he was also qualified. From Major Charles Barrington also came Jonah's love of history and of reading, and eventually perhaps his discipline too. But the father died just one month short of seeing his son became the first home player to win the British Open since before World War Two.
Barrington was 25 when he made this astonishing break-through. He was already 26 by the time he made his first trip to Australia. Lost time had to be made up, both by dramatically increasing his efforts and embracing new ideas. The depth of Barrington's analysis, and especially of the physical effects of the game, on his ability to recover and on the mind of his opponents, made him a harbinger of sports science in squash.
Some regarded him as a fanatic. But what he did was not merely very intense but well directed and thought out, so that remarkable outcomes followed. He helped change how the game was played – at all levels.
Barrington would often hit the ball little or no lower than the cut line for long periods. It helped create a consistently pressuring length whilst avoiding error. Clingers, lobs, and accurate lines might be punctuated by the occasional angle or a skilfully tight backhand drop. But these were usually only risked when the opponent was pinned back or starting to tire.
He volleyed only rarely, preferring to take the ball off the back wall. Consistency was key.
The unreliable shots of his youth – a period when, he realised, he had only played "at" the game – were abandoned.
Barrington sometimes suggested that there were simultaneous counts during a match – the points score and the energy levels. Which was most in influencing the outcome was not always evident. Once he lost the first game in a British Open final by 0-9 (to Geoff Hunt) but still lasted well enough to win.
Barrington's very physical and radical approach influenced Hunt, a player who was well built and well placed to take advantage of it. One of the very finest athletes ever to play professional squash, the Australian also embarked on new and more rigorous training methods, and adopted a similarly more disciplined style – all with the end goal of defeating Barrington in mind.
Though Hunt had more weapons Barrington was able to create a mixture of physical and psychological pressure in the atmosphere of what was then the world's greatest tournament. It helped him win two finals against an opponent who eventually triumphed in eight. The one which perhaps best highlighted Barrington's delayed-effect strategies was a 115-minute struggle at Abbeydale in 1972.
This was the famous 0–9, 9–7, 10–8, 6–9, 9–7 victory. Hunt not only whitewashed the first game, but led 3-0 in the second too, and advanced to 6-0 and 7-4 in the fifth. Yet he still couldn't cross the finish line first.
"The beginning was very difficult because I was not able to secure a point for in excess of 30 minutes," says Barrington.
"It was very difficult psychologically at that stage because I don't think he had made one unforced error. Everything was in perfect order and he was pretty awesome – so smooth and so balanced.
"I said to myself, just keep working to get one point because often what happens is that once there is a breakthrough it serves to gain momentum – and that's exactly what happened."
Barrington won another, even longer tussle in the December 1969 final at Edgbaston. The score was 9-7, 3-9, 3-9, 9-4, 9-4, the duration two hours and 13 minutes, and the contest perhaps his most physically demanding. of all.
These days Barrington has a more amusing take on this grimly mesmerising encounter, recalling that his bank manager had been invited to the match.
Unfortunately for the invitee, Edgbaston Priory's main court had a rather shallow gallery in those days, allowing only those in the front two rows to see the ball's path right through to the back wall. For almost everyone else the last four feet of its trajectory were invisible. This was precisely the area, of course, into which most of Barrington's drives were projected.
"For large parts of the match he was really only able to tell who had struck the ball by the sound!" Barrington recalls with his wonderfully crazy laugh.
"Naz identified that it was important not to work Geoff short willy-nilly, which I never did because of his mobility. Rule was, when I was behind him, take him back and work him mentally, and hope to break him that way.
"That's how the match developed. And this poor sod watching was from my home town (Morwenstow in Cornwall) and he had travelled all the way up to Birmingham. It was not an easy journey in those days. And he scarcely saw a ball!!!" Cue more mad chuckles.
Two years after Barrington turned pro, Hunt and another great Australian, Kenny Hiscoe, followed. The two compatriots then did much of the donkey work in taking the squash mission to some distant, unlikely places.
A year later pioneer number four joined them. He was Gogi Alauddin, a fascinatingly original Pakistani who spun gentle and aesthetically pleasing but deadly webs with a squash ball. Together they became the first touring exhibition quartet.
Barrington also invited Hunt to a 15-match series, which, by winning 13-2, the Australian indicated that he was the better player in circumstances which were normal. On big occasions however they sometimes weren't. Despite the series' relative anti-climax it showed there was a future for such things.
Barrington also performed clinics, full of banter and pedagogy, which were charismatic forerunners of what has become commonplace today. Later he went on a tour of the Far and Middle East with two Pakistanis, an Egyptian and an Australian – Aftab Jawaid, Sharif Khan, Abou Taleb, and Rainer Ratinac – helping to popularise squash where there had been little knowledge of the game.
Back home Barrington took an elitist game and showed ordinary players that they too could improve greatly and reach a high level if they worked hard off court as well as on it. This insight spread to all levels of squash and helped fuel the yuppie squash boom of the 1980's.
Barrington was able to influence all this because he had a special way with him. If his road to fulfilment appeared to some people as spartan or a little obsessive, he would often leaven it with a nice sense of the ridiculous.
He would tell stories against himself. In his younger days he had "borrowed" a wheelbarrow for an impromptu go-kart race down Earls Court Road, which led to plenty of giggles and an appearance in court. He would laugh at tales about clubs with impractically strict dress regulations. Once a well-known player had entered one of these august establishments without wearing a tie. The ensuing race to the changing rooms with the doorman resulted in victory for the player, but also in his club membership being blocked the following year. A dramatic re-appearance the year after that saw him dressed in an immaculate tie, made of silk – and worn on court.
Another club, with a steep gallery behind its centre court, forbade ladies' trouser suits. There always seemed to be an unusually large number of let appeals, players' eyes running across rows of stockings and bare legs before locating the referee.
By the mid-seventies Barrington had lost a little pace from a standing start. Though this prevented him winning the Open again, he remained among the world's top ten until he was almost 40, and even won the British national title when he was 39.
Thence Barrington became the President of the (English) Squash Rackets Association, the coach to the England team for several years, and a coach for many leading players. Recently these have included World No.1 Mohammed Elshorbagy, whom he describes as "the best youngster I have been involved with for 20 years".
His greatest praise goes to the leading players of the past five years, a multi-national group with a fascinating variety of styles, personalities, and rivalries which has produced a stream of high-drama, photogenic matches.
"This group of players has done everything in its power to show squash at its very best," concluded Barrington, who is not one to offer praise as tinsel.
"It's not just about technology and presentation. The players have got to deliver. And in the men's game the delivery has been absolutely fantastic, considering the way they beat the s--- out of each other," he concludes.
Thus Barrington still charts the progress of a sport which helped shaped his life, and which in return he has done so much to shape. The great coach is still an influence. The great raconteur still purveys colourful words.
Barrington may not be seen on the tour as much as players and supporters alike wish, but his presence is always felt around the tournaments given he has played a significant role in the careers and lives of generations of players.
He is, and will always remain a true icon of the game. The great pioneer is still with us. And still crazy after all these years.