By RJ Mitchell
Saurav Ghosal has delivered a moving tribute to Malcolm Willstrop following the sad passing of the renowned coach earlier this week.
The World No.13 has revealed that he will find it impossible to fill the void caused by the 83-year-old’s passing on Monday following a battle with cancer, and opened up on the impact Willstrop had on his career.
At 34, the Indian No.1 believes that the values and love of the game that Willstrop installed in him over the course of a 16-year coaching relationship that blossomed into a deep friendship are the reason he is still battling it out at the elite level of the PSA World Tour.
In an emotionally charged interview from his Kolkata home, Saurav even revealed that his mentor was the key to him holding it together when his personal life hit the rocks during the trauma of the temporary break up of a relationship.
Ghosal, who was to be the first of several foreign stars to base himself at Willstrop’s Pontefract squash stronghold, believes that the all-inclusive ethos that drove the coaching great has left a defining legacy that will endure.
Ghosal first came across Willstrop at the 2002 World Junior Championships in Chennai where the latter helped mastermind the triumph of his son and future World No.1 James and three years later, on the strength of that initial impression, the Indian ace took the bold move to relocate to Yorkshire.
And Ghosal says that even winning a World Championship would not have been enough to pay the debt he owed to Willstrop.
Malcolm Willstrop sadly passed away earlier this week
Reaction and Tribute
“Malcolm was a hard man to please and he had very high standards, and as everyone who has been to Pontefract will know he would ban you if you fell below the standards he set, and it is something I am very proud of that he never banned me,” said Ghosal.
“I think the conversations I had with him both regarding squash but also life will be perhaps the biggest miss for me. His passing has just left a huge void in my life, a huge void in so many people’s lives and there is no way that void can be filled.
“Anyone at Pontefract, including club players and juniors, will tell you that there will never be another Malcolm Willstrop, no one will ever be capable of replacing him, and I can pay Malcolm no higher tribute.
“My grandad passed away last February and with him passing last year and Malcolm this year it has been tough. But my grandfather was a bit sick, and I was prepared for what was to come whereas with Malc I didn’t know, and it just happened so quickly.
“He went downhill so quickly, and this has hit me harder than my grandfather passing as I wasn’t ready for it and I never got the chance to say goodbye properly.
“The last time I saw Malcolm was November 2019, I was supposed to see him last year and early this year but because of the pandemic that never happened. I spoke to him periodically and we emailed each other, but he was someone if he asked me to do something I would not ask what for, I would just do it. I just trusted him that much.”
A Career-Defining Decision
When Ghosal took the career-defining decision to forego a place at the London School of Economics and go to Leeds University so he could base himself under Willstrop’s tutelage in 2005, it would make him India’s greatest ever male squash player.
“The London School of Economics was the school for me, I was doing economics, and this was my dream school since I was 12, but we were also in Pontefract before going to London for two or three days to do a couple of sessions with Malcolm and check out things.
Ghosal in action
“I remember clear as day Malcolm telling my dad it would be great if I were going to be based at Pontefract, but that if I went to London things would not be possible, so he suggested Leeds which was closest to Pontefract. Dad and I had a chat that night and I chose Leeds as I just knew I had to train with Malcolm, that was the bottom line ,there was never any doubt after that first session.”
Assessing Willstrop’s Impact as a Coach
It may have been a momentous step for 18-year-old Ghosal to have taken, but almost immediately something special began to grow from their collaboration.
“I always had speed in my game, but the thing Malc instilled in me was putting structure into my game. He showed me I could create spaces in the court and that I didn’t have to hit outright winners to win points every time.
“He taught me to hit the spaces and that this was how you won points on a more consistent basis and that as you played people who were better than you were that was the way you would get close to them.
“Looking back, the thing that really stood out was, and I am sure James [Willstrop], or Lee [Beachill] would attest to this, is that I have done sessions with Malcolm for 15 years but not once were they boring or repetitive.
“Malcolm always mixed them up and made you think. They may have been subtle changes, but he made you think every time. During this pandemic, I have said to so many of my training partners: ‘Man, I would just love to go to Pontefract and walk in and not think what needs to be done because Malc would have thought of all that,’ but also you just knew it would be good.
“That was one of his biggest strengths, it never became stale, it could be the same things but there was always something he’d tell you that was different. He didn’t get on court as much as most coaches do, but he would joke with me when he did: ‘Remember this day that I got on court with you, it’s a red-letter day in your life!’
“The knowledge he passed onto me was tremendous. But nobody coached like Malc, the first session we did he was speaking to me while the rally was going on and I kept stopping to listen and it took a while to get used to it and also with his accent it was tough!
“But as you went along you got used to it and it was like you were thinking while you were playing, and you start to process things so much quicker. So it gave you a very good idea of what to do when you are in a particular situation, it made things more crystallised.
Malcolm Willstrop (right) with son, James (left).
“I was lucky as well that James and I struck up a good relationship from the beginning and we trained a lot and James just embodied what Malcolm was trying to put across. So if you didn’t understand what Malcolm was telling you, you had James demonstrating it.
“But there were days when James and I would be in for a session at the same time, and he would keep us on different courts. In the beginning it would make me wonder, as we were the two best in the session and James would be on court with a 15-year-old and I would have a 14-year-old to hit with, and I would ask myself: ‘Why am I not on court with James?’
“But Malcolm was very good at this and he understood that you don’t need to be on court every day with someone better than you or at your level, so he put you on court with a player who may be not as good as you but one who could do certain things that needed done within the routines. He knew that you would get better in the long run.
“That was almost Malcolm’s signature in coaching terms. For example, someone like Sam Todd is really good today but he is good today because Malcolm put him on court with Lee, James, and me as a 10-year-old and what 10-year-old goes on court with a former World No.1?
“But Malcolm didn’t put him on court just for exposure, he did so because he knew he could handle a certain routine where it would help us as well as Sam. So Malc knew that sometimes you didn’t need to have that pressure of training with someone better or your rival, that sometimes it didn’t help.
“We would play a routine where the kid would play all court and we would play only straight quite a lot and the reason he made us do this is that if I did this routine with James and he could play anywhere, and I could only play straight, it would not work or be worthwhile.
“So Malcolm’s sessions were for everyone, from beginners to World No.1s, and the beauty of it was Malcolm made them work for all of us. Of course, James and I did many sessions, but it was not every day and that was where Malc was so good, he just kept everything very simple.
“It’s difficult to put into words the level of expertise Malcolm had, as if you put it into words, it is almost too simple, too obvious, but believe me it is not that obvious. Really, unless you have been to Pontefract and experienced it and lived it, you will never realise how intuitive he was and what Malc brought to the game.
“He valued every single player and the role they had to play in his club. Nobody was ever cast aside no matter their level, but every one of them has helped me and James in what we have achieved and that is important to understand.”
As the years passed, Ghosal admitted that Willstrop’s place in his life continued to assume greater prominence than that of mere master and pupil.
“Over the years we grew very, very close and I think we valued each other highly. He was a man of few words when he had to express sentiments, but his actions always spoke volumes.
“No matter what I did, even if I had become a World Champion, it would not have repaid Malcolm for what he did for me. The player I am today is because of him, 100%.
“I have worked with David Palmer a lot over the last few years but our first interaction he said to me: ‘You have a game set in place and Malcolm has made that cake and all I will try to do is put the icing on this cake.’
“So, everything, even the way I conduct myself is down to Malcolm. I moved back to India in 2013 but I would still go back to Malc every year and now I am still doing the routines I did with him.
“In fact, I would say that if I had not gone to Malcolm, I would not have been playing squash today and would probably have finished. I’m sure every player goes through times when they say to themselves: ‘This isn’t working it’s time to call it a day,’ but every time he was the one who would give me a rational explanation and just give me the right things to focus on and that wasn’t just for me.
“I would say that he is definitely among the best five coaches in the world and could have charged the world for a session, but he hardly charged for anything.”
Of one thing Ghosal has no doubt, and that is that Willstrop’s legacy will endure at Pontefract.
“I have never seen a club like Pontefract Squash and Leisure Club. I mean that for not just the environment but just the love for the game and Malcolm created that. He created so many levels of squash players from the ground to the top and I hope we can keep that going as that would be a great legacy for Malcolm.
“It would be great if Pontefract can produce another World No.1 or World Champion, but if I had to choose a legacy for Malc at Pontefract, I would hope that it would be that it would always have that mix from kids to high performance and that is his greatest legacy for me and I really can’t imagine the club without Malcolm, never mind the town.
“My greatest hope is that special mix can endure to provide a fitting legacy of what a unique and special man Malcolm was. It is just so sad and that is just the squash part of things.”
Defining and Enduring Memory
When it came to Saurav’s most enduring memories of Malcolm, the mix of character and kindness that defined the man came to the fore.
Willstrop (left) with Lee Beachill (right)
“There are certain moments that will always be there, but probably in 2013 when I made my first World Championship quarter-final in Manchester that is right up there.
“In the last, although I beat the Finnish player Henrik Mustonen, early on I was two 2-0 down and I came back and won that match, and I came off court and for some reason I threw my racket away and jumped on Malc and hugged him and believe me, Malcolm did not do hugs.
“So he was taken aback but he realised it was a big deal, so although he didn’t hug me, he didn’t let go either and I was like: ‘Thanks a lot!’
“But there were so many conversations on things like God, religion, even Brexit, so many things we did not agree on, but they were great conversations and Malcolm was a very opinionated person, but I hate to admit it, so am I.
“Just little things, like he would always take the mickey out of me as I did my degree at Leeds and got a 1.1 in Economics and Malc got a 2.1 in English from Durham. I would say I got the better degree but Malc would say: ‘Yeah but you got a degree in comics and I got a degree in a proper subject.’
“Another big thing was that I dated my wife from when we were 16 and we had broken up and got back together a few years later but when we did break up, I was an emotional wreck and Malc took care of me so well.
“My squash was all over the place and very close to the break up I played the World Championships in Kuwait and drew Mathieu Castagnet in the first round and lost the first game 11-0. So, I came off court, James was there as well, and Malc knew I was emotionally struggling but he let me have it with f-bombs left, right and centre and I was looking at James and thinking what is going on: ‘Has he lost the plot?’ but it did the trick, and I won the game 3-1.
“So, I will always remember these things and his kindness and honesty and how genuine he was. There are very few people in this world who were as genuine as Malc, his honesty was absolute.
“The bottom line is, they just don’t make people like Malcolm anymore.”