Squash and Brexit

As someone with his finger on the pulse of global politics, I recently came across an article which managed to address, simultaneously, the international development of squash and the departure of the United Kingdom from the European Union, also known as Brexit, i.e. the departure not the EU.

I refer, of course, to the issue of the “Irish backstop” which is, effectively, an insurance policy meant to ensure that the land border between Northern Ireland (part of the UK) and the Republic of Ireland remains open (as it is today) whatever the outcome of the UK and the EU’s negotiations about their relationship after Brexit.

“But what’s that got to do with squash?” I hear you say. Well, quite a lot, as it happens. Consider the following. The development of squash in Northern Ireland is the responsibility of Ulster Squash which supports the development of players through its “Player Pathway” from talent-spotting to World competition.  The eagle-eyed amongst you will, of course, have spotted that the name “Ulster” actually refers to a province in the north of the island of Ireland made up of nine counties, only six of which constitute Northern Ireland. The remaining three (along with a further 23) are located in the Republic of Ireland, making a grand total of 32 on the island as a whole. Clear? Then consider this.

Madeline Perry of Northern Ireland

Ulster Squash works in partnership with Irish Squash, the governing body for the sport on the whole of the island of Ireland. Irish Squash itself is recognised by Sport Ireland, Sport Northern Ireland and the World Squash Federation. Most importantly, squash is, in the context of Irish sport, a cross-border sport along with Gaelic games (such as hurling), rugby, cricket, hockey, golf, boxing, tennis, table tennis, rowing, swimming, triathlon and, last but not least, motorcycling. For the record, there are also partitioned sports such as football (soccer to US readers), martial arts and motor-sports, all of which are governed separately north and south of the Northern Ireland / Republic of Ireland land border.

In a cross-border sport development context it is, unsurprisingly, the border that’s causing pre-Brexit concern. In the case of squash, for example, cross-border competition is a key part of the development strategies of both Ulster Squash and Irish Squash. Currently, the border isn’t a barrier, in any practical sense, to the movement of players, coaches and supporters between venues. In fact, people can move freely between the UK, Ireland, the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands within what’s known as the Common Travel Area, an informal arrangement which existed before the UK and Ireland joined the EU in 1973. So, there are no official passport checks if you’re travelling from Belfast in Northern Ireland to Dublin in the Republic of Ireland to London in mainland UK.

Following the exit of the UK from the EU, however, there is concern that the border will become a “hard” border complete with border posts, barriers and passport controls. Understandably, the potential for a “hard” border is a vital concern to business communities and farmers who have become used to the free movement of goods. But the ending of the free movement of people could  also cause a problem for the operation and development of cross-border sport in Ireland.

A recent article for Radio Telefís Éireann (RTE) states: “In terms of the governance of Irish sport, it is clear that the vast majority operate on the basis of a “soft” border to ensure cross-border competition. While no border is designed specifically with sport in mind, the potential for disruption to sporting activity is enormous. Even for a sport already partitioned along what will become the UK-EU land border, the potential for disruption is clear.

“More worryingly, it is often suggested that the return of border infrastructure could lead to such equipment or the officials operating that border becoming the target of dissident republican violence.” Another reason, perhaps, for those negotiating Brexit to turn their attention to the issue of Irish squash development.

I think that letters to Michel Barnier and Boris Johnson are in order, don’t you?

Sources

Thanks to RTE, Ulster Squash, Irish Squash, Full Fact and Wikipedia.

Hijab Stories – Part 2

For Part 1 of “Hijab Stories” go to the following link.

In the space of a few days in early August, I stumbled across two stories connected by a common theme: female squash players who represent their countries in international competition…and who wear the hijab.

Competition

The first story covered the final of the World Junior Womens Squash Team Championships held in Kuala Lumpur. As has become de rigeur in recent years, the final was contested between Egypt and another country, this time that country being the hosts, Malaysia. Both finalists in each of the other competitions taking place at the Championships, namely the Mens and Womens Singles, were, yes you’ve guessed it, also Egyptian.

World Junior Squash Womens Team Championships 2019 (Final)

But it was Malaysia’s 17-year old first string, Aifa Azman, that caught my attention by virtue of the fact that her kit incorporated a hijab. Although Azman lost her match to Egyptian first string (and just-crowned Junior Womens Singles champion) Hania El Hamammy, her performance in winning the first game pretty much demonstrated that, in squash at least, dress codes have adapted in recognition of the nature of the opportunities presented by international competition.

Gossip

The second story described the experience of 12-year old US squash player Fatima Abdelrahman. En route to play in a tournament in Toronto, Abdelrahman had, according to news reports, cleared security at San Francisco Airport to board an Air Canada flight. Travelling with her older sister, she was reportedly asked by a ‘gate agent’ to remove her hijab, apparently without being given the option of doing so in private.

Irrespective of the circumstances, the social media storm triggered by the incident is, at the time of writing, still going strong. Yet, unlike Aifa Azman’s participation in a squash tournament, the Abdelrahman incident demonstrates how a single human conversation lasting seconds can generate so many secondary communications, between individuals not actually present at the time, unfamiliar with any of the people involved and, almost certainly, unaware of the existence of squash. Whether or not any of those communications will ultimately be helpful to any of the parties involved in the incident, I’ll leave for others to judge. Meanwhile, I’ll keep on looking for stories which celebrate a sport which, in my opinion, can compete with the best.

In public or in private.

Sources

Thanks to Wikipedia and The National Post.

Why Is Egypt So Good At Squash? (BBC Africa Short Film) – 2018

There are some sports which certain countries are just really good at. We’re talking New Zealand and rugby union, Brazil and football, and Kenya and middle distance running. Well, it might surprise you that an African country dominates the sport of squash. In this short film, BBC Sport Africa’s Isaac Fanin looks at why Egypt is so good at squash.

OK, so I admit that this BBC Africa feature passed me by when it first appeared in 2018. However, when I did unearth it, it did inspired me to look further afield for explanations as to Egypt’s current domination of the game.

Why Is Egypt So Good At Squash? (2018)

Here’s a reason for Egypt’s success given in an interview for Culture Trip by current World number 1, Ali Farag. “We had a lot of champions growing up so there was always someone to look up to and aspire to emulate,” he explained. “Those players were always generous to give us advice or step on the court with us. We’re all concentrated in Cairo or Alexandria so we can play against each other unlike in the United States, for example, if people are in different states and not concentrated in one or two cities.”

Farag’s explanation is echoed by fellow Egyptian and former World number 1, Amr Shabana in an article for The Atlantic. “There’s a quote that says ‘you’re only as good as the people around you.’ Around us were the best players – maybe not the best in the world, but we thought they were. This is the main reason squash thrived,” Shabana said. “Everybody pushed each other.”

In a 2014 article for Serious Squash, Canadian coach Chris Hanebury states, “I know people in Egypt could confirm or deny this and make a better argument on this subject, but I feel that creativity and attacking squash is not frowned upon, and is actually encouraged. They are continually reinventing how the game is played. Even though this may mean a few errors in the short term, these young players are learning to play a style of squash that better suits the glass courts and the lower tin.

But let’s leave the last word to Amr Shabana who, in a 2018 Express Tribune article, offered an explanation suggesting the superior ability of Egyptian squash players to exploit the incredible speed of balls travelling at 175 kilometres per hour or more.

Shabana compared the ability to manoeuvring Cairo’s sometimes chaotic streets behind the wheel of a car. “It’s like our driving,” he explains. “Under pressure, our decision-making process is very sharp.”

Plenty of scope for some innovative coaching techniques there then.

Sources

Thanks to BBC Sport Africa, Culture Trip, The Atlantic, Serious Squash and The Express Tribune.

Retreat (2017) – Short Film

A man on retreat calls home.

Retreat (2017)

Created by STIR and FRY (Thomas and Samuel Thorogood

Thomas Thorogood – Co-Producer, Co-Director, Camera Operator, Composer, Models, Additional Voices

Samuel Thorogood – Co-Director, Co-Producer, Writer, Editor, Performer

Source

Thanks to Stir and Fry and Vimeo.

Teamwork

Watching this year’s European Team Squash Championships (ETC) prompted me to find out more about the competition and its global counterparts. Here’s the result.

Europe

The ETC is an annual competition for teams representing countries belonging to the European Squash Federation. Every year, men’s and women’s competitions are held at the same venue at the same time with this year’s event taking place at Edgbaston Priory in Birmingham, England.

England squad for the 2019 European Team Squash Championships: Left to right – James Willstrop, Sarah-Jane Perry, Tom Richards, Alison Waters, Declan James, Victoria Lust, Adrian Waller, Laura Massaro and Daryl Selby

Countries enter teams of four or five players to represent them in the women’s and men’s events respectively. In each round of the competition, teams face each other in best-of-four singles matches, points being scored both for rubbers and for  individual games won.

This year twenty-two countries entered teams with England beating Spain to win the men’s title and France beating England to take the women’s title.

England vs Spain – Men’s Final Highlights

World

The World Team Squash Championships (WTC) are also held annually although men’s and women’s competitions are biennial, taking place in alternate years and at different venues. This year, it’s the turn of the men to compete at the dramatically-named ‘Squash on Fire’ venue in Washington DC, USA. Last year, Egypt beat England in the final of the women’s competition held in Dalian, China. The 2020 women’s championship will be held in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

England vs France – Women’s Final Highlights

The WTC is organised for teams representing countries belonging to the World Squash Federation. Countries enter teams of three or four players to represent them in the women’s and men’s events respectively. In each round of the competition, teams face each other in a best-of-three singles matches, points being scored both for rubbers and for individual  games won.

Asia

Last, but not least, the Asian Team Squash Championships (ATC) are held every two years, with men’s and women’s competitions being held at the same venue at the same time. In 2018, Hong Kong’s men’s and women’s teams both won their events, beating Pakistan and South Korea respectively. The championships were held in Cheongju, South Korea

The ATC is organised for teams representing countries belonging to the Asia Squash Federation. Countries enter teams of three or four players to represent them in the women’s and men’s events respectively. In each round of the competition, teams face each other in best-of-three singles matches, points being scored both for rubbers and for individual  games won.

Sources

Thanks to Wikipedia, England Squash, PSA Squash TV, Facebook and Squash On Fire.

Broken Strings (2018) – Short Film

What does it take before somebody’s resilience breaks? Sam Halford is tested when his coach pushes him and his classmate, Matt, to their limits. But when does pushing somebody beyond their limits become too much to handle?

Broken Strings (2018)

A Dunley Productions film.

Directed by Alfie Drakeley and Connor Dunham

Written by Alfie Drakeley

Cast: Jake Vermuelen (Sam Wilson) Josh Beardmore (Coach) and Alfie Drakeley (Matt Wilson).

Squash in Sixty Seconds

Take a look at the following two rallies, both taken from Canary Wharf Squash Classic matches played in London.

The first, taken from the 2016 tournament, is from a match between the eventual champion, France’s Mathieu Castagnet, and England’s Joe Lee. The second, from the 2019 tournament, also features its eventual winner, New Zealand’s Paul Coll, and England’s Tom Richards.

Neither rally lasts for much more than 60 seconds but both include a range of shots which could easily form the basis of a ‘how to play’ guide for beginners. If you take forehand and backhand shots separately, I counted over twenty types of shot played from the ‘T’, the front and back corners of the court, and mid-court. There are even back wall boasts and flying (attempted) volley-drops as a bonus.

Mathieu Castagnet vs Joe Lee (Canary Wharf Classic 2016)

Apart from the shots displayed, the ways in which the two rallies unfold lend themselves nicely to higher level analysis for learning and coaching purposes. For example, positioning, footwork, speed around the court and the sheer persistence needed to turn a losing position into a winning one are all on display. The need to retrieve is as important as the desire to dominate a rally.

Paul Coll vs Tom Richards (Canary Wharf Classic 2019)

And what about the value of the rallies in teaching markers or referees? Noticeably,there’s not a sign of an ‘out of court’ shot, a tinned shot, any body contact, or even a possible let or stroke. All players involved just get on with the game leaving the officials free to keep an eye open for anything which could affect their safety.

All that in two sixty-second snapshots. I never realised how easy it was.

Sources

Canary Wharf Classic video clips courtesy of PSA SquashTV .

Squash Coaching and Refereeing by R.B.Hawkey (1975) – Book Review

I can’t say I’ve ever had the opportunity to review a book on squash so when one came along I made like Peter Marshall and grabbed it with both hands. The volume in question, Dick Hawkey’s “Squash Coaching and Refereeing”, was gifted to me by a retired diplomat who, in a previous existence, had made his living selling antiquarian books. Knowing that I was an aficionado of the game he was certain that I would be  the best person to provide a home for the book, particularly as members of his family had started to pressurise him, for safety purposes, into reducing the mountains of memorabilia (‘junk’ in their terminology) hoarded in his one-bedroom flat.

“Squash Coaching and Refereeing” by R.B. Hawkey

The paperback book, originally published in 1975, is one of several written by R.B. (“Dick”) Hawkey who served as Director of Coaching at the UK’s Squash Racket Association in the 1960s and 70s. Most of them can still be obtained via archival  book services such as OpenLibrary and Alibris, and even from Amazon.

Split into separate ‘Coaching’ and ‘Refereeing sections, the overwhelming majority of the book’s content is as relevant today as when it was written almost 45 years ago. In fact, with the exception of references to the marking system (‘hand-in’ rather than ‘point-a-rally’ is mentioned throughout), the information, insights, advice and guidance presented are as clear and concise as any coach, marker or referee could want. I particularly liked Hawkey’s statement as to the purpose of coaching squash, i.e. to help players enjoy the game more. Having fun was clearly part of Hawkey’s approach to the game as was its social side, from watching matches, chatting with others (players and non-players alike) and drinking at the bar.

The purpose of refereeing, states Hawkey, is three-fold: to prevent injury; to prevent the “unpleasantly ruthless player” from having an unfair advantage; and, to ensure a “fair result” for every match. Safety, on-court manners and fairness are the watch-words.

On the subject of playing style, Hawkey is definitely not a purist. He observes that “virtually every player who has reached the top in any sport has his own idiosyncracies, his own pet shots, strokes of his own invention, things he can do that others cannot and shots he plays a little differently.”

“If,” he continues, “the correct and orthodox way were always the best for everyone, it would automatically follow that every champion was the perfect example of complete orthodoxy.” He goes on to name several great sporting champions (including Mohammed Ali) whose styles clearly disprove such a hypothesis. “In squash,” writes Hawkey, “the greatest of all time, hHashim Khan, was a complete novelty in the game. He held the racket nearly halfway up the shaft and as he raced around the court at unbelievable speed, he would improvise shots at will.”

In summary, Hawkey’s squash philosophy is based on enjoyment, sociability, safety, good manners, fairness and improvisation. Not a bad message to pass down through the generations.

Sources

Thanks to Wikipedia for entries on Peter Marshall and Hashim Khan.

Business Squash (Comedy Sketch)

Well “better late than never” I always say, or at least I occasionally say when I’ve fallen down on whatever job I’ve set myself; in this case spotting squash-themed comedy sketches.

This latest offering comes from Irish comedy trio Foil Arms and Hog who, for reasons unknown (to me, anyway) choose to omit a comma from their stage name, assuming that stage names still exist nowadays.

The group comprises Sean Finnegan, Sean Flanagan and Conor McKenna and performs on TV, radio, the stage and online. Formed in 2008 while all three were students at University College Dublin, the group’s name evolved from the nicknames each of the members had for each other; Foil (Sean Finegan) so-called because was the ‘comedy foil’, Arms (Conor McKenna) because he was ‘All arms and legs’ and Hog (Sean Flanagan) because he ostensibly hogged the limelight. All very well, but I’m still concerned about that comma.

And the “better late than never?” Ah, yes, well the sketch does date from 2013 but, in my defence, I’ve had a lot on recently.

P.S. Do check out the Foil Arms and Hog website for tour dates, merchandise and downloads.

Squash (2012) – Short Film / Cortomejadre

In Spanish. Click on video “Subtitles / Closed Captions” button for English subtitles.

It seems that, in modern times, destiny has reserved the same meeting place for us: the dole queue. A squash-themed story of competition, unemployment and dairy produce.

Parece que, con los tiempos que corren, el destino nos tiene guardado a todos un mismo lugar de encuentro: la cola del paro.

Distributed by the Instituto Del Cine, Spain 2012
  • Written and Directed by Jon Plazaola and Javier Cirujeda
  • Lead Producer: Guillermo Tio
  • Original Idea: Jon Plazaola
  • Associate Producer: Helher Escribano
  • Executive Producers: Guillermo Tio, Jon Plazaola and Javier Cirujeda
  • Director of Photography: Marco Caneda
  • Artistic Director: Carlos Perez De Irube
  • Music: The Dead Rocks “Easy Job”