Squash and the Art of Espionage

If you visit Central London, you can easily find the futuristic-looking headquarters of Britain’s Special Intelligence Service on the banks of the River Thames at Vauxhall Cross. The SIS, also known as MI6,  supplies the British Government with foreign intelligence and operates alongside the country’s internal security service MI5.

MI6 Headquarters in London

Since the end of the Second World War, the espionage activities of MI6 have been fictionalised (often in thrilling fashion) by many writers one of whom, David Cornwell, actually worked for the Service during the 1960s. Writing under the pseudonym John Le Carré, Cornwell’s Cold War spy novels contrast with the physical action and moral certainty of the James Bond books written by Ian Fleming. His characters are mainly un-heroic political functionaries aware of the moral ambiguity of their work, and engaged in psychological game-playing and deception rather than physical drama.

And it’s in Le Carré’s novels that psychological games occasionally manifest themselves in the shape of sport. Not just in the description of sporting encounters (such as the tennis match in his novel ‘Our Kind of Traitor’) but in the form of memories, cultural references and the discovery of artefacts.

Including those relating to the game of squash.

Squash and Special Intelligence

If you’re fortunate enough (or even cunning enough) to gain access to MI6’s archives, you’ll find – alongside a briefcase containing a document copier and a stethoscope-like ‘hushaphone’ for eavesdropping on conversations in bugged rooms – a squash racket with a secret compartment in the handle. To contain what, we can only guess.

Visit MI6’s website and you can find more up to date evidence that squash is still part of the culture of Britain’s intelligence service. Not surprisingly perhaps, MI6 offers would-be staff the opportunity to experience ‘foreign travel’ and  ‘excitement’ (possibly an understatement) as well as to design ‘hi-tech gadgets’ for its agents (think ‘Q’ in the James Bond movies). And last, but not least, staff facilities at the Service’s headquarters include squash courts as well as a gym, a restaurant and, thankfully, a bar.

John Le Carre

Back in the 1950s and 60s, when the young David Cornwell was working for MI6 (and, initially, MI5),  squash was also a part of Britain’s intelligence and broader military culture. Squash courts were installed in the basements of various Government buildings in London and were also available to staff based at Special Intelligence sites such as the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) near Cheltenham.

As for Cornwell himself, squash was one of the sports he would have encountered as a pupil at Sherborne School in Dorset which he attended during the 1940s. And it’s perhaps during this period of his life that the game and its psychological aspects first came to his attention and began to feed his imagination.

Whatever its influence on David Cornwell the pupil –and later linguist, interrogator, spy and teacher – squash was eventually to appear in the writings of John Le Carré the novelist. And on more than one occasion.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

In 1961, a year after transferring from MI5 to MI6, Cornwell published his first novel as John Le Carré, ‘Call for the Dead’. The book introduced the character of George Smiley, an MI6 intelligence officer who was to appear in a further seven of Le Carré’s novels. Three years later, Le Carré was to leave MI6 to work full-time as a novelist, after his own career as an intelligence officer career was ended by the betrayal of his British agents to the KGB by Kim Philby, a British double agent and member of the Cambridge Five.

In 1974, ten years after leaving MI6, Le Carré was to depict Philby in his novel ‘Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy’ as the upper-class traitor (code-named ‘Gerald’ by the KGB) hunted by George Smiley and his assistant Peter Guillam. In the book, the ‘mole’ Gerald is simultaneously being hunted, unbeknownst to Smiley, by Jim Prideaux, a fellow agent and former lover whom he has previously betrayed. Eventually, Guillam realises who the elusive figure following Smiley’s investigations is…

“The night had its own madness after that; events ran too quickly for him to fasten on them singly. Not till days afterwards did he realise that the figure, or the shadow of it, had struck a chord of familiarity in his memory. Even then, for some time, he could not place it. Then one early morning, waking abruptly, he had it clear in his mind: a barking, military voice, a gentleness of manner heavily concealed, a squash racquet jammed behind the safe of his room in Brixton, which brought tears to the eyes of his unemotional secretary.”

A recent film adaptation of the book shows a squash match being played in the basement of a Government building between the Minister with responsibility for the ‘Circus’ (MI6) and his Under-Secretary for whom Smiley is working.

'Tinker, Tailor, Soldier Spy' Squash Match

While Smiley heads to Oxford to consult an old MI6 colleague, the two squash players confer in the changing room with Percy Alleline, the Head of the Circus, who wants permission to share valuable intelligence (code-named ‘Witchcraft’) with American Intelligence.

But the end result of Alleline’s intelligence sharing initiative is to prove catastrophic, both for his own career and that of the Minister…

A Perfect Spy

Twelve years after the publication of ‘Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy’, Le Carré published ‘A Perfect Spy’ chronicling the moral education, from boyhood onwards, of its main character Magnus Pym, as it leads to his becoming a spy and subsequently a double agent. The book is Le Carré’s most autobiographical  espionage novel, the author himself reflecting that writing it was ‘probably what a very wise shrink would have advised’.

‘A Perfect Spy’ has references to squash woven into its fabric and into the thoughts not just of Pym but of his wife, Mary, and son Tom. In one passage, Pym reflects on the lives of middle-class professional men like himself…

“…men who see the threat to their class as synonymous with the threat to England and never wandered far enough to know the difference. Modest men, practical, filling in their expense accounts and collecting their salaries, and impressing their Joes with their quiet expertise beneath the banter. Yet still, in their secret hearts, nourishing themselves on the same illusions that in those days nourished Pym. And needing their Joes to help them do it. Worried men, touched with an odour of pub meals and club squash, and a habit of looking round them while they paid, as if wondering whether there was a better way to live.”

In another, Pym’s son prays for his school ‘house master’, Mr. Caird…

“…Tom prayed earnestly for his dead grandfather’s soul, for Mr. Caird and for victory in Wednesday’s squash match against St. Saviour’s, Newbury, away, though he feared it would be another humiliating defeat, for Mr. Caird was divided on the merits of athletic competition.”

Pym’s wife thinks about her squash dates with a friend from the Canadian Embassy while her husband remembers his con-man father, Rick, as he prepares to meet a senior spymaster…

“The same evening, glowing from the best of nine games of squash, Pym was led to the presence of a Very Senior Member of the service, in a plain, forgettable office not far from Rick’s newest Reichskanzlei.”

But the gradual unravelling of the psychological games played by Pym eventually lead to his exposure and his suicide.

Which also goes to show that deception, in life as well as on the squash court, doesn’t always pay off.

Acknowledgements

Thanks to Neil Tweedie for his article “Psst! Want to join MI6?” in the Daily Telegraph. Also thanks to Wikipedia.

My Name Is Maximus Decimus Meridius…and I Will Play Squash

The recent appearance of New Zealand-born screen actor Russell Crowe in the British tabloid headlines wasn’t that much of a surprise. Over the last fifteen years or so, Crowe has been a regular visitor to the UK not least to work on a number of Hollywood blockbusters including Gladiator and Robin Hood. Shooting on both of those films, and on the forthcoming Les Miserables, took place at Pinewood Film Studios west of London and Crowe, you’d imagine, would be more than familiar with the area.

So much so that he should find it relatively easy to locate somewhere to wind down after a hard day’s filming. And, for the famously sports-loving Crowe, where better to relax than at one of the area’s best appointed leisure centres.

Except that staff at Crowe’s chosen venue ‘rudely’ refused him entry as he wasn’t a member. Feeling somewhat miffed, Crowe resorted to Twitter,  accusing the venue of having “hoity toity staff with chav accents.” Again, given Crowe’s reputation for being somewhat ‘difficult’, his attack – delivered via cyberspace – wasn’t particularly surprising either. What was surprising was that he’d travelled to the leisure centre on a combative mission.

Russell Crowe wanted to play squash.

Russell and Sport

Russell Crowe at Eight

Where Crowe first started to play squash isn’t a matter of public record. As a child, he played cricket and his cousins Martin and Jeff Crowe are both former captains of New Zealand’s ‘Black Caps’ Test side. In 2008, Crowe even captained an ‘Australian’ Team containing former Aussie Test captain Steve Waugh against an English side in a charity ‘Hollywood Ashes’ Cricket Match’.

Since childhood, Crowe has also been a keen supporter of the South Sydney Rabbitohs rugby league team and, in 2006, he and Australian businessman Peter Holmes á Court  bought  75% of the club, leaving 25% ownership with the members. In the US, he supports the University of Michigan Wolverines American football team and, in Canada, the Toronto Maple Leafs ice hockey team. Back in the UK, he follows English football teams Bristol City and Leeds United, both located well outside the London area.

But it’s in the relatively affluent English Home Counties that Crowe’s recent sports-related combat mission took place. And, based on his experience of filming and living in the area, you’d have thought  he’d be well aware of the options available to him to book a squash court.

Russell On Set

The filming of Russell Crowe’s latest film, Les Miserables, started in March 2012 in France and in a number of English locations including Winchester Cathedral Close, the naval base at Portsmouth, Oxford and Pinewood Film Studios.

Pinewood Studios were also used in 1999 to film Gladiator, the production for which Crowe received an Oscar nomination for his performance as Roman general Maximus Decimus Meridius. The opening battle scenes for the film, set in the thickly-wooded forests of Germania, were shot in three weeks in Bourne Woods near Farnham in Surrey. When director Ridley Scott learned that the UK Forestry Commission were planning to cut down the forest, he convinced them to allow the battle scenes to be shot there so that he could burn it down as part of the filming and save them the bother.

Russell Crowe as Maximus in 'Gladiator'

Ten years after the shoot, Scott and Crowe were back in a now rather less thickly-wooded  Bourne Woods filming scenes for Robin Hood. Following that film’s release, Crowe stormed out of a BBC radio interview at the exclusive Dorchester Hotel in London after it was suggested that his accent in the film sounded Irish.

But it wasn’t the first time in his life that Crowe had been involved in an altercation that would subsequently hit the headlines.

Russell On Court

In 1999, Crowe was involved in a ‘scuffle’ in a bar in Coffs Harbour, New South Wales in Australia which was caught on security video. Two men, including a Coffs Harbour nightclub owner, subsequently conspired to extort $200,000 from Crowe to keep the video secret. The matter went to court.

Three months earlier, Crowe was alleged to have attacked several people in a drunken rage outside a Coffs Harbour nightclub, one of whom suffered a bite to his neck and a broken thumb. The matter did not go to court.

In 2002, Crowe was alleged to have been involved in a ‘brawl’ with a businessman inside a trendy Japanese restaurant in London. The fight was broken up by a fellow actor and did not go to court.

In 2005, Crowe was arrested and charged with second-degree assault by New York City police after throwing a telephone at hotel employee who had refused to help him place a call when the system didn’t work from his room. He was charged with fourth-degree criminal possession of a weapon (the telephone). The employee, a concierge, was treated for a ‘facial laceration’.

All of which would seem to indicate that Russell has good eye-hand co-ordination occasionally, but not always, linked to an appearance in a court.

Although not necessarily a squash court.

Russell in Command

To end on a positive note, Crowe’s squash mission did come to a successful conclusion  when he gained entry to a nearby leisure centre. “A friendly spot, where regular folks hang” he later commented.

All’s well that ends well, you might say. And nobody hurt.

Sadly, I haven’t managed to find any images of Crowe actually playing squash. However, here he is dealing impressively with a large number of black balls flying towards him at enormous speed.

And he doesn’t even have his squash racket with him.

Acknowledgements

Thanks to the Daily Mirror for it’s article documenting Russell Crowe’s squash altercation. Also thanks to all at Maximum Crowe, a website dedicated to chronicling Russell’s ‘bad boy’ behaviour.

Plaudits as always to Wikipedia and to Gawker for its article “I Will Kill You with My Bare Hands and Other Fun Tales of Russell Crowe.’

Enjoy!

The First Squash Court in Cairo

In 2009, the number of functioning squash courts in the world was estimated at just under 50,000. England, with over 8500, was the country with by far the largest number of courts, followed by a number of countries with more than 1000 including Germany, the US, Australia, South Africa, Canada, Malaysia, France, the Netherlands, Spain…and one other.

In third place was the country whose players currently occupy four of the top ten positions in the men’s world squash rankings. Egypt.

But when and where was the first squash court in the country built? And by whom? Well, the answers to both questions probably won’t come as a big surprise. But their appearance during the course of a famous Academy Award-winning film just might.

The British Army in Cairo

After World War II, the Co-ordinating Council for the Welfare of the Troops in Egypt published a guide with ‘a view to providing useful information for Officers and Men of His Britannic Majesty’s Forces staying in and coming on leave to Cairo.’ The guide contained ‘particulars of Services Clubs, Restaurants and places of entertainment’ and included details of clubs operated specifically for service men and women from India, New Zealand and South Africa.

Also included in the guide were details of two sporting clubs which are still in operation today: the Gezira Sporting Club and the Heliopolis Sporting Club. Both were identified as providing facilities for playing squash.

Although the British had first taken control of Egypt in 1801, they were defeated by the Mameluke Army under Muhammed Ali in 1807 and forced to leave the country. It was not until 1882 that they returned as masters of Egypt, bringing with them their institutions, their administrators and their own forms of recreation. At the time, squash was not amongst them but the British love of sport was demonstrated by its establishment, in that very same year of 1882, of the Gezira Sporting Club, then called the Khedivial Sporting Club.

Squash on the Nile

Located on the island of Zamalek, the grounds of what is now the Gezira Sporting Club were carved out of the Khedivial Botanical Gardens, which is why acacias and gardens still decorate the area. After the island had been formally leased to the British military command, club rules were licensed and the land was divided into several recreational playing grounds. At first, the club was for the exclusive use of the British Army but, over the years, has developed into the most important squash training centre in Egypt with 16 courts.

The Squash Building at Gezira Sporting Club

The Squash Building at Gezira Sporting Club

The first squash courts at the Gezira Club were built in the mid-1920s. But are there any older courts in the city?

The Heliopolis Club was established later than the Gezira, in 1910, by the Cairo Electric Railways and Heliopolis Oases Company. The company managed the club until the end of 1921 after which the club members took over its management under the terms of a contract signed with the company.

It’s probable that the appearance of the first squash courts at the Heliopolis club took place after its takeover at the start of 1922. But when was squash first played in Cairo?

Lawrence of Arabia

In 1916, Sherif Hussein bin Ali initiated the Arab Revolt with the aim of securing independence from the ruling Ottoman Turks and creating a single unified Arab state stretching from Aleppo in Syria to Aden in Yemen.

At the time of the outbreak of the Revolt, Aircraftman T.E.Lawrence, later known as Lawrence of Arabia, was working as a cartographer with British military intelligence in Cairo. As someone who had for years travelled extensively within the Ottoman Empire he was sent to the Arabian peninsula to act as a liaison officer for Emir Faisal who commanded a force of Arab irregular troops carrying out guerrilla operations.

T. E. Lawrence

T. E. Lawrence

Lawrence documented his experiences in Arabia in a biography, ‘The Seven Pillars of Wisdom’, published in 1922. Many years later, a screenplay based on Lawrence’s book was written by Robert Bolt and filmed by director David Lean as ‘Lawrence of Arabia’. Released in 1962, the film won seven Academy Awards including Best Picture and Best Director. Lawrence was played by British actor, Peter O’Toole.

It includes the following scene, with Lawrence, now promoted to Lieutenant Colonel, returning to British military headquarters in Cairo. His fellow officers have some good news.

So did the British Army really build the first squash court in Cairo? In 1917 or 1918? And did Lawrence ever play on it?

Well, one for another article maybe…

Acknowledgements

For a fascinating view of life in Cairo for ex-servicemen and women, read the ‘The Services Guide to Cairo’.

Bollywood Squash

My first real taste of the exotic confection that is Hindi cinema came in the shape of a Saturday matinee at the celebrated Raj Mandir movie theatre in downtown Jaipur. The 1200-seat meringue-shaped auditorium, known as ‘The Pride of Asia’, originally opened in the mid-1970s. And, over the years, it’s hosted many Hindi film premieres attended, naturally enough, by their stars, fans, members of the Indian glitterati, and assorted media hacks.

Unfortunately, the premiere of Saudagar – a sprawling three and a half hour epic set in the Himalayas – had already taken place by the time I’d arrived in Jaipur, leaving me to settle for a star-less and media-free visit to the Raj. Nevertheless, I was treated to an enjoyable, if labyrinthine, story of love, romance, politics and violence punctuated only by the occasional high-energy dance ‘item number’ showcasing beautiful women in very revealing clothes.

The Raj Mandir Cinema in Jaipur
The Raj Mandir Cinema in Jaipur

But, if my visit to the Raj Mandir was memorable, my next destination was a city which had not only given its name to the Hindi film industry, but which was at the throbbing heart of Indian celebrity culture and media gossip. The place for film stars and their significant others to be seen, photographed and talked about.

And to play squash.

Celebrity Squash

At roughly the same time as the opening of the Raj Mandir, India overtook the US as the world’s largest film producer. And, as the commercial capital of the country and a source of much movie funding, the city of Bombay simultaneously found its colonial name combined with that of America’s Hollywood movie industry to create a new and distinctive Asian entertainment brand. Bollywood!

Since then, Bombay has not only become Mumbai but has strengthened its position, both as India’s commercial centre and as the heart of the Hindi movie industry. Not surprisingly, the city has also attracted more than its fair share of celebrity residents, the more athletically-inclined of whom are able (in other words, wealthy enough) to use the exclusive sporting facilities  provided by its private clubs and five star hotels. But perhaps what might be less expected in a country where cricket is the most popular sport, is the apparent popularity of squash as an activity with which many Bollywood celebrities are happy to be associated.

Hansika Motwani

Hansika Motwani

In fact, many Bollywood stars play squash, date squash players, support charity squash tournaments and generally contribute to the image of squash as a pretty cool sport to be involved with. All, of course, exhaustively reported in an astonishing number of celebrity magazines and gossip columns.

Introduced to the game by her brother, Mumbai-born film actress Hansika Motwani, plays squash regularly. “Squash is unique. It is fast, competitive, and provides an excellent workout” she says. “One hour of squash can burn up to 850 calories.  The best part is, since you are playing a sport, you don’t feel that you are working out!” Not sure that I follow the logic of that, but never mind.

Minissha Lamba

Minissha Lamba

Another actress Minissha Lamba is enthusiastic squash player as is so-called ‘bong bombshell’ Rimmi (formerly Rimi Sen). She loves the sport and, at the end of a long, tiring day, all she pines for is a good game of squash. “The game requires high concentration, power and high energy levels,” says Rimmi, “and that’s what attracts me to the most.”

But it’s not just Bollywood’s female stars who are squash lovers.

Sanjay Suri

Sanjay Suri

 

Celebrity-turned-activist Rahul Bose plays squash as does Srinagar-born actor Sanjay Suri whose his elder brother, Raj, introduced him to the game when he was a child.  Within two years, Suri was playing Sub-Junior squash for his home state of Jammu and Kashmir, and later went on to represent the state in the Indian Junior National Championships.

 

Aamir Khan

Aamir Khan

And then there’s actor Aamir Khan, a keen squash player and former smoker who’s regularly encouraged Bollywood’s star-struck fans to quit a habit still widely regarded as cool by many of India’s younger generation. “When I smoked,’” warned Khan in one interview, “I couldn’t play squash for more than 15 minutes. Two weeks after quitting…I could play for up to an hour. Nothing is more dangerous than cigarette smoking.” Just one example, perhaps, of a Bollywood role model promoting a healthy lifestyle as well as their latest movie.

Squash Romance

Where there are squash girls and squash boys, it probably shouldn’t come as any surprise that there is a high probability of squash romance. And, in Bollywood, rumours of romance, actual romance, public displays of romance and the death of romance are endlessly played out against a backdrop of intense media scrutiny and…er…gossip.

Neha Dhupia

Neha Dhupia

Perhaps the most high-profile Bollywood squash romance in recent years was that involving actress and former Miss India Universe winner, Neha Dhupia, and India’s then Number 1 squash player, Ritwik Bhattaracharya. The former college classmates had known each other for at least a decade before they ‘got together’ at a time when both their careers were in the ascendant.

Ritwik Bhattacharya

Ritwik Bhattacharya

 

Unsurprisingly perhaps, the naturally-sporty Dhupia soon hired a squash coach to teach her the basics of the game and improve her racket skills. But, despite her new-found passion for squash – and for one of its most famous exponents – Dhupia’s romance with Bhattaracharya eventually came to end after three years. But not before the celebrity couple had received an inordinate amount of media coverage in the Bollywood gossip columns, and simultaneously raised the public awareness of squash as an activity which just might lead to love.

So, after the tale of a beautiful Bollywood starlet finding squash passion, how about the  story of a beautiful squash  starlet finding Bollywood? Read on….

The First Squash Item Girl

Dipika Pallikal

Dipika Pallikal

“She’s a very sexy and pretty Indian squash player,” announced the Indian Cinema Blog in 2010. The blog post went on to say that there were ‘rumours’ from Southern India that Chennai-born Dipika Pallikal had ‘a good chemistry’ with the film industry and ‘liked to be a friend to all film and sports people.’ Furthermore, and possibly most important of all for millions of young Indian men, Pallikal was reported as saying that she didn’t have “any boyfriends at all.”

Away from the gossip, Pallikal (known as the Indian Sharapova) is only the second Indian woman ever to break into the World top 100 squash players. Still only 19, she’s won the German, Dutch, French, Australian and Scottish Open tournaments and is currently training under Egyptian squash coach Mohamed Essam Saleh. At the time of writing she’s reached Number 26 in the World rankings.

Dipika Pallikal on Court

Dipika Pallikal on Court

And she has indeed been offered starring roles in Tamil movies which, like their Bollywood equivalents, also have a massive audience. Pallikal has so far refused, instead focusing on becoming the Number 1 squash player in Asia. However, she has started to endorse various brands and is now appearing in a range of television advertisements. Her popularity is undoubtedly on the rise.

And Bollywood, at least for one World-class squash player, is beckoning.

Glossary

An item number in Indian cinema is a musical performance that has little to do with the film in which it appears but lends support to its marketability. The term is commonly used to describe a catchy, upbeat, often sexually provocative dance sequence or song.

A female actor, singer or dancer appearing in an item number (and especially one poised to become a star) is known as an item girl. Although the origin of the term is obscure, it’s likely that it derives its meaning from the objectification of sexually attractive women. This is because an ‘item’ in Mumbai slang is a ‘sexy woman.’

And finally, a bong babe is a girl from Bengal.

Acknowledgements

Thanks to Wikipedia for its informative, not to say exhaustive, entry on the ‘item number’ in Indian cinema. Also thanks to the Indian Cinema Blog for its feature on Dipaka Pallikal.

The Mathematics of Playing Squash

Today, military strategists resort to the mathematics of decision theory in developing war games. So perhaps it’s not surprising that mathematics or, to be exact, the mathematical theory of probability, can be applied to the game of squash.

Mathematical modelling can describe the main features of the game pretty well and, at a practical level, can reveal the best strategies available to the squash player. In fact, it’s also proved useful over recent years in deciding whether the scoring rules of squash should be changed; first for professional tournaments, then for national and regional competitions and, finally, at club level.

And it’s all due to a 19th Century Russian mathematician.

Squash and the Markov Chain

Andrei Markov

Andrei Markov

Believe it or not, squash offers a simple example of a mathematical structure called a Markov chain. The theory of these non-deterministic random structures was  first developed at the end of the 19th Century by Russian mathematician Andrei Markov (1856 – 1922). According to fellow mathematician, Hungarian Lajas Takacs, Markov got the idea for his chain by studying the occurrence of vowels and consonants in the poetry of his compatriot Alexander Pushkin. But, despite its unlikely beginnings, the theory is now used in a wide range of contexts, from telecommunications to genetics and even sociological modelling.

A Markov Chain identifies a system that can occupy a ‘countably finite’ number of states, and which can make a transition from one state to another after a unit interval of time. The likelihood of a transition depends only on the system’s present state and not on its previous history.

So, let’s take a single game of squash as an example of a rule-based system. Starting at ‘love all’ (and omitting rallies which end in lets), the game moves from one state to another as points are scored. With each rally, one of two outcome states will be reached corresponding to whether the server wins or loses the rally. That outcome state becomes the ‘new’ present state for the game.

Whether a player wins a particular rally will obviously depend on a range of factors such as their skill, fitness, judgement and (not that I ever need it myself) luck. Whether a player serves or receives will also be a factor, so we can reasonably state that ‘Player A’ should win a certain fraction of rallies when serving and a certain fraction when receiving. In other words, the probability that A wins a rally when serving is pA and when receiving it’s qA. If we calculate the corresponding definitions for Player B, then (because the total probability of any rally being won is always 1) it’s evident that pB = 1 – qA and qB = 1 –pA because when A serves, B receives and vice versa. With me so far? Good.

The Probability of Serving and Receiving

The simplest possible game to imagine is one in which pA = ½ and pB = ½. In other words, both players can expect to win 50 out every 100 rallies when serving and when receiving. Clearly, in such a match, A and B are equally balanced.

But now, let’s denote the probability that A wins the current rally (and a point) when serving by the character PA and when receiving by QA. Subscript B will denote the corresponding probabilities for B, in other words PB = 1 –QA and QB = 1 – PA. The probability that A wins the current point, however, depends on whether A or B is serving.

In the example, where pA = ½ and pB = ½, the probability of A winning the point when serving, PA, is 2/3 but when receiving it is only 1/3. To understand this surprising statistic, we need to realise that the probability of winning the point is equal to the sum of each winning sequence of rallies possible in the game. In other words:

pA = ½ + ½4 + ½8 + ½16 +…

This is a geometric series which, when added up, approaches (but never quite equals) 2/3. So the probability of A losing the point must therefore be 1/3.

And how many winning sequences can there be in a game? Well, that’s what the superscripts are in the above equation. Just consider the possible sequences for the first 2 points (A win – A win, A win – B win, B win – A win or B win – B win). Four possible sequences.

Or, what about the possible sequences for the first 3 points:

A wins – A wins – A wins

A wins – A wins – B wins

A wins – B wins – A wins

A wins – B wins – B wins

B wins – A wins – B wins

B wins – A wins – A wins

B wins – B wins – A wins

B wins – B wins – B wins

That’s eight possible sequences, rising to sixteen for the first 4 points. Complicated, eh? Well, not really if you understand probability which I’m sure the gamblers amongst you do.

We can use this approach to analyse squash games between any two players of arbitrary standard; that is for any values of pA and qA and the simple expressions derived for PA and QA in terms of these. For example, a player with a pA of 2/3 and a qA of 3/5 may be expected to win two out of three service rallies and three out of five returns of serve.

But what can mathematical studies of the game of squash tell us about how to play the game? For that, we need to skip the difficult stuff and look at the results of a scientific study.

Squash Studies and Player Tactics

Scientists at the University of Glasgow and the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory in Oxford created a mathematical model of squash in the late 1980s. They tested the model in true scientific spirit with two of them playing an experimental series of 29 squash matches including 105 squash games over a 3 month period. Just think of two guys wearing white lab coats running around carrying squash rackets and you’ll get the picture.

As both of them had no idea whether their theory was accurate or not, there was no chance of them ‘cooking the books’. Nevertheless, the recorded frequency of the scientists’ game and match scores – and the point scores predicted by the model – were remarkably good with pA = 0.59 and qA = 0.56.

The scientists also came up with some interesting findings.

For example, a player receiving should always choose to set two. If A were to choose no set,  A would need to win the next point and, as we’ve seen above, the probability of doing this is QA. On the other hand, if A chooses set two, the winning sequences for the next two rallies are:

A wins – A wins

A wins – B wins

B wins – A wins

B wins – B wins

Three out of the four sequences will involve A regaining the serve meaning that A’s PA is more favourable to winning a point. Player A should, in fact, choose no set only if A’s pA is less than about 0.38, a situation which would place them in the company of higher  performing squash players.

Minding Your P’s and Q’s

Obviously, players (even scientists) can have off-days or may tire at different rates during a match. However, the  model reproduced the broad features of squash: the clear advantage of the first server, the setting choice, and the frequency with which a player wins a game  without their opponent scoring. It also shows that the probability of winning a point is much greater for the player who won the last point. And, perhaps more than anything else, this is the factor that gives squash its reputation of being such a highly competitive game; players need to fiercely contest every point.

So what tips does the mathematical model offer? The first is for players to estimate their p and q coefficients by assessing their performance against similar standard players. They can then choose set two or no set in a tie-breaker with some confidence.

Next, a player may attempt to vary their p and q. For example, they may choose to expend a lot of energy returning serve in the hope of increasing q even though a possible consequence may be a decrease in p. Whatever they choose, the model found that one result is almost always true: it is to the advantage of the stronger player to concentrate on service returns and, conversely, for the weaker player to concentrate on service by adopting, for example, hit and run tactics.

Last, but not least, the model allowed for a comparison of the European (hand in) and American (point a rally) scoring systems. Supposing that the most probable game scores for three pairs of players under British rules are 9-6 9-3 9-1. A calculation using the model showed that, when converted to American scoring, these translated into 15-13 15-11 15-5. Generally speaking, American rules were far kinder to the weaker squash player, in the sense that the likelihood of an ignominious defeat was small. Matches appeared to be much more closely contested although, in fact, the probability of a win for either player would not be much altered.

So the next time you play squash, be sure to insist on American scoring and try and get your opponent to assess their p and q during the match.

With any luck, they’ll lose concentration.

Squash, Mathematics and Fun

For an explanation of probability in squash scoring – including tree diagrams (!) – see Toni Beardon’s “Playing Squash” article on the excellent NRICH website. You can also test your probability knowledge by answering, or at least trying to answer, a question on the same site. Have fun!

Acknowledgements

The article “Calculating to Win” by David Alexander, Ken McClements and John Simmons originally appeared in the New Scientist on December 10th, 1988. It was subtitled, “If losing at squash dents your ego, don’t resort to feeble excuses such as tiredness or lack of concentration. Blame the mathematics of probability underlying the game.”

Squash and the War on Terror: Part 3 – End Game

Jansher Khan

Jansher Khan

In 2001, just weeks before the 9/11 attacks on the US, one of the greatest squash players in history announced his retirement from the professional game. During his career, Jansher Khan had won 99 squash titles including eight World Open and six British Open championships.

Along with his fellow squash champion and compatriot Jahangir Khan, Jansher was a national hero of Pakistan, not least in the eyes of the President, Pervez Musharraf, himself a keen squash player. Musharraf was a four-star General in the Pakistani Army who, since 1999, had led a military government following a bloodless coup against the democratically elected government of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.

Pervez Musharraf

Pervez Musharraf

But now, on the eve of the War on Terror, Jansher was unaware that his international  success was about to be celebrated in a way, and in a place, that would create another link between the game of squash and the unfolding events of global geo-politics. That celebration was to be centred on a city located 150 kilometres north of the nation’s capital, Islamabad, and 200 kilometres east of Jansher’s birthplace, Peshawar.

The city of Abbottabad.

Squash and the Generals

General Sir James Abbott

General Sir James Abbott

Abbottabad was named after the British Army General Sir James Abbott, who settled the town and district in 1848 after the annexation of the Punjab. Abbott (seen here in a portrait  dressed as an Indian noble) founded the town in 1853 and even wrote a poem about it before he returned to Britain. Due to its strategic location and pleasant climate, Abbottabad subsequently became, and still is, an important military cantonment and sanatorium, being the headquarters of a brigade in the Second Division of Pakistan’s Northern Army Corps. The Kakul district of the city also became the home of Pakistan’s Military Academy whose sports facilities still include squash courts.

It was here in 1961 that Pervez Musharraf began his military training and acquired his love of squash. In Pakistan, squash is the glue that binds the British-influenced officer class together. During his dramatic coup of October 12th 1999, Musharraf knew that he could count on his army colleagues to neutralise the incumbent prime minister and president. As he later wrote in his 2006 memoir ‘In the Line of Fire’, this was because “apart from being their chief, I played squash with the two commanding officers, Shahid Ali and Javed Sultan” of the elite Triple One Brigade. In fact, Ali and Sultan were playing squash when the coup happened, and interrupted their match to lead the Triple One into Islamabad to secure the civilian rulers’ homes so that Musharraf could seize power.

But less that two years after the coup, Musharraf was to find himself, and Pakistan, at the centre of the world’s attention for a very different reason. President George W. Bush had announced the US’s War on Terror and was looking for allies.

Squash and Abbottabad

Weeks after the 9/11 attacks, Musharraf allied Pakistan with the US against the Taliban government in Afghanistan in far from congenial circumstances. Five years later, on September 24th 2006, Musharraf was to reveal exactly what had happened during a US television interview. Richard Armitage, then US Deputy Secretary of State, had called Musharraf and threatened military action if Pakistan didn’t support the war on terror. According to Musharraf, Armitage warned him to “be prepared to be bombed. Be prepared to go back to the Stone Age.” Furthermore, during an interview with Jon Stewart of The Daily Show two days later, Musharraf said that US Secretary of State Colin Powell had also contacted him early in 2002 with a similar message: “You are with us or against us.”

Pervez Musharraf and Hosni Mubarak

Pervez Musharraf and Hosni Mubarak

But whatever the challenges he was facing both as President and as Head of the Army, Musharraf was still able to find time for his pet project: re-kindling the glory that was Pakistani squash. In 2003, he had become so concerned about the state of the game in Pakistan that he offered a 10 million rupee ($140,000) award for any Pakistani who achieved the World No. 1 ranking in squash. He also offered 5 million rupees to any Pakistani who won gold in the Asian Games or at the British Open. Musharraf pledged the money during the Chief of the Army Staff International Squash Tournament in Islamabad, won by two Egyptians – from the British-influenced squash-playing officer class typified by fellow  President, Army General and squash player Hosni Mubarak.

Jansher Khan Squash Complex

Jansher Khan Squash Complex

By 2004, another investment in the government-sponsored revival of Pakistani squash finally took form when the Jansher Khan Squash Complex was opened in Abbottabad. The Complex was located within jogging distance of Pakistan’s Military Academy and, by 2005, was being used to stage national and international squash trials and tournaments. But the Complex was also located within similar jogging distance of a non-descript high-security compound in the well-tended Abbottabad suburb of Bilal Town. A compound which, from early 2006 and known only to a few, was to be occupied by the most wanted man in the US War on Terror.

Osama bin Laden, the leader of Al Qaeda, had taken up residency in Abbottabad.

The Death of Osama Bin Laden

Osama Bin Laden

Osama Bin Laden

On August 18th, 2008 Pervez Musharraf resigned as President of Pakistan and went into self-imposed exile in London. Following his departure, Pakistan continued to play a vital role in the War on Terror and by early 2011 had captured or killed more than 700 members of Al Qaeda whilst losing over three thousand of its own soldiers. But despite all these efforts, Pakistan was regularly blamed by its partners for not doing enough, not least for its lack of success in finding Osama bin Laden.

The Al Qaeda leader was widely believed to be hiding in the tribal homelands of West Pakistan following his escape from Bora Bora in Afghanistan. But, in the early hours of May 2nd 2011, 24 US Navy SEAL commandoes arrived by helicopter in Abbottabad, breached the  wall of bin Laden’s compound using explosives, and entered the main building. Encounters between the SEALs and the residents took place in the building during which bin Laden was killed.

When informed of the raid, Pervez Musharraf described how, when he was in military training, he used to go running right by the spot where the world’s most wanted terrorist was found. “It surprises me it was next to the Pakistan Military Academy,” he told Britain’s Daily Telegraph. “The location is next to the place where I used to run nine miles, en route, maybe passing in front of the house. That is surprising.” he added.

In an unlikely way, Pakistani squash and the War on Terror were both back in the headlines.

Acknowledgements

Thanks to Alex Beam for his 2008 Vanity Fair article on Pervez Musharraf, ‘Big Man on the Court.’

Squash and the War on Terror: Part 2 – Ghost Planes

In February 2006, six months before his resignation as US Defense Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld attended a military conference in Munich. As a keen squash player, and a very wealthy man, he paid for exclusive use of the city’s Parkclub Nymphenburg racquet club  where he could indulge his passion for the game during his stay.

Turning up for what he assumed would be a routine day’s work, the club’s head squash coach found that the club had been closed to the public. “There were security guys all over the street” Mohamed Awad later told the local press. “I thought they were making a James Bond film or something.”

But, having been let into the club, Egyptian-born Awad was then asked to spend a session hitting with the Defense Secretary, which he gladly did. And, had he been aware at the time, it wasn’t the first occasion on which he’d played squash with a politician so closely associated with the war on terror.

Awad’s previous squash partners had included the Egyptian president, Hosni Mubarak.

The Squash Coach and the President

That Awad would know a decent squash player when he saw one is perhaps an understatement.  Once ranked as high as number 9 in the world, he was the older brother of Gamal Awad, Egypt’s national squash champion in 1976. Now, having spent half an hour hitting with the 74-year-old Donald Rumsfeld, he had some good words for the Defense Secretary’s on-court performance.

Mohamed Awad

Mohamed Awad

“He has got great reflexes for a man of his age” Awad told a BBC correspondent. “He is still playing a hard game,” he continued. “I think if he comes up against someone of his own age, he will crush them easily.” But, when asked whether he thought that Rumsfeld could outplay 78-year-old Egyptian president and keen squash player Hosni Mubarak, Awad was somewhat less diplomatic. “I told him (Mr. Rumsfeld) that ‘I have played with Mubarak, and he is much better than you are.’”

In fact, Mubarak had built himself a reputation as a fit man who led a healthy life. In his younger days, close associates often complained of the president’s daily schedule, which began with a workout in the gym or a game of squash. Not  surprisingly, people around Mubarak regularly confirmed that his  health and vigour belied his age.

But whatever the Egyptian president’s squash prowess, by 2006 his country’s role in the war on terror was coming under increasing scrutiny by human rights groups. And amongst their  their main focuses of attention were the ghost planes.

Ghost Planes

Hosni Mubarak in 1987

Hosni Mubarak in 1987

In December 2005, Condoleezza Rice, the US Secretary of State, assured the world that the flights of CIA private jets which had criss-crossed Europe since the 9/11 attacks had no role in the transportation of prisoners to be tortured. “The United States has not transported anyone, and will not transport anyone, to a country when we believe he will be tortured,” she said. Prime Minister Tony Blair assured the British Parliament: “I have absolutely no evidence to suggest that anything illegal has been happening here at all.”

But as journalist Stephen Grey revealed in his 2006 book “Ghost Plane”, Rice’s claims were a falsehood, and Britain’s government had also turned a blind eye to a CIA programme that had systematically out-sourced the torture of its prisoners in the war on terror. That programme was known as extraordinary rendition and one of the countries with which the US had a secret agreement to send its prisoners for interrogation was Egypt.

Omar Suleiman

Omar Suleiman

In fact, the “CIA’s ‘point man’ in Egypt for rendition” was Hosni Mubarak’s Intelligence chief, Omar Suleiman wrote Jane Mayer (author of ‘The Dark Side’) on the New Yorker’s website. As part of its agreement with the CIA, Suleiman’s Egyptian Intelligence was reportedly required to provide “assurances” that prisoners handed over through this program would not be subjected to torture.

But the definition of what constituted torture was itself crafted by lawyers from the US Department of Justice and Department of Defense. And one of them, John Yoo, is said to have given his legal blessing for the use of specific torture techniques to his colleague Jim Haynes as they were playing squash.

Squash and the Arab Spring

In March 2010, Hosni Mubarak travelled to Germany for gall bladder surgery. In Egypt, rumours about his deteriorating health spread every time he missed a key gathering or disappeared from the media spotlight for any conspicuous length of time.

By the summer, jokes about the 82-year old president were circulating widely, including this one reported by British journalist Robert Fisk:

“The president, a keen squash player – how else could he keep his jet-black hair? – calls up the Sheikh of Al-Azhar, the highest Sunni Muslim cleric in the land, to ask if there are squash courts in heaven. The Sheikh asks for a couple of days to consult the Almighty. Two days later, he calls Mr. Mubarak back. “There’s good news and bad news,” he says. Give me the good news, snaps Mr. Mubarak. “Well,” says the Sheikh, “there are lots of squash courts in heaven.” And the bad news, asks the president? “You have a match there in two weeks’ time.”

In January 2011, an unprecedented wave of protests against Mubarak swept Egypt. With his rule in jeopardy, Mubarak appointed the country’s first ever vice president in a bid to defuse the crisis. The vice president immediately offered wide ranging talks with opposition leaders, an initiative that would shortly leading to Mubarak resigning the presidency.

Egypt’s vice president and long-time ally of the US in the war on terror was Omar Suleiman.

Coming next….

In Part 3 of “Squash and the War on Terror”, we discover another squash playing President, explore the legacy of a 19th century British general, and encounter the world’s most wanted terrorist.

Acknowledgements

You can find more about the CIA’s extraordinary rendition programme in:

For a fascinating prequel to the Arab Spring uprising in Egypt, read Robert Fisk‘s article, ‘Egypt Prepares for Life After Mubarak.’

Squash and the War on Terror: Part 1 – Rummy’s Rules

Nine days after the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the US, President George W. Bush launched an international military campaign. During a televised address to a joint session of the US Congress he said, “Our war on terror begins with al Qaeda, but it does not end there. It will not end until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped and defeated”.

Almost 10 years after Bush’s speech, the war – since re-branded by the administration of President Obama as the rather less gung-ho Overseas Contingency Operation– is regarded by many as justifying unilateral preventive war, human rights abuses and other violations of international law.

But whatever its purpose or even its name, the war on terror has given rise to many stories, many of them tragic, and some of them sinister.

And, perhaps surprisingly, some of them interwoven with the game of squash.

Squash at the Pentagon

 

The Pentagon, located in Arlington County, Virginia is the headquarters of the US Department of Defense. On September 11th, 2001 – 60 years to the day after the building’s ground-breaking ceremony was held – hijacked American Airlines Flight 77 was deliberately crashed into the western side of the Pentagon, killing 189 people, including 5 hijackers, 59 others aboard the plane, and 125 working in the building.

When it was originally built in the 1940s, The Pentagon’s sports complex included eight hardball squash  courts. When new facilities were built in 2002, one hardball court was kept  for use by those Pentagon employees who still played the version of squash that was most popular in the US until the mid-1990s. Since that time, the hardball game has largely died out with, most US squash enthusiasts now playing the international softball game.

Hardball and Softball Squash Courts

Hardball and Softball Squash Courts

But, in 2002, one of The Pentagon’s remaining hardball squash players was someone who was to play a major role in the war on terror. The US Secretary of State, Donald Rumsfeld.

 

Squash and the Invasion of Iraq

 

Rumsfeld took up squash in the 1980s when he was a business executive working in the pharmaceutical industry. As a former wrestler at Princeton University and a tennis enthusiast, Rumsfeld was obviously no stranger to sporting competition. But taking up such a physically and mentally demanding game as squash in his 50s could be seen as providing a unique insight into his complex psyche.

Donald Rumsfeld on the White House Tennis Court 1975

Donald Rumsfeld on the White House Tennis Court 1975

In fact, during his time at The Pentagon, officials and employees were said to have described  Rumsfeld’s approach to playing squash as closely resembling the way he attempting to run  the Defense Department – where he was trying to gain acceptance for breaking the accepted norms of military operation.

Rumsfeld himself later suggested that his ideas about transforming the military into a smaller, more agile force, like the one he pushed for in invading Iraq, were influenced by his squash playing. In a 2005 interview with the military writer Thomas P. M. Barnett, he said, gesturing towards his squash partner Lawrence Di Rita, “I play squash with him. When I passed him with a shot, and it’s a well-played hard shot, I saw speed kills. And it does. If you can do something very fast you can get your job done and save a lot of lives.”

 

Rumsfeld’s enthusiasm for speed was reflected in his irritation with the US’s contingency plan in the event of a war with Iraq. For him, the plan required too many troops and supplies and would take far too long to execute. It was, he declared, the “product of old thinking and the embodiment of everything that was wrong with the military.”

Rumsfeld subsequently won his argument with the US military, the 2003 invasion going ahead with a force of 200,000 rather than the 500,000 proposed in the original contingency plan.

Donald Rumsfeld and Fair Play

Two years after the invasion, Donald Rumsfeld acknowledged that his almost daily squash matches had helped preserve his “sanity’’ at a time when he and the Bush administration were coming under increasing political attack for their handling of the deteriorating situation in the country.

A year later, Rumsfeld’s own deteriorating relationship with the US military was to play a part in the emergence of allegations of him cheating at squash. “He hits the ball well, but he doesn’t play by the rules,” said Chris Zimmerman, a devoted squash player working in The Pentagon’s office of program analysis and evaluation and is sometimes in the Pentagon athletic complex when Mr. Rumsfeld is on the court.

Mr. Zimmerman has never actually played his boss. But he says he has noticed that Mr. Rumsfeld, 74, often wins points because, after hitting a shot, he does not get out of the way so his opponent has a chance to return the ball, a practice known in squash as “clearing.”

 

“When you try a shot and miss, he’ll say, ‘You don’t have that shot,’ ” said Lawrence Di Rita, a close aide who used to played against Rumsfeld regularly. Di Rita, a former US Naval Academy squash player more than 25 years younger than Rumsfeld, said that he’d won his share of games and had never gone easy on his boss. By tradition, the loser would post the score on Rumsfeld’s office door, so his staff would know when he’d beaten Di Rita or his other main partner, his military assistant, Vice Admiral James G. Stavridis, who was also on the Naval Academy squash team.

 

Di Rita conceded that Rumsfeld rarely offered or asked for lets – requests to replay points  when one player feels that they have been obstructed by the other.

Whatever the truth in the cheating allegations, Rumsfeld’s tenure as Secretary of State came to an end when he resigned his position in late 2006. In an unprecedented move in modern US history, eight retired generals and admirals had called for his resignation in what was called the Generals Revolt, accusing him of “abysmal” military planning and a lack of strategic competence.

Rumsfeld’s squash matches at The Pentagon were at an end.

In an article for The New York Times, Michael Aggar wrote:

“While Rumsfeld’s military strategy was sold as revolutionary, his squash game was an anachronism. To put it crudely, hardball squash is mostly played by a bunch of old white guys who don’t want to adapt to the new style. Rumsfeld is one of them. In a further parallel, the last time Americans dominated squash championships was in the hardball era. Once the sport changed to softball, the Europeans and—gasp!—the Pakistanis took over. So you might say that Rumsfeld plays the most patriotic version of squash, that he indulges in a nostalgic relic of American might.”

 

Coming next….

 

In Part 2 of “Squash and the War on Terror”, the story moves to Munich where a chance encounter with a squash coach leads to a squash playing President, the sinister ghost planes, and a surprising connection to the Arab Spring.

 

Acknowledgements

For a detailed description of Donald Rumsfeld’s squash game, read David S. Cloud’s New York Times article “Rumsfeld Also Plays Hardball on Squash Courts.”

 

In his article in The Slate, “Does Donald Rumsfeld Cheat at Squash?”, Michael Agger entertainingly explores the squash / war metaphor.

Many thanks to them both.

Canary Wharf to Redbridge

A couple of weeks ago I attended the quarter-finals of the 2011 Canary Wharf Squash Classic in London’s Docklands. Not a particularly adventurous outing, I suppose, when you consider that I live within easy commuting distance of Canary Wharf where I used to work for a well-known investment bank. Which, of course, had its own squash courts. You get the picture.

But, as usual, turning up at locations where members of the squash community gather to share their passion can sometimes lead to chance encounters as well as new perspectives on the game and the people who play it.

And this occasion was no different.

Canary Wharf

For those of you who are unfamiliar with Canary Wharf, think glass, marble, corporate statement, Lego™, shopping and money. Lots of money. In fact, come to think of it, lots of glass, marble etc. too.

The Classic event has been held here for the last eight years and has become well established as London’s premier annual squash tournament. In doing so, it’s succeeded the SuperSeries event which used to take place in a shopping centre near London’s Liverpool Street railway station. Going even further back, the Superseries itself used to be held outside London in another shopping centre, The Galleria, located on, or in fact over, the A1(M) motorway at Hatfield, north of the capital.

East Wintergardens & Canary Wharf TowerBut now, the Classic is held in a glass and marble hall in the East Wintergardens district of Canary Wharf. And, with Europe’s tallest building, the Canary Wharf Tower, visible through the venue’s glass roof and soaring majestically upwards, it’s an impressive setting.

Just when you thought it was safe….

With some of the world’s top players on court, and over 3 hours of competitive squash, the quarter-finals certainly offered  good value. And, for a full house of squash enthusiasts, it also provided an opportunity to experience the latest  technology-driven feature of world-class squash – the video review.

This was the first time I’d come into contact with the review which gives players the right to request a video replay to support their personal appeal against a refereeing decision. Each player is allowed one appeal per game with an additional appeal being made available to each player should the score reach 10-10. Having seen a replay of the incident – also visible to the audience on monitors around the court – the referee may choose to change their decision.

During the session, video reviews were requested during all four matches – with varying reactions, and verbal advice, from the audience. But the feature of the review which provided the most entertainment was undoubtedly the accompanying music beamed into the hall while the review was going on.

Here’s the first musical theme. Ring a bell?

Subsequent themes included two pieces of music familiar to most UK listeners: the James Bond theme and the clock-ticking music used during the daytime television wordplay show Countdown. Entering into the spirit of the evening, the tournament’s No. 2 seed James Willstrop, in his post-match interview, suggested the theme to The Pink Panther as being one for future consideration by the organisers.

I think he was joking.

Redbridge

Between matches at Canary Wharf, I ran into one of my fellow squash coaches whom I’d last seen on the day we’d both qualified, four months previously. That memorable event had taken place at Redbridge in Essex. And, coincidentally, it was just three days after our chat that I re-visited Redbridge where the UK Inter-County Squash Finals were being held.

There was no video review technology or accompanying music on show here, just semi-final action in three competitions: the Men’s Over-35, Women’s Over-50 and Women’s League  team knockout tournaments. In other words, squash competition and squash passion. And plenty of it.

Played over two days, the Finals involved 60 players, 60 individual matches and an enormous amount of organisation by the unsung heroes of the squash community. For my part, I just dropped in, watched some of the action, talked to some of the players and organisers, and generally just soaked in the atmosphere. It was like breathing squash.

Alistair Coker of Herts plays Guy Olby of MiddlesexAnd, for the record, Norfolk won the Men’s Over-35 title for the first time in 42 years, South East Wales retaining their Women’s Over 50 title, and Berkshire taking the Women’s League title for the first time. You can find a full report of the Finals on the England Squash and Racketball website.

Postscript

Well I don’t know about you, but I regard pretty much any event organised by or on behalf of squash enthusiasts as being an opportunity to connect to others who share my passion for squash. And it’s not playing or even watching others play that really counts.

It’s just about turning up.

Singapore Squash

Whatever the difficulties involved in developing squash in Singapore nowadays, there can be little doubt of the country’s success in promoting the game throughout the whole of South-East Asia. Indeed, Singapore still has a reputation in the region for punching above its weight, not least in the global financial services industry where it provides employment for over a quarter of a million people.

But, as in so many countries, the story of squash in Singapore really begins in its colonial past when squash courts began to appear in many of the camps occupied by British military personnel. And with the appearance of the courts came a passion for the game which still survives today.

Squash and the Military

After the Second World War, squash courts sprouted up in various British military camps such as the Army’s Gillman Barracks and the Royal Air Force’s base in Changi. The location of the oldest squash court in Singapore isn’t clear, largely because so many have either been demolished or incorporated into other facilities.

Squash at Gillman Barracks

Squash at Gillman Barracks

It’s rumoured that there was a squash court in the iconic Cathay Building on Handy Road – opened in 1939 to house the British Malaya Broadcasting Corporation – although nobody knows for sure.  The Building itself was mainly known for it’s air-conditioned theatre, then a technological marvel and the first to be built in Singapore

The Cathay Building

The Cathay Building

The British passion for squash gradually expanded to the Singapore Armed Forces and the Singapore Police Force during the transition to self-government in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Not surprisingly, many of the first local exponents of the game emerged from these uniformed groups.

In the late 1960s, squash (together with canoeing and, later, rugby) was promoted by the country’s Ministry of the Interior and Defence as part of a platform for building a rugged society. Singapore’s Defence Minister at the time, Dr Goh Keng Swee, believed strongly in squash as a physically demanding game ideally suited to improving the mental discipline and development of military personnel. Pioneer trainee air force pilots took up the game in droves.

Dr Goh Keng Swee

Dr Goh Keng Swee

The first Director General of Staff, Mr Tan Teck Khim also played a pivotal role in promoting squash in the Singapore Armed Forces after independence in 1965. He later became the Commissioner of Police and was instrumental in the development of squash in the Singapore Police Force.

Private Clubs and Public Courts

Tanglin Club and Singapore Cricket Club were the earliest private clubs to introduce squash, largely because of the influence of the British members at these clubs.

The earliest public courts were built by the National Sports Promotion Board, the forerunner of the Singapore Sports Council. These archaic courts had low ceilings with poor ventilation and dim lighting. Unsurprisingly, playing squash in extremely humid conditions with small-headed wooden rackets provided a major challenge to enthusiasts. However, the interest in  playing squash was so great amongst the members of the public that players were obliged to queue in person at the court booking offices one week in advance just to make sure that they could play during their preferred time slot. Phone bookings were unthinkable.

The rush to book squash courts eased tremendously with the proliferation of new squash courts all over the island from the 1970s to the 1990s. Almost every new apartment block or condominium incorporated a squash court in their facilities and playing the game at any time of the day or night did not pose a problem anymore. The Singapore Armed Forces Sports Association, The Singapore Armed Forces Reservists Association, The Police Sports Association and many social clubs contributed to the rapid increase of squash courts in the country as the sport was regarded as being the “in” thing.

National and International Competition

The Singapore Squash Rackets Association was founded in 1970, the majority of its early office holders  being drawn from the Army, the Police, returning overseas students  and the expatriate community. In the same year, the first Singapore Open was held with a women’s title being  introduced two years later. As the competition became more established, its winners began to include the top world ranked squash players of the day such as Pakistan’s Qamar Zaman and Gogi Alaudin

In 1973, the first national squash championships were held and, in the late 1970s, Singapore also played host to the PIA World Series featuring the top 20 squash players of the world including 8-time British Open champion Geoff Hunt of Australia.

By the end of the decade, the level of participation squash had risen to such a level that it was perhaps inevitable that a word class local hero would emerge from the island’s squash playing community.

Local Heroes

Zainal Abidin ruled the squash courts of Singapore for 10 years and was Singapore’s undisputed squash champion from 1977 to 1986. He  not only put Singapore squash on the Asian map, his extraordinary skills also extended the republic’s reputation on the world squash map as well.

Abidin started playing squash in 1977 when, as a 19 year-old, he was serving his national service with the Police Force. It was a considerably late age to begin but his natural talent, instinct and abilities for the game soon ensured his meteoric rise.  His triumphs and achievements also helped develop a large following and participation in the game throughout Singapore. Squash was being played at all levels, from pre-teens to young adults to senior citizens. Such was the appeal of squash in the 1980s, a development made possible due to the exploits of the games local heroes, Abidin, Peter Hill and Jeremy Yeo.

Zainal Abidin

Zainal Abidin

In the women’s game, it was to take a little longer before the emergence of a local hero.  Lim Seok Hui started playing squash just before her 11th birthday with the encouragement of her avid squash enthusiast parents. She was only 13 years old when she represented Singapore at the East Asian Women’s Squash Championship in Hong Kong – making her amongst the youngest competitors in the history of squash in Singapore and East Asia.

Lim Seok Hui

Lim Seok Hui

In 1983, the 16 year-old became the youngest champion in the history of Singapore squash when she won the Singapore Open title. The following year, she became the youngest ever female player to win the East Asian Women’s Squash Championship overcoming Hong Kong’s  Julie Hawkes.

Abidin and Hui are still Singapore’s most famous squash players. But over a quarter of a century after their heyday, what is the state of Singapore squash today?

Squash in Challenging Times

In March 2010, the Straits Times reported that bookings for squash courts had risen steadily over the previous few years according to figures released by the Singapore Sports Council. But statistics can be misleading. Although a huge number of squash courts were built in the 1980s and 1990s, many were either under-used or were converted to alternative uses, such as gymnasiums, children’s play areas, table tennis halls and even karaoke lounges! So, it’s likely  that participation in the game in Singapore has declined over the last couple of decades.

Despite this, live television coverage of international squash tournaments such as the Singapore Women’s Masters has recently re-commenced. And although there’s more to reviving the game than just getting greater publicity, Singapore’s continuing financial success, and its financial services community, may still prove to be a useful source of investment in the sport – as well as attracting a new crop of competitive individuals to the island’s squash courts.

Time to re-visit the Wall Street model, perhaps?

Acknowledgements

For a detailed description of the development of squash in Singapore, read Munir Shah’s excellent article “Squash in Singapore – The Early Years”.

You can also read Lam Chun See’s personal reminiscences of his squash playing life on his “Good Morning Yesterday” blog.