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Saturday, July 31, 2021

BLOG: Let there be light

Alan Thatcherhttps://squashmad.com
Founder of World Squash Day, Squash Mad and the new Squash 200 Partnership, building clubs of the future. Founder of the Kent Open and co-promoter of the St. James's Place Canary Wharf Classic. Author and Public Speaker.

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David Palmer wins the PST American Open. Picture courtesy of www.prosquashtour.net

By ALAN THATCHER

It’s obvious that Joe McManus, the Commissioner of the US-based Pro Squash Tour, is not going to pack up his bags any time soon and walk away from the sport.

He has irked and irritated a number of squash federations, most notably the PSA, with his fledgling tour, but I sense at the heart of it is a desire to grow the game and create a business model geared towards bigger events.

Some in the PSA and WSA see this as a hostile act, but the thing that interests me most is Joe’s willingness to look at the rules and work towards an end product that reduces the number of stoppages and makes the game more entertaining.

Joe and his supporters have plenty of ammunition to work, citing major PSA matches that have dragged on for more than two hours, not because of the quality of the squash and the length of the rallies, but because the referee has been called on to make more than 100 decisions in response to appeals from the players.

I recently wrote a piece in Squash Player magazine highlighting the friction between PSA members and referees.  Not to put too fine a point on it, this impasse highlights one of the biggest obstacles to squash becoming a popular TV sport.

Anything that makes a game difficult to understand, and therefore presents a challenge to communicate live on television, is a major drawback to squash’s ambitions.

Lets, strokes and no-lets always seem to be at the heart of these problems, whether you are a player trapped inside the glass box with an awkward opponent who is blocking or fishing for cheap points, a referee trying to make difficult decisions, or a poor old commentator trying to  make sense of it all and inform his viewers.

What strikes me as most odd is that so many PSA members are happy to criticise the referees supplied by the WSF as if it’s someone else’s problem. The phrase “passing the buck” springs to mind.

They (the PSA members) own their own world tour and my own view is that it is incumbent upon them to do something about it themselves if  they perceive refereeing to be such a problem.

Many players say they expect all referees to be bad and hope that decisions, good or bad, will be shared equally among both competitors.

Some players suggest doing away with referees altogether and giving the job to PSA members who have been knocked out of the tournament.

That presupposes that all PSA members know the rules of the game and will not show any bias to any of the players on court.

It also begs the question of who referees the first round of qualifying competitions when nobody has been knocked out.

Many players admit having zero respect for referees and some have taken matters into their own hands by complaining to promoters so vociferously that match officials have been asked to leave in the middle of tournaments.

I received an email from a referee caught up in such a storm in North America. The players may have got their own way and removed the appointed referees, but I have been told that the main sponsor (a knowledgeable squash player himself) was so unimpressed by this chain of events that he declined to continue his financial support.

For years I have been trying to remind players that every time they open a court door to shout at a referee they are likely to be hurling abuse in a direct line at the main sponsors.

Guys, that’s where they sit. In the middle of the front rows. Always have done and always will do.

However, it’s time that the PSA looked at siting referees in alternative positions, whenever a glass court allows that possibility.

Seating your referees ten rows back to afford some kind of elevated view creates a major problem when the match officials are called on to settle a dispute in the front half of the court.

In Richmond, venue for the Davenport North American Open, a Skybox on the left-hand wall offered a superb view of the action in the front left corner, scene of so much carnage on court.

It seems such an obvious solution to have extra officials positioned near the front wall so that they can adjudicate on double bounces or shots that may or may not have hit the tin, in addition to access and exit issues that cause so many ugly exchanges on court.

To examine the difficulties facing referees, I would refer all my friends in the PSA to look at the video of a Super Series match between Peter Nicol and Jonathon Power at the Broadgate Arena some years ago.

This one rally continues to amuse, entertain and baffle in equal measures, with an incident that occurs around the T area as Power goes the wrong way, recovers his position and wraps his racket around Nicol’s shoulders.

He gets a No-Let call. Many think he should have had a stroke. Some say it’s a simple let.

http://no-let.blogspot.co.uk/2011/11/nostalgia-i-peter-nicol-vs-jonathon.html

Take a look and see what you think. Make your decision, write it down secretly and ask all your squash friends to do the same.

Then get together and compare notes. I imagine that, like the people posting on the Blog, you will come up with a variety of calls.

It’s a tough task, this refereeing, and we have to do everything we can to help the officials to do their job, and keep pace with the changes in the game.

Most controversial incidents take place in the front half of the court, and that’s where we need to fix our gaze.

To the PSA, one simple piece of advice: You own it, you fix it.

To the PST, thank you for bringing this issue into the daylight, and good luck with your experiments.

It’s fascinating to see a match between David Palmer and Wael El Hindi being used to illustrate the new PST methods, bearing in mind their history on court.

I hope the PSA are watching. And I hope that a dialogue can be established between all parties for the good of the game.

If we are serious about the Olympics, then we should get serious about addressing any problem that might hold us back.

Count the number of officials around a tennis court. Then think about using similar methods in squash.

Referees need to be given the best view possible, and means to instantly communicate.

The video replay trial has been an outstanding success, and the scheme needs to be extended to cover all aspects of the game.

Please let me know what you think – players or referees.

 

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21 Comments

  1. Thanks for posting about this topic. The thing about squash is, with two people playing in a confined space, the referees are inevitably going to play a big part in the game. We have to make sure the game is (1) easy to understand, (2) exciting, (3) fair and (4) safe.

    (1) The weirdest thing about squash — the thing that’s most confusing for newcomers to the game — is that the PLAYERS have the ability to stop play. In most (all?) other sports, it’s the referees who stop play. Imagine if football players could call lets any time there was borderline interference. I think in squash only the refs should be able to stop play. I’ve written more about this (wacky fringe idea) on my blog. (And in fact it was this exact Power/Nicol video that caused me to write the post.)

    (2) To make the game more exciting, we need fewer lets. I think if we gave refs the ability to stop play, this would happen naturally, as they’d be inclined to let players play on. But even if that approach were never adopted, we can still tweak the current rules and, importantly, player expectations, to gradually reduce the number of lets. In order to accomplish this we either need to have players to fight through more interference, or place a higher burden on the opponent to clear, or both. This will be a tough adjustment for longtime players, but manageable as long as we push for it.

    (3) and (4) As you pointed out, players might not be happy with the current refereeing, but to me the game currently seems fair and safe. There is the occasional player outburst, which gives the perception of unfairness. I think these situations need to be dealt with a bit more severely to discourage poor behaviour. But more importantly any tweaking to #s (1) and (2) need to be made without lesening the actual levels of fairness and safety.

    Thanks for posting your thoughts on this. I think squash is meant for a greater impact in this world. While the game’s been around forever, current players can help the game reach more people.

    • Pierre: many thanks for your detailed response. You make a great point about squash being one of the few sports where players have the ability to stop the game. Even at my advanced age I still train every week and my regular training partner and I try to avoid Lets at all costs in friendlies. That means playing through minimal interference and always trying to find a way round your opponent to the ball. Firstly, it’s amazing how many shots you can get to if you want to, and secondly, only a clear case of total blockage will result in a stroke. However, the level of respect between us means that if one of us is in the wrong we will give the point away without discussion.
      It’s a great habit to get into and, in another article I wrote a couple of years ago, I explained how playing squash honestly will give you a massive psychological advantage and improve your powers of concentration.
      I enjoyed reading your blog article and it’s interesting that we both chose the same rally to illustrate the problems inherent in the game. What was obvious earlier in that rally was the fact that both players tried their hardest to get to every ball.
      I have seen similar decisions made in club squash when a player has gone the wrong way, corrected his footwork, changed direction and headed towards the ball only to find his opponent standing in the way, Referees (or markers) often make the mistake of calling “You went the wrong way” without giving any thought to his ability to get to the ball, or the fact that he might have been blocked. Sadly, it often depends which side the marker is from.

  2. “Lets and strokes always seem to be at the heart of these problems, whether you are a player trapped inside the glass box with an awkward opponent who is blocking or fishing for cheap points, a referee trying to make difficult decisions, or a poor old commentator trying to make sense of it all and inform his viewers.”

    I disagree. It’s not Lets and Strokes that are the problem, but No-Lets that are the problem. Far too many are given without the refs putting themselves in the place of the Striker.

    • Seshadri: Many thanks for your comment. I agree. I should have written: “Lets, strokes and no lets always seem to be at the heart of the problems.”
      What I was trying to say was that the whole process is confusing, complicated and detracts enormously from such a fantastic sport.

      • Alan: Thanks for your response. I like the title of this blog entry–all too often there is mostly sound, and little light, when issues related to refereeing are concerned. Players tend to blame the ivory-towered approach of the refs to interference [often with justification e.g. the Nicol-Power clip is a clear Yes-Let to Power who finds Nicol accidentally blocking his route to the ball after Power recovered from his initial wrong-footing–G11]. The refs in turn feel that few, if any, players are familiar with all the rules [true to an extent], and tend to dismiss any genuine grievance of the players as attempts at intimidation. It’s little wonder that sponsors and fans end up being bewildered/disgusted at the periodic flare-ups on court. The fault lies on both sides because there has never been any genuine and uninterrupted communication between the two parties to iron out any mismatches in the way interference situations are viewed by the other side.

  3. I had the pleasure ! of refereeing two PSA players who obviously disliked each other from the outset.
    Neither player was ever going to respect my decisions, no matter that the decisions were very consistent throughout.
    After so much abuse from the players I decided to walk out and handed over to a PSA player.
    The PSA player had to warn both players of their conduct after disputing the first point with the new referee !!
    That story tells me that there are PSA players with total disrespect for any type of authority and although I would say that the figures are in the minority, there is certainly a problem within the game.
    I watched the great Jahangir Khan, at his best against Chris Ditmarr and over a two hour match, Jahangir never questioned any decisions.
    The PSA players and organisation must take the blame for this catastrophe that is holding the game back from World viewing.
    The game will never grow in the present situation, and I doubt very much if the Olympics will seriously consider Squash, unless PSA players grow up and accept responsibility for bad manners and sportsmanship.

    • Alfie: Great to hear from you. Well done for walking. Interesting that the replacement referee had the same problems. Referees on the PSA World Tour have to report conduct incidents in every match and I imagine this will help the PSA to assess the whole situation.
      You’re right, Jahangir was a total gentleman throughout his career although Chris Dittmar himself had some interesting things to say about how certain players appeared to be “protected” by referees whose objectivity was possibly blinded by respect, friendship or favouritism.

  4. Good article Alan. From the matches I have watched on PSA squash tv, it’s the referee’s that need to review how they referee matches. Any club player can see if a player hits a ball then moves into his opponents path. The WSF ref’s have watched/reff’d thousands of matches. You cannot tell me they still don’t know what is happening on court?!

    • Thanks Courtney. As a tournament organiser I have a secret wish, and it’s this: that major matches are not ruined by bad refereeing. I’ve seen many such instances down the years, and I would hope that an ongoing assessment process would prune out persistent offenders. However, I believe that the whole recruitment, training and rewards structure needs looking at. Let’s face it, there will never be enough money available in our sport to have professional referees. Most, even the best, do it for the love of the game. One round of drinks at the hotel bar and their daily allowance has disappeared. If the players are serious about using pros or ex-pros as referees, then let’s see some ideas put forward.

  5. It comes down to money again, doesn’t it? The best people to referee are surely younger, current players who have experience at higher level squash and an ability at refereeing. Not becessarily pros, but almost certainly not older, possibily a bit out-of-touch, slightly deaf and/or visually challenged volunteers. But, clearly, they would need paying well enough. Marking can be a thankless task and to be honest, I don’t really know why anyone would volunteer to do something badly, then get abused for it. That said, there are some good referees and I agree that the players do get carried away and should really be more aware of the situation as it stands. In the heat of the moment, though, that can be difficult for players to remember.

    • Hi Simon. It may or may not surprise you to learn that Kent, the second biggest squash county in England, has only one qualified tournament referee. Last year we made a major drive towards encouraging all club teams to send at least two players on marking courses and the response was excellent. However, from all those attendees I am aware of only one club player who is keen to progress up the refereeing ladder. Fortunately, we stage a large number of pro tournaments in Kent, more than county according to Chris Ryder, so we have the opportunity to give an ambitious would-be referee plenty of match experience.

  6. Hi Alan. It doesn’t really surprise me, no. But, I don’t see why it isn’t possible to pay referees adequately. That is the only way to improve the standard of marking across the sport which I think is necessary if Olympic entry is going to be any sort of realistic prospect. How hard can it be to raise an extra £250 per referee per tournament? They don’t have to be full-time professionals, just people who are good enough to do it well. I think the referees’ remuneration should be a percentage of the prize money. The players may not be too keen on that at at first, but it would be in their interest and the interests of the sport.

    • Hi Simon: I understand that idea (a percentage of prize monies) has been suggested, but I am not sure if there has been an official response. I have only heard an unofficial response, that the players aren’t keen on the idea.
      I have a simple philosophy, that if squash is to thrive as a professional sport, then every part of a tournament has to be done professionally.
      That means everything, from the posters and programme through to the media coverage, meals, hotels and event functions – in fact, everything that happens on and off court.
      Alan

      • The problem is not one that can be solved just by throwing a bit of money around. If that were the only sticking point, this would have been solved ages ago. The biggest obstacle to incident-free matches is the opaque wording of the rules [and that goes for the latest draft of the rules as well which I have had a chance to read]. When phrases like “every effort” and “minimal interference” are used without any clear guidelines about where they are applicable, it’s not surprising that different refs interpret them differently.. All too often, players and spectators feel that the refs are acting like Humpty Dumpty ‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.’
        Have clear video guidelines on the imprecise terms, and a large proportion of the arguments will vanish.

        • Seshadri: Totally agree with your point. As someone who works as an editor, it is my job to make any article easily understood by the readers. The same principle should apply to the rules of squash, especially when we delve into the more technical areas.
          For example, how much effort is “every effort?”
          When does “minimal interference” start to maximise?
          I remember playing in a friendly match between the media and the referees during a British Open tournament at the wonderful Lambs Club in London a few years ago (before it was demolished).
          I recall one of the referees making some rather insulting remarks when he found out I worked for a tabloid newspaper.
          He was certainly a member of your Humpty Dumpty Referees’ Club.

  7. People are always going to rebel against officials, in any sport. Some squash players are badly behaved. Probably most recognise that it is to their advantage to keep quiet, play on and let things average out, unless the decision is really bad. But, they do respect good markers and when matches are marked well, there is generally good continuity, in my experience as a spectator. Yes, you could refine the rules a bit, but squash is a complex game with many grey areas and I often thnk it is in trying to apply the letter of the rules that many referees come unstuck and lose the respect of the players. Good markers employ a combination of in-depth, practical experience of the game, application of the rules and common sense. There are some people in pretty much every club who can do this, but you don’t get good people without compensation for their efforts. What you get is people who feel they are doing the sport a favour, rather than people who who feel obliged to perform well. Some of those people may be very good, but the majority won’t be. If we want to raise the standard of refereeing in the sport generally, money is the answer, however we go about securing it. It isn’t throwing a bit of money around, it’s giving people the incentive to provide a high quality service, which would help to take the sport forward. I’m not saying it’s the only requisite, but it is necessary.

  8. Good post, Simon. Of course I’m not disputing the point that decent remuneration will interest more ex-pros in refereeing. But the problem still remains that unless the rules provide a clear and consistent line of thinking that will provide the identical decision in all [or at least the overwhelming majority of] interference situations, we will still see wide fluctuations in the judgements.
    I have a collection of well over a hundred Pro matches ranging from Jansher to Ramy. Frankly, I can think of only one referee [let him remain unnamed for now] that I would trust 100% to understand exactly what is going on. There are other good refs, but their performances are of the curate’s egg kind–good in parts. Right now, refs are unaccountable to either players or coaches–it’s a very unhealthy situation when those most affected by poor refereeing have no say in the ranking of referees.
    A better option is to have an elite panel of neutral referees who are graded on their performances by the players and coaches.

  9. Well, I suppose the line of thinking is one which produces continuity of play. ie. what the PST is attempting (although I can’t really see how a no let policy could work in a game like squash where there is a clear safety consideration – I would need to have a proper look at what they are doing). But, yes, if it is possible to tighten the rules to result in fewer lets and fishing attempts, then it should be done. Quite a difficult task though, I would suggest.
    The rules are trying to move in that direction and I actually find the minimal interferance rule fairly clear: To me it means interferance that doesn’t impede the player on their journey to the ball. Or, maybe that’s my interpretation of it. ‘Every effort’ seems a bit inaccurate… do you have to dive on the floor, for instance? But then, sufficient effort? Sufficient for what? That point is really to do with whether or not the player would have got to the ball, which isn’t necessarily about the amount of effort – some players will get there easily, others not. Some will be tired others less etc. etc. This is where the common sense element has to come in.
    I am all for referees being selected on the basis of performance, but, at the moment, that might tend to reduce the numbers somewhat. 😀

  10. I’m confused.

    I *like* to watch PSA Squash. I think the refereeing is usually very good, and while there are certainly blown calls, open-door discussions with the referees, and the like – I find the modern game very entertaining to watch, and not confusing in the least.

    I sympathize with players who come up against a referee who makes a number of poor calls in a match (Daryl Selby today, for instance). It is their living, and it must be terribly frustrating to lose a match due to poor calls. But I don’t think that happens very often in PSA events, to be fair. Errors tend to balance out, and are infrequent enough that the better player on the day rarely loses.

    When there’s a very close call, and a player disputes it, I’m turning up the volume to hear what he has to say. It’s part of the entertainment! As a fan, it’s fun to watch the replay, and decide for yourself whether you agree or disagree with the referee’s decision.

    Look how many people comment on the “So You Think You Can Ref?” clips that PSASquashTV posts on YouTube. People *enjoy* this aspect of the game.

    I don’t understand why people feel that occasional arguments about a close call detract from the sport, or make it less likely for inclusion in the Olympics. There are many sports in the Olympics where players debate close calls with referees (ice hockey anyone? Volleyball? Football?).

    Yes, the rules could be improved to be more clear. And yes, I’m sure refereeing could also be improved.

    But in my view professional squash as it exists right now, is incredibly fast-paced, creative, skilled, and thoroughly entertaining. The biggest impediment to it’s success it simply the fact that not many people play or understand the sport – and even those that do, often don’t follow the professional game. As a result, sponsors don’t shower it with money the way they do with other sports.

    The PSA and PSASquashTV is great entertainment. Spread the word, and squash will grow.

  11. I agree with a lot of what you say here Alan.

    I go to spectate at every PSL event at Chichester and get to see some amazing games. However, you also get to see some really poor examples of how to behave and play on court. Two from recent memory are Adrian Grant who in a match against Olly Pett, fished for let’s and strokes at every opportunity. It ruined the game as a spectacle and was a dreadful example to all watching, especially the juniors. The second culprit is Robbie Temple. I have watched him play several times in the past three years and he is almost unwatchable. Purposely running into the back of opponents and asking when it would be perfectly possible to get around and play a choice of shots. Not only that but his attitude to the markers is invariably very poor.

    With both these players, playing with the PST rules would render their tactics irrelevant and I would welcome this.

    Lastly, I want to make it clear that in my view, these are exceptions and most players are great to watch. I note from twitter that Daryl Selby read your blog recently. It is worth mentioning that I watched him play a terrific match against Kemp at Chichester in the PSL recently. The game was played hard but with fairness and mutual respect clearly evident. I would go further and say that after being on the end of a dodgy call or two, Daryl reacted positively and even drew laughter from the crowd with the odd quip.

    Finally, on that same night, Tom Richards played a match and I have to say, he is the perfect example to any aspiring junior. Not only is he a fantastic player, his conduct is beyond reproach.

    Whilst these are my views, it is worth noting that these are pretty much shared by the 8-10 people that go to watch professional squash regularly with me from our club. No one wants to watch a match where there are a lot of breaks in play due to the protagonists choosing to stop when in fact, playing on through minimal interference or hitting winners rather than fishing are not only preferable, but indeed, easier options.

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