The Rise of Deaf Squash

If you’re a keen follower of professional squash, you’ll know that Nick Matthew and Nicol David are the sport’s current World Champions. In early December, Matthew became the first Englishman to win the World Open, beating his compatriot James Willstrop in the final. Three months earlier David, from Malaysia, beat Egypt’s Omneya Abdel Kawy to retain the Women’s World Open title.

But what about Jamie Mathews and Christine Ferreira? Ever heard of them?

Christine Ferreira and Jamie Mathews - Deaf Squash World Champions 2010

Christine Ferreira and Jamie Mathews - Deaf Squash World Champions 2010

Well, if you haven’t, maybe it’s time to look them up. They’re part of the increasingly diverse – and increasingly connected – global squash community. Just like  you.

Mathews and Ferreira are the reigning Deaf Squash World Champions.

World Deaf Squash

Organised by World Deaf Squash Incorporated (WDSI), the 5th Deaf Squash World Championships took place in Palmerston North, New Zealand in October 2010. Both finalists in the men’s competition were English, with top seed Jamie Mathews beating second seed Phil Thomas 3-0 to retain the title he won in South Africa in 2007. The women’s final was an all South African affair with Christine Ferreira beating top seed Theresa Greenwood in straight games. South Africa also became women’s team champions with England taking the men’s team  crown.

The WDSI itself was formed in 2003, just after the 2nd World Championships, held in Zoetermeer in the Netherlands. The organisation currently has 6 national members – Australia, England, Netherlands, Pakistan, Scotland and South Africa – although Individual players from a number of other countries including Canada, Ireland, Luxembourg, New Zealand and the USA frequently take part in its competitions.

National Deaf Squash

But the WDSI wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for the emergence of organised deaf squash competition at a national level, England and Pakistan being just two examples.

The English Deaf Squash Association was originally formed in 1998 as the National Association for Deaf Squash. In 2000, the organisation’s name change coincided with the birth of a new national tournament established with the involvement of Rebecca Macree, herself a profoundly deaf person and former world-ranked No 7.

Rebecca Macree

Rebecca Macree

Since it’s creation, the tournament has since been held on an annual basis, the winner being presented with the  Rebecca Macree Trophy (RMT) for Deaf People.

Further East, in another distinguished squash-playing country, 2005 saw the creation of the Pakistan Deaf Squash Association. As in England, the country’s National Deaf Squash Championship was created in the same year and has also taken place on an annual basis. The current national champion is Bihar Tilal here shown winning the 4th Championship title in 2009.

Deaf Squash Players

But which people are eligible to take part in deaf squash competitions?

The answer is people having a degree of hearing loss that meets certain criteria set out by the WDSI. Those criteria are based on data laid down by the oldest international organisation for sport for disabled people, the CISS (Comité International des Sports des Sourds) also known as the International Committee of Sports for the Deaf. To be precise, the WDSI criteria state that ‘deaf or hearing impaired people shall mean people with a hearing threshold (hearing loss) of 55dB or greater in their better ear, averaged over 500, 1K, 2K and 3K Hertz… as set out by the governing body of deaf sport, the CISS.’

The CISS is the oldest international organisation promoting sport for disabled people. It was founded in 1924 when two deaf European men, Eugène Rubens-Alcais of France and Antoine Dresse of Belgium, saw the need for an international sports governing body to stage quadrennial games for the deaf in an Olympic format. In fact, the constitution of the CISS is consistent with that of the International Olympic Committee which gave full recognition to the CISS in 1955.

So, you could reasonably expect Deaf Squash to be a candidate for inclusion in the rapidly-expanding Paralympic Games.

And you’d be wrong. But maybe not for the reason you’re thinking of.

Deaf Sports and the Deaflympics

Deaf sports in general tend to be regarded by many hearing people as being intended for participation by disabled individuals. But deaf sports are different as borne out by the existence of the Deaflympics, formerly known as the World Games for the Deaf.

Deaf sport organisations have always resisted suggestions that the Deaflympics should become part of the Paralympics. The major reason for this resistance is based on the principle that, whereas the  Paralympics provide sporting events for the physically disabled, deafness is, in reality, a communication disability in a hearing society. Easily understandable, if you think about it.

So why is Deaf Squash not currently included in the Deaflympics?

Well, as with the Olympic Games, the inclusion of new sports in the Deaflympics is decided with reference to a range of criteria such as levels and standards of participation, potential popularity with spectators, and the maturity of the sport in an international context. So, having had its own governing body for only 7 years or so, Deaf Squash may still be in the process of establishing itself. At least with regard to its inclusion in the Deaflympics.

Postscript: Deaf Squash Connections

Which all leads me to point out the need for squash lovers, hearing impaired or not, to connect to and communicate with the Deaf Squash members of the global squash community. To share the news and share the passion.

The last time I looked, the English Deaf Squash Association, the Pakistan Deaf Squash Association and the South Africa Deaf Squash Association had all set up their own Facebook pages. Ideal places to connect and communicate, I’d say.

After all, there’s no need for digital communication disability in a digital hearing society.

Now is there?

Squash on TV: The Clinger and The Ringer

I suppose that squash isn’t such a mainstream sport that it appears regularly in light entertainment TV programmes. Well, at least not in the UK. In fact, I can remember only two occasions where a squash club setting was used as a key feature in what’s now known as terrestrial television. Once in a comedy drama and once in a much-loved comedy sketch show.

The Clinger

Clinger n A ball running right along the side wall which is difficult to hit. A clinger may be the result of a straight drive or of a cross-court drive which squirts from the nick high up between the front and side walls.

The Clinger was a 60 minute play shown on UK television in 1986 as part of a series of dramas entitled Love and Marriage. Set in a squash club and taking place over a single evening, it traced the fortunes of Alan (Richard Hope) in his attempts to impress fellow club member Samantha (Sallyanne Law).

Playing an internal league match against old hand Ernie (Ron Pember), Alan finds himself battling not just against his own nervousness, but also against Ernie’s superior court craft and his strongest shot, the clinger. Alan’s romantic fantasies slowly turn into a nightmare as he’s given the run-around by Ernie only to be handed a lucky break as the match moves towards its inevitable conclusion. Ernie collapses and dies of a heart attack thereby forfeiting the match!

Running through The Clinger were a number of humorous storylines dealing with the petty politics of squash club life including the point scoring rules for the internal leagues. These, of course, come sharply into focus following the dramatic conclusion of Alan and Ernie’s match.

An impromptu eulogy is given by club chairman Jack (Alan David) as Ernie is stretchered off court to a waiting ambulance. Jack pays tribute to Ernie and his clinger only to be lobbied by various club members anxious that, as a result of Ernie forfeiting his match, they will be denied promotion or  relegated from their league.

Naturally, Alan wins the match by default….and gets the girl.

I do like a happy ending.

The Ringer

Ringer n One who misrepresents his or her identity or ability in order to gain an advantage in a competition.

A couple of months ago I found myself in a queue in a London bookshop with Ronnie Corbett, the  surviving (and smaller) member of The Two Ronnies comedy partnership. It was recently Corbett’s 80th birthday, an event marked by repeat broadcasts of many of his best known TV sketches as well as a new programme involving a range of British comedians.

One such sketch with Ronnie Barker sees the two engaged in changing room banter after a squash match. Corbett plays the experienced club player with Barker, a complete novice who has apparently played his first game ever – wearing a business suit. Barker is seeking clarification of the squash scoring system from the humiliated Corbett having just beaten him 9-1, 9-0, 9-0. Corbett’s solitary point has apparently been won at the start of the match when Barker was still holding the wrong end of his racket.

I’ll leave it to you to decide whether Barker plays a ringer in this sketch but 25 years after its first broadcast, it still has the power to bring a smile to the face.

The Australian Squash Ball Incident

Even though I’m a follower of cricket, particularly the five-day Test Match variety, I have to admit that the Australian Squash Ball Incident of 2007 – branded Gillygate by the Aussie media – completely passed me by. Maybe it was because it happened during a one-day limited over match, even though that match was the final of cricket’s prestigious  World Cup tournament, held every four years. On the other hand, maybe it was because ‘my team’ England had long since been knocked out of the tournament, not being particularly effective at the one-day game.

However, I suspect that it was more likely that I’d completely forgotten that the tournament was still being contested having been going for nearly 7 weeks. In fact, the final was the competition’s 51st match meaning that it had taken 50 matches, played in locations throughout the Caribbean (and even Guyana in South America) to eliminate all but 2 of the 16 teams competing.

But back to the squash ball incident.

Gillygate: Adam Gilchrist’s Squash Ball

The World Cup final, held on April 28th in Bridgetown, Barbados, was won by Australia who beat Sri Lanka by 53 runs. Big-hitting wicket-keeper  Adam Gilchrist was Australia’s top scorer with 149 runs made off just 104 balls, a highly impressive innings and strike rate in terms of the one-day game.

But after the match, Gilchrist revealed that he’d inserted a squash ball into one of his batting gloves to provide ‘extra grip’ (see video clip).

The Sri Lankan cricket authorities immediately accused Gilchrist of unethical behaviour in using the ball. A debate raged in the media for weeks even though the Marylebone Cricket Club, the body responsible the rules of cricket, judged that Gilchrist had not contravened the spirit or laws of the game. A Gichrist’s Squash Ball ‘Unethical’ page even appeared on Facebook (see link).

http://www.facebook.com/home.php?#!/group.php?gid=8855860966

Squash Ball Physics

Later in 2007, Vijitha Herath of the University of Paderborn, Germany, wrote to Elakiri.com, the Largest Sri Lankan Online Community to offer ‘a scientific perspective’ (sic) on the squash ball in cricket glove affair. You can read it at:

http://www.elakiri.com/forum/showthread.php?t=29356

Herath’s ‘scientific perspective’ comprised a series of statements unsupported by any scientific evidence whatsoever. It appeared together with the following graphic bearing the less than objective title  ‘Magic ball exposed’.

Herath concluded that “Gilchrist’s use of the squash ball allowed him to hit the ball further in the field”. He also stated, in decidedly unscientific language, that, “the squash ball was used not purely as a protective gear but, as a performance enhancer to a player who was playing his last World Cup innings and did not care of the consequences, but was hell bent on rubbing some glory upon himself.”

No bias there then.

The Indian Squash Ball Incident

Herath’s attempt to undermine Adam Gilchrist’s reputation as well as to simultaneously mindread his intentions did not prevent Mahendra Singh Dhoni, the captain of India’s cricket team, from copying Gilchrist. In February 2009, Dhoni inserted a squash ball into one of his gloves before he batted in the first one-day international – again against Sri Lanka – in Dambulla. He made an unbeaten 61 as his team beat Sri Lanka by 6 wickets (see link).

http://www.cricdb.com/archive/international/news/detail.php?nid=1326

The Sri Lankan cricket authorities were, in cricketing parlance, caught on the back foot when asked to comment on Dhoni using a squash ball, as well as on history repeating itself.

“No, I am not aware about this but would certainly find out whether we can lodge an official complaint about it”, said Duleep Mendis, Sri Lanka Cricket’s Chief Executive Officer.

Postscript: Google Keywords

The Australian Squash Ball Incident has now passed into cyberspace mythology, if there is such a thing.  Gilchrist squash ball is now a registered Google Keyword.

At the last count, it gave 6240 results.

Squash and Sudden Death

In a recent blog posting, I described the longest squash match ever played. It took place in 1983 between Pakistan’s Jahangir Khan and Gamal Awad of Egypt. In a postscript, I mentioned that Gamal Awad died of a heart attack in 2004 at the early age of 49.

But four years before the match between Khan and Awad, the men’s world-ranked number 13 player, then aged 27, also died of a heart attack. Except this time, it was on court during a tournament match in Australia.

The heart attack victim was Jahangir’s elder brother, Torsam Khan.

Squash and Heart Disease

Seven years after Torsam’s death, I was working as a research scientist for what is now one of the world’s largest pharmaceutical companies. I was also spending an inordinate amount of time playing squash at the company’s sports club which was located on-site just a couple of hundred metres from the research library. And it was while I was browsing the scientific journals in the library that I came across a very interesting article.

It was written by Robin Northcote, Clare Flannigan and David Ballantyne of the Department of Medical Cardiology at the Victoria Infirmary in Glasgow, Scotland. Now, some of you may know that Scotland had (and still does have) one of the highest levels of heart disease in the world, a situation not helped by certain local dietary preferences such as the infamous deep-fried battered Mars bar. So, looking back, the appearance of the Northcote article in the British Heart Journal didn’t come as an enormous surprise to me.

The article had the arresting title, Sudden death and vigorous exercise – a study of 60 deaths associated with squash’. And, by the way, sudden death was defined as “death occurring within 1-24 hours of the onset of symptoms” with the study looking at subjects who had “collapsed while playing squash or within an hour of playing”.

Squash and Psychology

After consulting a few of my fellow squash-playing scientists, I remember citing the article in the squash club newsletter I was then editing. It didn’t generate much, if any, feedback from squash club members even after I’d pinned a copy of the article to the noticeboard outside courts 1 and 2. Anyway, it certainly didn’t result in an exodus from the squash leagues or a noticeable reduction in the number of squash courts booked.

Nearly 25 years after it first appeared, the Northcote et al article is still worth reading. The authors state that, “Many individuals in this study with known medical conditions continued to play squash. Men in middle age seem reluctant to acknowledge that they may be in poor physical condition or health. We and others have noted that sportsmen tend to deny physical infirmity and prodromal symptoms.” Prodromal symptoms (or sets of symptoms) are ones which might indicate the start of a disease before specific symptoms occur.

Most of the people in the study had professional or executive jobs with only 2 of the 60 subjects working in what were regarded as ‘non-sedentary’ jobs. The authors go on to state that, “In addition to a tendency to ignore prodromal symptoms and pre-existing disease at least half of the subjects in this series may have been type A personalities, and this in itself may have increased their risk of sudden death and the development of coronary heart disease”.

Personality typing theory emerged in the 1950s and described two common but contrasting types of people, the highly-strung Type A and the easy-going Type B. These types were regarded as  corresponding to patterns of behaviour that could respectively raise or lower a person’s chances of developing coronary heart disease. Despite its citation in the Northcote study, the theory has since  been regarded as obsolete by many researchers in contemporary health psychology and personality psychology.

But, whatever theory you choose to believe, the overall message remains the same. The risks associated with playing squash and experiencing sudden death originate, at least partially, in the mind.

Exercise-related Sudden Death

In 1994, Northcote published another exercise-related sudden death study in the Oxford Textbook of Sports Medicine (Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK). This time, he looked at a range of sports and activities including running, swimming and soccer, and sudden deaths occurring in the mainland UK, i.e. England, Scotland and Wales. His findings are presented in the following table.

Sport / Activity Number

(Male)

Number

(Female)

Mean Age

at Death

Squash 124 2 44
Soccer 53 32
Swimming 50 6 53
Running 38 1 37
Badminton 26 49
Rugby 14 30

Although squash is at the top of the table, Northcote emphasized that there is a very low statistical risk of sudden death from any sport and that the figures don’t  imply that squash is more dangerous than other sports. Nevertheless, his table does show that a significant number of squash players have probably died unnecessarily, for reasons not unconnected to those proposed in his 1986  article.

Squash and the Mind

So, nothing for squash players to worry about?

Well, in 2004, I had a heart attack. Not something I’d recommend although I’ve certainly found it to be character forming if not personality changing. Unfortunately, or come to think of it fortunately, I wouldn’t have made Robin Northcote’s original study as I hadn’t been playing squash immediately beforehand. But the incident did lead me to take a renewed interest in my own psychological makeup, how it influenced my approach to squash, and how I could change it for the better. In other words, how I could change my mindset to re-connect with squash, feel the passion again – and reduce the risk.

Well, I’m still taking an interest and things certainly do seem to be getting better in all respects. Although I am, of course, still working on it. Promise.

The Longest Squash Match Ever

The Chichester Marathon and Hand-out Scoring

After March 30th, 1983, answering the question “What is the longest squash match on record?” got a whole lot easier. That was the day that Pakistan’s Jahangir Khan and Egypt’s Gamal Awad played a match in Chichester, England which lasted 2 hours and 46 minutes. And it didn’t even run to five games, Jahangir eventually winning 3-1 after losing the first game 9-10.

It was the era of hand-out scoring where only the server could win the point for that rally. Lose the rally as server and you lost the serve. That’s all.

In many ways, the match statistics reflect the scoring system. It was almost 15 minutes before a point was scored. One rally alone lasted for 7 minutes and ended in a let. The acrobatic Awad, known as The Rubber Man or The Grasshopper, took the first game after 1 hour and 15 minutes, still the longest on record. After that, the rest of the match almost raced by, the next three games taking a mere 1 hour and 31 minutes.

Point a Rally Scoring – Return of the Epics

The introduction of PARS (Point A Rally Scoring) to the professional game was intended to make attritional contests such as the Chichester marathon shorter, as well as to encourage shot making. A strategy which, to a large extent, worked.

But more recently, the epics have returned.

In December 2008, fourth seeded Shawn Delierre overcame top-seeded fellow Canadian Shahier Razik to reach the final of the Baltimore Cup in Baltimore, USA, in a 5-game, 2 hour 30 minute marathon. At the time, it was is the longest recorded squash match since the introduction of PARS.

In April, 2010 two Malaysians, Ivan Yuen and Mudh Asyraf Azam, played another 5-game match lasting 2 hours and 43 minutes – just 3 minutes shorter than that at Chichester – in a qualifier for the 5 Star Indian Challenger Tournament in Kolkata, India.

And finally, in October 2010 at the Commonwealth Games in Delhi, India Mohd Azlan Iskandar of Malaysia beat England’s Daryl Selby in a 4-game quarter-final match lasting 2 hours 15 minutes.

Postscript: Gamal Awad (1955-2004)

But even when the 1983 Chichester record is broken, I suspect that it’s the story of that match between Jahangir and Gamal Awad (see picture) which will not only live in the memory but will pass into squash legend.

Sadly, one of its heroes, Gamal Awad, died of a heart attack in Alexandria, Egypt in November 2004, aged just 49. He retired from the professional squash circuit in 1987, following problems with knee injuries. The highlights of his career were as runner-up in both the 1982 World Masters and the 1983 British Open Squash championships – in both cases to Jahangir.

But perhaps he’ll always be best known for participating with Khan in that match in Chichester in 1983.