Sunday, February 25, 2024

Birmingham take the Honours in a University Double First

The teams line up before the action commences – Warwick University / Kenilworth left, Birmingham Lions right

Birmingham take the Honours in a University Double First
By JAMES ROBERTS – Squash Mad Reporter


There was a double first in last night’s ‘Battle of the Midlands Universities’ clash in the Premier Squash league held at the brand new £55m home of Birmingham Sport and Fitness, the sport department of the University of Birmingham. It was the first ever PSL match to be played on the new courts in the sports centre, whilst for the visitors, Warwick University / Kenilworth, this represented their first ever PSL match, as they did not have a match during Round 1 of the new season.

As I wrote in an earlier pre-season review feature, this centre replaces the ageing Munrow Sports Centre and in the eyes of Team Manager Jon Tate and his PSL players, represents a huge leap forwards, with all the state-of-the-art facilities that they require under one roof to both train and play. Having attended many PSL matches at the old Munrow, I was excited to see the team perform at this brand new venue and how this would enhance the match night experience.

The grand entrance to the new £55m Sports Centre resembling a giant squash court!

Although I had already visited the new centre not long after its grand opening, what struck me as I approached the grand entrance to the building and with daylight fading was how it much it actually resembled a giant glass-backed squash court! This seemed highly appropriate given the major squash events that will be staged here, including the British Junior Open early in the New Year, the BUCS finals and perhaps the Commonwealth Games squash tournaments, should the Birmingham bid to host the Games prove ultimately successful. This perception of the building is something that would probably only be shared with other squash obsessives like myself, however!

I arrived over an hour before actual play is due to start, so make my way into the large Costa Coffee that has set up shop next to the spacious reception area, as is now the case in so many public buildings these days. Immediately I am greeted by a familiar voice and figure, in the shape of Sarah-Jane Perry, who in the process of purchasing a pre-match caffeine fix. I remark about how odd she must feel coming here as an opposition player, having devoted so many previous seasons to the Birmingham Lions cause. She agrees with me, although you can sense the pride and excitement in her voice as she talks about representing what is both her University as well as her home club team – a pretty impossible combination for a player to resist. SJ delivers one piece of disappointing news though – Ali Farag will not be playing. His teammates forgive him through, as he has had a busy last few weeks that is for sure!

I then present myself to the welcome desk manned by 3 friendly student volunteer helpers for the night, presumably part of the squash club at the University, and am let through the automatic barriers, following one of the refs who has arrived at the same time. We look out for the strategically placed PSL match night signage which leads the way to the squash courts.

Some of the players warming up on the new show courts

The new centre boasts a total of 6 glass-backed squash courts, 3 of which have banked seating to the rear to form an impressive show court set up and ideal for the staging of PSL matches and major tournaments. There is full technology integration for the staging of such events, with an integral PA system, along with digital screens for displaying team information and scores. The support team is in the final throes of setting up to stream the matches via YouTube, with cables anchored to the floors in full accordance with the health and safety manuals, piping the images from the strategically placed cameras to a computer nerve centre, where they will be released into the World Wide Web. In addition, a mobile bar and refreshment area has been set up, negating the need to go downstairs to the bar to seek refreshment, as was the case in the old Munrow.

Some of the home players are already warming up, including new addition to the team this season, Lucy Turmel. As she came off court to make her final preparations before the immense challenge of going toe to toe with the World No. 7, I grabbed a quick chat with the English rising star. Lucy has only recently turned 18 but is already ranked under 19s no. 1 in England and sits nicely inside the top 100 in the Women’s PSA rankings at no. 71. From Ipswich, she is currently studying a sports course at College, but tells me she intends to pursue a full time professional squash career once this is completed. She is excited to be playing in PSL, seeing this as a great opportunity to pit her wits against some of the world’s best players to bring her game on at a more rapid pace. This match represented her second outing, having gained her debut win in the round 1 match away at Bristol versus another rising young European talent, Karina Tyma of Poland (3-1).

The no. 1 string players, Iker Pajares for Warwick (left), Ryan Cuskelly for Birmingham (right) are introduced to the expectant crowd

On to the introductions of the players, and fresh from graduating from the University over the Summer, it was good to see that Jack Turney (who is also a member of the PSL Squad) had once again returned to act as MC, with his colourful and enthusiastic style and ability to encourage the crowd to lend their support to the team.

Onto the action, it was the No. 5s and 4s that got proceedings underway, with Lucy and Sarah-Jane on the centre court and Jan Van Den Herrewegen and Harry Falconer on the right-hand court. With DSLR camera in hand, I swapped from court to court trying to capture the ideal action shots from each match.

Lucy Turmel (left) getting down low to drive the ball back down the wall

Lucy initially seemed to match S J very well, particularly with her short court work, which forced SJ into making some great retrievals to stay in the rallies, amongst earning the odd outright winner. However, towards the business end of the first game, the greater experience of SJ began to tell, forcing Lucy to play more from the back of the court, as well as a higher error rate from the younger player. Thereafter, this was the story of the games that followed, and despite a more determined effort from Lucy in the third, SJ prevailed 3/0 (11-8, 11-2, 11-7) – first blood to the visitors.

World No. 7 Sarah-Jane Perry demonstrating her lovely backhand technique

I did not get to observe the no. 4 match as much as the no. 5s, but initially Harry Falconer managed to close out a tight first game 11-9, only for Jan to go up the gears to prevail in the next 3 to win the match 3/1 (9-11, 11-6, 11-7, 11-4). This levelled the overall score at 1 match all.

No. 4 string match, Jan Van Den Herrewegen for Birmingham (left) v Harry Falconer for Warwick (right)

In the no. 2 match, Lions in form player Joel Makin, fresh from reaching a PSA final last week in Chicago, took on Scotland’s no. 3 player Dougie Kempsell. There is no doubt that Joel’s game has come on in leaps and bounds over the past season, seeing him break into the world top 50 at no. 46, a fact which will see him able to enter the main draw of the World Championships in Manchester at the end of this year. He attributes his form in large part to the hard work he has put in with his coach Rob Owen, and in particular his more efficient court movement and variety of play. Indeed, Rob was there to watch one of his fastest rising stars and when asked what he thought was the main reason why so many players seem to have progressed well under his tutelage (he currently has 9 on the books, including of course Sarah-Jane Perry), he stated “it’s all about doing the simple things well in my book, it’s not always about flare shots. Sometimes a straight drop played well is more effective than the cross-court flick. It’s also about using height appropriately to manoeuvre your opponent to where you want them to be”.

Welsh no. 1 and British U23 Champion Joel Makin showing great movement around the court in his match v Scottish no. 3 Dougie Kempsell

As for the match itself, it was at times a feisty encounter between two talented and determined players, and a close first game saw Joel eventually prevail 12-10 in the tie break. A bit like the no. 5 match, the momentum then seemed to firmly shift to the higher ranked player, Joel able to effectively shut out Dougie, taking the next 2 games more easily 11-3, 11-6.

Left-hander Ashley Davies (right) for Warwick showed great determination to notch his first ever victory over Jaymie Haycocks (left)

Perhaps the match of the night though was the no. 3 string encounter, pitching Jaymie Haycocks (WR no. 75) against Ashley Davies (WR no. 113). Ashley is a current protégé of the Nick Matthew Academy at Hallamshire and is coached by David Pearson. This was a fast and furious match, full of twists, turns, incredible gets and winners, which brought the crowd to rapturous applause on many occasions. A proper see-saw encounter that was impossible to call at any stage of the match saw Ash take the early initiative, only for Jaymie to then take the next 2 games, with Ash then taking the 4th to set up the 5th set decider. Ash seemed to have it in the bag towards the business end of the decider, only to see his slender lead pegged back, but just as the tie-break seemed the likely outcome, Ash found a great winning shot to take the match 11-9 in the 5th, his first ever victory over Jaymie. This brought the overall tie level at 2 matches all, setting up the number 1s deciding match.

No. 1 player for Birmingham, Ryan Cuskelly (right), needed to draw on all his skills to defeat Warwick’s Iker Pajares (left)

Although the no. 1 match perhaps no longer had the same allure to it given the late withdrawal of Ali Farag from the Warwick / Kenilworth line up, and also seemed to have a Lions win written all over it due to the ranking difference, it still turned out to be a highly entertaining affair. Ryan Cuskelly, the talented left-hander from New South Wales Australia, is another player who has seen his stock rise over recent seasons, and needed to draw on his array of shots, good movement and retrievals to keep Iker Pajares at bay. Iker in turn showed dogged determination, staying in many rallies that seemed a lost cause. The court cleaners were therefore kept busy wiping up the ‘sweat shadows’ that Iker was regularly leaving on the court! If Iker had taken the second game, then perhaps an altogether different outcome could have been produced, but Ryan was eventually able to close the match out 11-5, 11-9, 11-7, bringing it home for the Lions 3 matches to 2 (16 points to 7).

Another well-known figure in the squash world also in attendance at this match was Paul Walters, who very much multi-tasks these days in his squash activities through overseeing the commercial direction of England Squash, managing major tournaments (including the forthcoming World Championships) and developing the famous squash brand Unsquashable. In terms of the latter, he had double interest in this match, with Lions’ Joel Makin and Warwick / Kenilworth’s Iker Pajares Bernabeu both current brand ambassadors. Talking to Paul, you could feel the excitement in his voice as he outlined some of the future plans for developing the brand further, and in particular the incredible opportunity to work with squash legend Jahangir Khan, who he described as totally synonymous with the brand – think Unsquashable and you automatically think Jahangir. Paul was also watching his iPad with intent interest, given that Unsquashable was live feeding the other PSL Division A match taking place at the same time, Nottingham v Bristol, via both the website and Facebook. He seemed pleased with both the quality of the coverage and the watching figures at least.

Overall, a very enjoyable night of squash which, as is always the case with PSL matches, has you gaping in awe at the skill and athleticism of these remarkable athletes and just wishing even a modicum of their play could influence the way you play the game yourself. I am looking forward to my next match this Friday, suitably inspired by the #PSLBounce as I have often dubbed it. If you have never been to watch a PSL match, it is to be thoroughly recommended, but in my experience don’t expect the #PSLBounce to last any more than 1 match, if at all!

A sell-out crowd for the first ever match at the new sports centre showing their appreciation to the players

Result: Premier Squash League Division A
Round 2, 24th October 2017

Ryan Cuskelly 3-0 Iker Pajares 11-5, 11-9, 11-7
Joel Makin 3-0 Dougie Kempsell 12-10, 11-3, 11-6
Jaymie Haycocks 2-3 Ashley Davies 10-12, 11-9, 12-10, 4-11, 9-11
Jan vd Herrewegen 3-1 Harry Falconer 9-11, 11-6, 11-7, 11-4
Lucy Turmel 0-3 Sarah-Jane Perry 8-11, 2-11, 7-11


All pictures by: James Roberts


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