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Squash can boast the unique, if dubious, distinction among the 17 Commonwealth Games sports of having its origins within the confines of a London jail.

That was back at the start of the 19th century when the inmates of London's Fleet Prison passed the time by hitting a ball against the walls of the exercise area with rackets.

They called their brainchild rackets and, for some inexplicable reason, it was taken up soon afterwards by the pupils of Harrow School.

In 1830, the boys at Harrow discovered that the game offered far more variety if the solid rubber ball was punctured or 'squashed' - and the sport of squash rackets was born.

By the turn of the century, squash was also being played in Canada and the USA and it quickly became popular in South Africa, India, Pakistan, Egypt, New Zealand and Australia, mainly through the presence of British forces personnel.

Official squash rackets associations sprang up early in the 20th century followed by major championships like the British Open, initially regarded as an unofficial world championship.

For many years, though, squash remained mainly the province of select schools and private clubs. However, the swinging sixties marked a dramatic increase in public interest thanks to the emergence of the game's first worldwide superstars.

In 1967 Australia held the first world championship for amateurs. All 10 titles were won by Australia and Pakistan until the World Open Championship took precedence from 1985 onwards.

Players like England's Jonah Barrington, Geoff Hunt of Australia and Pakistani supremo Jahangir Khan vied for supremacy in the men's game with Australia's Heather McKay and New Zealander Susan Devoy dominating women's competition.

They raised the profile of the sport to unprecedented levels and by the mid-nineties Squash was played by over 15m people worldwide. Its popularity has continued to grow and further evidence of its worldwide appeal came in 1998 when it was introduced as a Commonwealth Games sport at Kuala Lumpur.

Then representing Scotland, Peter Nicol defeated Jonathon Power of Canada to win gold in the men's event and Michelle Martine won the all-Australian final against Sarah Fitz-Gerald.

Squash was one of the most popular spectators sports at Kuala Lumpur and it is also bound to be among the big hits at the Manchester Games, when the event will be staged at the National Squash Centre, the new home of the Squash Rackets Association.

Yes, Manchester 2002 will prove that squash has come a long way from London's Fleet Prison... So count yourself in!

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