The Psychology of Buying a Squash Racket: Part 1

When I told a friend of mine that I was writing a squash blog one of his first suggestions was that I should write a post on how to buy a squash racket. Not surprisingly, this followed a series of questions including, “What is a blog?”, “Who’s going to read it?” and, my personal favourite, “What for?”

At the time, I was pretty clear in my response to the first question, less clear about the second one, but perfectly clear about the third. I had to write about something that would motivate me to explore it  from different angles and maybe discover new things about it that I didn’t already know. And, having been involved with it for most of my adult life, I felt that squash would do quite nicely. Which it has.

Nevertheless, the squash racket suggestion stuck in my mind, and stayed there until I’d qualified, both as a squash coach and as a personal development coach. By that time, I’d already come across dozens of articles and videos on ‘How to buy a squash racket’, all of which focussed on the technical aspects of the rackets themselves; racket head size, weight, grip, stringing and so on. All of them useful in their own way, but all of them fairly dispassionate. Which got me thinking.

Coaches of every denomination will tell you that people are passionate about things and that  different people are passionate about different things. They’ll also tell you that different  people are motivated to do different things in different ways and in different situations, whether it’s at work, in business, in their personal lives or, more specifically, on a squash court. And, at different stages of their lives, different people, including squash players, are motivated to achieve different things.

In fact, through psychology studies, we now know more than ever about what kind of things influence people not just to do things, but to make choices about what to do. Choices about finding a partner, choices about pursuing a career, choices about playing a sport and choices about what to buy.

Including a squash racket.

What Kind of Things Influence Us to Buy?

So what influences us to buy?

As you might guess, the factors affecting how customers make decisions are both numerous and complex in the way that they relate to each other. Buyer behaviour is deeply rooted in psychology with dashes of sociology thrown in for good measure. What’s more, since every person in the world is different, it‘s impossible to define simple rules that explain how buying decisions are made.

But researchers who’ve spent many years studying buyer behaviour have come up with some useful guidelines to describe how someone decides whether or not to make a purchase. The guidelines describe two distinct categories of influence, internal and external, how they influence buying decisions – and how they influence  marketing strategies.

And those are what we’ll look at in this article.

Inside Job

If we want to understand the first of these categories, we need to look inside ourselves to see which are the most important factors affecting how we make choices. In fact, there are seven to choose from which, together with the external factors we’ll learn about later, should give you a feel for what’s going on when you consider what to buy, or whether to buy something at all. Obviously, the number of possible combinations of factors affecting buying behaviour is astronomical. But, if we stick to a single type of purchase item (a squash racket), then at least we’ve got a fighting chance of understanding what might be driving our own buying behaviour as individuals.

So here goes.

Perception is Reality

The first internal influence is perception, the way we filter information – such as the information obtained from a conversation with a fellow squash player, from watching a squash match or from reading an advertisement for a squash racket – and then make sense of it. How we perceive, as individuals, is determined by our personal approach to learning which, in turn, affects how we act.

And we all learn in different ways. For example, some people are able to focus their attention on a specific advertisement and remember some or all of the information it contains after being exposed to it just once. Other people need to be exposed to the same advertisement many times before even recognising what it is advertising, let alone what brand of item it is advertising. Also, people are much more likely to retain information if they have a strong current interest in the stimuli associated with the information – such as the pleasure of owning and using a shiny, new squash racket.

Marketers, of course, spend huge sums of money in their attempts to get buyers to form a positive impression of their products. But, clearly, the existence of people’s widely differing  perceptual filters means that achieving this isn’t easy.

Know Your Squash Racket

Knowledge is sometimes defined as being (amongst other things) the sum of all of the  information of which an individual is aware. In other words, the facts of their world as they  know them. On the other hand, the depth of someone’s knowledge can be thought of as a function of the breadth of their worldly experience and the strength of their long-term memory. So, what exists as knowledge to an individual depends on how that person’s  perceptual filters make sense of the information they’ve been exposed to.

When it comes to selling a squash racket, marketers typically carry out research to find out what people know about their products. As we’ll see later, it’s likely that other factors influencing buyer behaviour are largely shaped by what’s known about a product or a brand. So perhaps it’s not surprising that marketers are always trying new ways of encouraging potential buyers to accept more information.

Whether it’s factual or not.

Buying with Attitude

Attitude refers to what a person feels or believes about something and may be reflected in how they act, based on their beliefs. Once they’ve been formed, attitudes can be notoriously difficult to change and, if buyers have a negative attitude toward a particular squash racket or brand, marketers have to make huge efforts to change what those buyers believe to be true.

So, marketers competing to attract  customers typically try find out why people buying rival brands feel positive towards those brands. On the basis of their research findings, they then try to meet or beat their competitors on the most important issues; for example, the range of squash rackets on offer, pricing, appearance and so on. Alternatively, marketers may try to find rival customers who feel negatively towards their competitors and then try to increase their brand awareness.

The Personality Puzzle

David Funder

David Funder

In his 2007 book The Personality Puzzle, psychologist David Funder described personality  as “an individual’s characteristic patterns of thought, emotion, and behaviour, together with the psychological mechanisms (hidden or not) behind those patterns.” So, an individual’s personality should show itself through the characteristics they typically exhibit, particularly when they’re in the presence of others. Furthermore, in most cases, the behaviours people  display in one situation are similar to thosethey display in other situations.

Last, but not least, we all have our own vision of our own personalities, called a self-concept. Which, of course, may or may not be the same as others view us.

So how does all this influence our squash racket purchasing behaviour?

Well, marketers know that buyers make purchase decisions to support their own self concepts, even if those self-concepts have little or nothing to do with the demographic category they fall into. For example, senior citizens may make purchases which help make them feel younger. So, appealing to the buyer’s self-concept rather than their age, occupation or income, can help marketers to increase the size of their target audiences.

Living Your Life

What’s your lifestyle? How do you live your life through the interests you have, the things you do, and the things you spend your money on? Put simply, our lifestyles reflect what we value in our lives.

People buy products and services to support their lifestyles. And marketers have always  tried to find how potential buyers in their target markets live their lives as this helps them to work out what kind of products to develop. It also helps them to work out what  promotional strategies are most likely to be successful in selling those products, and even how best to distribute products based on where most of their buyers live.

So how does squash support your lifestyle? Is it in a social context, a cultural context, a health and wellbeing context, a commercial context (think squash coach) and so on. It may support your lifestyle in a number of ways, some of which you may not even have thought about. Whatever your own personal involvement with squash, your values, and how you honour them, directly influence your lifestyle.

And which squash racket you’re likely to buy.

The Motivation Factor

Motivation relates to our desire to achieve things. Some of the influences we’ve already  discussed, can affect a buyer’s desire to achieve a certain goal – but there are others. For example, when it comes to deciding what to purchase, a buyer’s motivation may be affected their financial position (“Can I afford to buy this?”), time constraints (“Do I need to buy this now?”), overall value (“Am I getting my money’s worth?”), and perceived risk (“What happens if I make a bad decision?”)

From a marketing perspective, motivation is linked to the concept of involvement. And involvement is all about the amount of effort a buyer is prepared to exert in making a decision. Highly motivated buyers typically want to get mentally and physically involved in the buying process.

Obviously, not all products (milk, for example) attract highly motivated buyers. But marketers promoting products that invite a high level of buyer involvement (such as a squash racket) will typically use strategies that are attractive to this kind of buyer. So, they will tend to make it easy for buyers to learn about their product; for example, by providing information on a website or providing access to video footage of the product being used or just described. For some products, they may allow customers to use the product in a free trial before expecting them to commit to buying it.

Handling a squash racket or even taking it on court to try it out are examples of this kind of marketing involvement strategy.

Who Do You Think You Are….or Would Like to Believe You Are….

In the natural course of living our lives, we all perform multiple roles. Roles in the context of our personal lives, our professional lives, and our working lives.

Roles represent the positions we feel we hold or that others feel we should hold when interacting with other people in a group context. These positions carry certain responsibilities, some of which  may, in fact, be perceived and neither agreed or even accepted by others.

Buyers tend to make product choices that vary depending on which contextual role they are assuming. In other words, their buying decisions support their role identities. So, the captain of a squash team selecting a racket for use in competitive matches may choose a more expensive or ‘higher perceived status’ racket than they would choose for use by a member of their family.

So, marketers often show how their products will benefit buyers as they perform certain roles. Typically the underlying message of this promotional approach is to imply that using the product will help raise the buyer’s status in the eyes of others whereas using a competitor’s product may have a negative effect on status.

So, now we know about the internal influences on our buying behaviour, what else is likely to affect the way we decide which squash racket to purchase?

Next Time

In Part 2 of ‘The Psychology of Buying a Squash Racket’, we’ll look at the external influences affecting our buying behaviour. We’ll also find out about how consumers buy – and how they feel afterwards.

Acknowledgements

For a fascinating description of ‘Consumer Buying Behaviour’, go to the excellent  KnowThis.com marketing website. You’ll never look at the process of buying a squash racket in the same way again!

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 Art of Betrayal

In 2008, three years after being awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, British playwright Harold Pinter died following a six-year battle with cancer of the oesophagus. In its tribute to  his work, The Swedish Academy said:

“Pinter restored theatre to its basic elements: an enclosed space and unpredictable dialogue, where people are at the mercy of each other and pretence crumbles. With a minimum of plot, drama emerges from the power struggle….”

“In his plays,” it went on, “(he) uncovers the precipice under everyday prattle and forces entry into oppression’s closed rooms.”

Harold Pinter

Harold Pinter

And nowhere did Pinter’s art resonate more effectively with the Academy’s description of his work than in his 1978 play, Betrayal, the story of a classic love triangle, in which Emma betrays her husband, Robert, a publisher, by conducting a seven-year affair with his best friend, Jerry, a literary agent. A play in which the game of squash serves as an icon for a whole set of male social games that evolve around its leading characters.

A game played in an enclosed space, a closed room, where drama emerges from the power struggle.

The Rules of the Game

The relationship between Emma and Jerry in Betrayal is basically a game with an elaborate system of rules set up by both sides. These are especially necessary as there is in fact a double system of relationships between them, as clandestine lovers and as, respectively, wife and best friend of Robert. There are external rules, about how to keep the affair secret, and internal rules, about what is permitted within. Even after the affair is over, Jerry corrects Emma when she asks about his son: “You remember the form. I ask about your husband, you ask about my wife.”

In fact, all the relations in the play assume the amusing shape of sophisticated social games and rituals, making the game logically precede the particular instance of its playing and disqualifying any originality in the behaviour of the characters.

The bitter twist is that the action moves backwards in time, beginning with the end of the affair and working remorselessly back to the first snatched kiss.

Pinter never reveals his point of view, but lets the audience draw its own conclusions, offering scenes of the affair alternating with scenes of the two male friends meeting, Robert baiting Jerry(who doesn’t think that his best friend suspects), always suggesting a game of squash, symbolic of male companionship, and Jerry always backing away from the direct competition.

In one scene Robert proposes a game at a social event with Emma present.  She urges them to play together again and suggests she meet them after for lunch. Robert quickly says no:

“I mean a game of squash isn’t simply a game of squash, it’s rather more than that. You see, first there’s the game. And then there’s the shower. And then there’s the pint. And then there’s lunch […]. You don’t actually want a woman within a mile of the place, any of the places, really.”

Robert’s outburst reveals the nature of the series of male rituals he is describing. They are clearly meant to exclude women from what is perceived as exclusive male terrain. At the same time, the attack discloses a defensive attitude, an attempt to distance women so as to get rid of their sexually threatening presence. It’s implied that Robert and Jerry have not played squash for a long time because Jerry has engaged instead in the betrayal game, and Robert’s rather fierce speech is meant to win him back as a partner in the male game.

The same disjunction between affair-with-wife and squash-with-husband appears in Robert’s disclosure about another character, Casey: “I believe he’s having an affair with my wife. We haven’t played squash for years, Casey and me. We used to have a damn good game.”

The Seeds of Betrayal

There’s no evidence that Pinter had any particular interest in squash before writing Betrayal. In fact, he was an enthusiastic cricket player and approved of the “urban and exacting idea of cricket as a bold theatre of aggression.” But squash would certainly have been played by some of his friends and acquaintances.

One such was the British actor Robert Shaw, a close friend of Pinter who in 1962 appeared on stage as Aston in Pinter’s first major theatrical success, The Caretaker, and again in its film version two years later. As a boy he attended school in Cornwall and was an all-around athlete, competing in rugby, squash and track events.

Robert Shaw

Robert Shaw

Unfortunately, at the age of 18, Shaw was misdiagnosed with a chronic inflammatory arthritis and autoimmune disease which, perhaps not surprisingly, led him to curtail his involvement in sport. The disease was supposed to affect joints in the spine and it’s a measure of Pinter’s artistic approach that Shaw’s character in The Caretaker has a speech in which he expresses his fear of breaking his spine during a stay in a mental institution.

But around the time of London premiere of The Caretaker, another event occurred which was to directly influence the writing of Betrayal. Pinter, then married to his first wife Vivien Merchant began a seven-year clandestine affair with a married BBC-TV presenter and journalist, Joan Bakewell.

Closed Rooms

Throughout his career, many of Pinter’s plays were to feature characters trapped in an enclosed space menaced by some force they can’t understand.

In his first play, The Room, the main character, Rose, is menaced by Riley who invades her safe space, though the actual source of menace remains a mystery. Pinter later confirmed that his visit, in the summer of 1955, to the ‘broken-down room’ of the English writer,  Quentin Crisp, in Beaufort Street, London inspired him to write The Room, “set in a snug, stuffy rather down-at-heel bedsit with a gas fire and cooking facilities.”

The First Production of The Room 1957

The First Production of The Room 1957

The first performances of The Room were staged in 1957 at the University of Bristol.

In a converted squash court .

Acknowledgements

Many thanks to Hanna Scolnicov whose article ‘Pinter’s Game of Betrayal’ provided much of the source material for this post. Her article was originally published in Cycnos, Volume 14 No 1 on June 11th, 2008.

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.

The Haunted Squash Court

In 1916, during the First World War, an airfield was established at Bircham Newton, eight miles west of the town of Fakenham in the west of the county of Norfolk in England. The site was a base for the largest British bomber of the time, a warplane which would have carried out bombing missions against Berlin had the Armistice not intervened.

Bircham Newton

Bircham Newton

The airfield was equipped with an aircraft repair shed and three double bay general service sheds. By 1937, just two years before the start of the Second World War, these had been demolished. But, as the need to prepare for hostilities increased, the re-development of the airfield began under the control of the Royal Air Force’s No 16 Group. Two satellite airfields were also opened at nearby Docking and Langham to accommodate RAF Coastal Command aircraft and their pilots who were to carry out maritime patrol duties. For more details of the Bircham Newton, the expansion of the airfield’s facilities included the construction of two  squash courts.

206 Squadron RAF

One of the squadrons based at Bircham Newton was 206 Squadron RAF. It had been re-formed in 1936 with Avro Ansons as part of the new RAF Coastal Command, initially as a training squadron. In the early years of World War II, the Squadron managed to shoot down a Heinkel He 115 floatplane and attack a German submarine before being re-equipped with the Lockheed Hudson in March 1940.

Lockheed Hudson

Lockheed Hudson

These American-built light bombers used to fly over the North Sea carrying wooden lifeboats to be dropped to RAF pilots and flight crew who’d ditched their planes. But some time during 1940, one particular flight ended in tragedy, when a Lockheed Hudson plane crashed on the landing strip at Bircham Newton killing three of its crew members. During their off-duty hours, one of the favourite pastimes  of the three colleagues, and close friends, was playing  squash.

Things That Go Bump on Court

Not only are these three man suspected of haunting the squash courts, the girlfriend of one of them is also thought by local residents and visitors to the site as contributing to the  ghostly presence felt there by many. As for her identity, she is rumoured to be a Women’s RAF officer who had been smuggled on board by her lover to enjoy the ill-fated flight. The three crew members, so it’s said, often return to the squash courts at the old base to play their favourite sport. The sounds of a squash match in play have been heard echoing around the completely empty building, and an apparition sighted of one of the missing men,  dressed in an officer’s uniform.

Ghost Hunters

When these ghostly occurrences were first experienced is unclear. The base itself closed in 1966 and the site was then occupied by the UK Construction Industry Training Board. The runways were decommissioned, but the majority of the buildings on the site, including some hangars and the control tower, remained in use. As did the squash courts. But what is known is the story of what occurred when a Japanese TV crew  was filming a documentary at the old air base over 30 years later. During filming at the squash courts, members of the crew not only saw one of the court doors slam shut when there was no breeze, but also recorded a woman’s voice, speaking softly. Accompanied by members of the Anglia Society for Paranormal Research, the crew was also involved in capturing an image of what appeared to be of a man in RAF uniform embracing a woman. Other evidence collected included a recording of the sounds of a squash match on an empty court.

The Haunting of Bircham Newton

Other strange occurrences have been reported by people driving along the main road passing through Bircham Newton. When passing through the centre of the base, a loud echo can be heard which appears to come from underneath the road. It’s thought that the echo originates from a lost underground tunnel used for shelter by air crew and airfield workers  during raids on the base itself. Another haunting stems from the story of a drunk driver. It is believed that during World War II a car full of drunken pilots crashed into a large aeroplane hangar, killing the driver and his passengers. It is said that the ghosts of these men, who died during the Second World War, but not on active duty, still roam the base today.

Acknowledgement

For more information on the RAF Bircham Newton hauntings, you can go to The Ghost Database. If you dare…

Suggested Reading

For an informative and entertaining exploration of the psychology of the paranormal, read Professor Richard Wiseman’sParanormality: Why we see what isn’t there

Squash in a Rainy City

On a Sunday morning, less than 24 hours after the football player affectionately known as
Shrek
had scored a memorable winning goal in the Manchester Derby, I parked my car outside the east stand of Manchester City’s Eastlands stadium – in pouring rain.

Wayne Rooney goal versus Manchester City

Wayne Rooney goal versus Manchester City

As a Manchester United follower – and, what’s more, one of the relatively few born in Salford where their Old Trafford stadium is located – a visit to ‘the neighbours’ is:

a) Not undertaken often – or lightly.

b) Fraught with anxiety in case the team loses, thus providing City followers with bragging rights until the next encounter.

But, as I unfurled my umbrella in readiness to fend off the familiar Manchester downpour, I wasn’t feeling anxious at all. In fact, I was feeling rather excited as I started the short walk to the National Squash Centre. It was finals day in the 2011 National Squash Championships.

Squash in Manchester

Over the next seven hours or so, fifteen finals were contested in the Centre, six of them – including that of the England Deaf Squash Association’s Rebecca Macree Trophy – on the Championship showcourt. For me, it was the first time I’d ever watched squash played in, or rather relatively near to, my home town.

I first watched a squash match when I moved to the South East of England after graduating from university and immediately caught the squash bug. I can’t honestly remember even having heard of the game throughout my formative years in the North West, let alone seen it played. But, eventually, all it took was one experience as a spectator to get me interested, and then hooked.

Today, returning to Manchester is like entering a squash heartland. The National Squash Centre was opened here in 2002 as part of the Sportcity complex constructed for the 2002 Commonwealth Games. Since then, it’s hosted 9 National Squash Championships as well as a range of international tournaments including the World Squash Championships of 2008. In September this year, another major tournament, The British Grand Prix, will be contested here by many of the world’s top men players.

But as well as its success in hosting major squash tournaments, Manchester has  established a pattern of running legacy projects alongside every one of them. And it’s the establishment of this pattern which has had a major impact on the development of squash communities in the region.

So, with that in mind, what’s been happening with squash at grass roots level in the rainy city?

The Journey of Manchester Squash

For the last few years, one of the aims of Manchester City Council has been to develop squash opportunities for its residents with the purpose of ensuring that every young person can realise their potential by taking part in a squash development programme. As a result, Manchester now boasts the largest squash coaching programme in the United Kingdom. The city has its own Squash Development Officer, charged with engaging local schools, squash clubs, leisure centres and businesses, and gaining their support to form new partnerships, set up new competitions, and form new clubs.

During the past year alone, 5 new partnerships have been formed to create school to club links, over 2000 students across the city have been introduced to squash, and the Manchester Junior Open tournament has been revived. The Manchester Schools competition has also been resurrected with up to 20 teams, and a new squash club has been formed in the Moss Side area of the city, previously the location of Manchester City’s Maine Road stadium.

During my visit to the Championships I did manage to grab a few brief words with Manchester’s Head Squash Coach, Chris Lengthorn, some of whose juniors had just demonstrated their impressive racket skills on the showcourt between finals. Not surprisingly, Chris and other local squash coaches have played a major part in the ongoing success story that is Manchester Squash, and it’s easy to see why he sounded so enthusiastic about the future.

But if he appeared excited when I chatted to him, Chris Lengthorn was about to get a whole lot more excited. His sister was about to contest the 2011 Women’s Championship Final.

Family Fortunes

On the tournament showcourt, Laura Massaro (née Lengthorn) from Preston was up against World No 2, and tournament top seed, Jenny Duncalf from Yorkshire. It had been just over a week since Massaro had beaten World No 1 Nicol David in the US state of Ohio to win the Cleveland Classic. But having lost on her only previous appearance in the National Final in 2008, Massaro made no mistake this time, beating Duncalf 3-2 in a tight match. In doing so, she became the first Lancastrian woman to take the National title, as she proudly pointed out during her post-match interview.

Laura Massaro's post-match interview

Daryl Selby with the men's trophy

Daryl Selby with the men's trophy

In the Men’s Final, there was another upset with World No 1 Nick Matthew from Sheffield losing 3-2 to Harlow’s Daryl Selby in an 84-minute match featuring some astonishing retrieval by both players. In a gesture of sportsmanship rarely seen in many other sports, Matthew called his own shot down on match ball leaving Selby to savour the moment. In losing, Matthew failed in his attempt to make it 3 National titles in a row.

A Personal Note

On a personal note, I was rather pleased with my choice of souvenir supporters’ facemasks offered free to visitors to the England Squash and Racketball stand in the tournament exhibition. I picked the masks of the eventual champions – mainly because I play squash at Harlow (Selby) and am a Lancastrian (Massaro) – although I have to confess that I didn’t actually wave, or hide behind either of them. Sorry.

Laura Massaro Facemask

Laura Massaro Facemask

Daryl Selby Facemask

Daryl Selby Facemask

I was also heartened by the inclusion in the Championships, for the first time, of a Men’s Over-75 competition. I’ve now added this to my list of squash goals on the sole basis that the first winner, Lance Kidner of Hampshire, will be well into his nineties before I’m eligible to qualify as a competitor. By which time, I reckon I’ll be able to take him.

And, finally, I was extremely impressed with the National Squash Centre and the helpfulness and professionalism of the staff, stewards and volunteers. But then, coming from the North West of England,  I would be, wouldn’t I?

When I finally walked out of the main entrance to the Centre, over seven hours after I’d entered it, it was still raining.

Connections

If you’d like to find out more about squash in Manchester, visit Manchester City Council’s “Squash Development” website.

It doesn’t mention rain anywhere.