Squash and the World of Wodehouse

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“There had been other dark moments in Freddie’s life. Once, back in London, Parker had sent him out into the heart of the West End without his spats and he had not discovered their absence till he was half-way up Bond Street. On another occasion, having taken on a stranger at squash for a quid a game, he had discovered too late that the latter was an ex-public-school champion.”

From “Jill The Reckless” by PG Wodehouse first published in the US in 1920 under the title “The Little Warrior”.
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PG Wodehouse was, and arguably still is, England’s best-loved humorist. Born in 1881, his father was a British judge who spent much of his professional career in Hong Kong, then a colony of the British Empire. In fact, Wodehouse was born, prematurely, whilst his mother was on a visit to England from Hong Kong. When he was three, he was sent back to England and placed in the care of a nanny before being sent to a succession of boarding schools. Between the ages of three and fifteen, he was to spend less than six months with his parents.

PG Wodehouse in 1905

PG Wodehouse in 1905

Despite his unusual childhood, Wodehouse was to enjoy enormous popular success as a writer, poet, lyricist and journalist during a career that lasted more than seventy years until his death in 1975. His many writings, including the Jeeves and Wooster stories, continue to be widely read. In many of them, he pokes fun at the English aristocracy, establishment figures (including judges), and American businessmen and philanthropists. All entertainingly embellished with the use of contemporary London clubroom slang.

But it was as a pupil of Dulwich College in South London that the young Wodehouse came into his own as a sportsman, gaining his school colours as a member of the cricket First XI and the rugby First XV. Not surprisingly, both sports were to feature heavily in his writings along with golf, tennis and a relatively new game which was emerging from the shadows of an older predecessor, racquets, then played at Dulwich.

The game of squash.

Racquets, Fives and the Rise of Squash

Classed as a Minor Sport, the game of racquets was well established at Dulwich by the time Wodehouse arrived as a pupil in the mid-1890s. The sport had originated as an 18th century pastime in London’s debtors prisons at King’s Bench and Fleet where the prisoners modified the even more ancient wall game of fives by using tennis rackets to speed up the action. They played against the prison wall, sometimes at a corner to add a sidewall to the game. Racquets then became popular outside the prisons and was played in alleyways, usually  behind public houses.

Nowadays, racquets is played in an enclosed court measuring 9.14m by 18.28m) with a ceiling height of at least 9.14m (30 feet). The singles and doubles games are both played on the same court, the walls and floor being constructed from smooth stone or concrete; both walls and floor are generally dark in colour to contrast with the white ball. Players use a 77.5cm wooden racket, known as bat, to hit the hard 38mm diameter white ball which weighs 28 grams.

In Wodehouse’s time there, Dulwich College maintained courts for both racquets and fives, the latter being built in 1894 and destroyed by enemy bombs in the Second World War. The racquet courts at Dulwich are also long gone although about 20 courts still exist in England’s public schools.

So, Wodehouse would have been familiar with both games, even though he didn’t gain school colours in either of them. Squash, on the other hand, was a new, up and coming offshoot of racquets and, at the beginning of Wodehouse’s writing career, was just the kind of trendy activity sought out by the younger set of London’s upper middle-class.

Including certain members of some of the British capital’s gentlemen’s clubs.

Squash and the Drones

Located off Piccadilly in London’s Mayfair district, the fictitious Drones Club was a recurring setting in Wodehouse’s writing, with many of his stories featuring the club or its members. The Drones was meant to typify the kind of private club originally set up by British upper class men in the 18th century to provide an environment in which to carry out gambling, which was still illegal outside members-only establishments.

Wodehouse’s description of the Drones Club’s young members, precisely fitted the contemporary Edwardian idle rich stereotype. However, he was keen to point out in his writings that some of the club’s members did actually hold down prominent jobs. Reginald ‘Pongo’ Twistleton, for example, was described as studying for The Bar whereas G. D’Arcy ‘Stilton’ Cheesewright (a rival of Bertie Wooster) worked, albeit briefly, as a special constable.

Nevertheless, the Drones with its restaurant, swimming pool and squash court was typical of many of London’s gentlemen’s clubs, even down to its numerous sports competitions, from golf to tennis and squash. Competitions, of course, on which wagers could be made and around which humorous stories could be written.

And one favourite storyline of Wodehouse’s involved young men displaying, or at least attempting to display, their sporting prowess in order to impress young ladies.

Jeeves and the Squash Handicap

Perhaps the Drones Club’s most well-known member was Bertram Wilberforce Wooster.

In Wodehouse’s writing, Bertie Wooster is the young, amiable and naive man-of-leisure, whereas  the older, and considerably wiser, Jeeves is his valet and friend. Most of the Jeeves and Wooster stories involve Bertie getting into some sort of scrape with a young lady, an aunt, a representative of the Law or, in some cases, all three. Typically, the omniscient and resourceful Jeeves  comes to the rescue in his inimitably modest, no-nonsense style.

Lauria as Bertie Wooster and Stephen Fry as Jeeves in ITV's "Jeeves and Wooster"

Hugh Laurie as Bertie Wooster and Stephen Fry as Jeeves in ITV's "Jeeves and Wooster"

In “Jeeves and the Yule-Tide Spirit”, Bertie and Jeeves arrive at the country estate of Lady Wickham whence they’ve been invited “for the festivities”. Bertie announces that he is in love with Lady Wickham’s daughter (and accomplished tennis player) Miss Roberta ‘Bobbie’ Wickham.

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“During your stay here, Jeeves,” I said, “you will, no doubt, be thrown a good deal together with Miss Wickham’s maid. On such occasions, pitch it strong.”

“Sir?”

‘You know what I mean. Tell her I’m rather a good chap. Mention my hidden depths. These things get round. Dwell on the fact that I have a kind heart and was runner-up in the Squash Handicap at the Drones this year. A boost is never wasted, Jeeves.”

“Very good, sir.”

From “Jeeves and the Yule-Tide Spirit” by PG Wodehouse first published in 1930.
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As revealed Wodehouse’s “The Mating Season”, Bertie is actually a racquets blue, a sporting honour awarded during his time at public school. So the revelation that he’s also a squash player is not really that surprising. He also plays darts and billiards, swims, and plays tennis, all activities well-catered for at The Drones. But which sporting activity should he choose to impress the object of his affection?

A Squash Player at Blandings

The Drones Club also features in Wodehouse’s Blandings novels, written between 1915 and 1975. Blandings Castle is the fictitious seat of Lord Emsworth and home to many of his eccentric family, including his younger brother, Galahad Threepwood. Galahad is, in fact, a member of the Pelican Club, an older, more traditional version of The Drones with it’s more unruly younger membership.

Lord Emsworth is an amiable, absent-minded old chap who loves his home and gardens dearly and is never happier than when pottering about the grounds on a fine sunny day, poking at flower beds or inspecting his champion pig, The Empress of Blandings. For the Threepwood family and their friends, the castle is forever available for indefinite residence, and, in Wodehouse’s writing, is often a setting for love-struck young men and ladies to act out their personal dramas.

In ‘A Pelican at Blandings’, Galahad Threepwood, muses on the appearance of John Halliday, son of the late JD ‘Stiffy’ Halliday who had been a fellow Pelican Club member.

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“There was about him something of the air of a rising young barrister who in his leisure hours goes in a great deal for golf and squash racquets. And that, oddly enough, is what he was. His golf handicap was six, his skill at squash racquets formidable, and he had been a member of The Bar for some five years”

From “A Pelican at Blandings” by PG Wodehouse first published in 1969.
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Halliday later arrives at Blandings in the persona of a psychiatrist ostensibly hired to analyse Lord Emsworth but, in reality, hoping to press his suit with his fiancée Linda Gilpin who is visiting the castle with her uncle, Alaric, Duke of Dunstable. In fact, Galahad has been instrumental in smuggling Halliday, now his god-son, into the castle, having been called on for help after an estrangement between the man and his beloved Linda, caused by Halliday’s zealous devotion to his duty as a lawyer despite his fiancée being a witness in…

…well, you get the idea…

So, does the squash player get the girl? Well, there’s at least one way you can find out.

Acknowledgements

Thanks, as ever, to Wikipedia and it’s army of contributors to entries on rackets, PG Wodehouse and beyond. Also, thanks to the Russian Wodehouse Society and The Literature Network for various articles on the great man and his work.

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.

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.’

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.

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.

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.

Squash in the Pink Bubble

Sitting in a pink bubble in West London on a wet Friday night in January may not seem like everybody’s idea of fun. But when the bubble contains another 250 people, a see-through squash court and some of the world’s top squash players, you may think that it’s not such a bad idea after all. And, particularly if you’re a squash lover, you’d be right.

The Queen’s Club

The recently re-launched World Series Squash Finals are being held right now at The Queen’s Club in London. Not just any old Queen’s Club, mind you, but The Queen’s Club. Although I’m guessing that she doesn’t actually play there. On a regular basis anyway. But that’s where the aforementioned inflatable pink squash venue has been standing for the last week or so. And I went to the semi-finals there last night to have a look.

The Pink Bubble at The Queen's Club, January 14th, 2011

The Pink Bubble at The Queen's Club, January 14th, 2011

To say that The Queen’s Club is a suitable location for a racket sport competition is probably an understatement. It maintains courts for tennis, real tennis, rackets and squash, at least two of which I don’t know the rules for, or anybody who plays them. And when the squash court in the pink bubble is scheduled to be dismantled tomorrow, the club’s members will just have to make do with the 45 remaining courts available to them.

The Finals Experience

Whatever the target audience for the Finals, you couldn’t fault the staging. Clear announcements, great time management, comfy seats, instant video replays, post-match interviews, on-court entertainment between matches (UK hip-hop dance group ZooNation), live commentary and expert analysis (from Jonah Barrington amongst others) via a personal Wi-Fi earpiece, and excellent catering. In fact, had the four semi-final matches scheduled all been walkovers, I suspect that an impromptu tournament and entertainment involving audience members could have been organised on the spot. Health and safety issues permitting of course.

On a social level, I met some fellow squash coaches, one of whom offered an entertaining critique of the performance of the team cleaning the court between games. “Look!” he observed. They’re all cleaning the back wall in the right hand corner even though there are just as many marks in the left hand corner.” I even joined in at one point having become fixated with the team’s cleaning strategy. All this, of course, is why going to squash tournaments is so much fun!

The Squash

The semi-finals of the women’s invitation event included former World No 1, Vanessa Atkinson, and current World No 2, Jenny Duncalf. France’s Camille Serme took Duncalf to a third game in the best-of three match before running out of steam. “I wasn’t expecting to win the second game” she said. As I never expect to win any games, I had some sympathy for her.

In the other semi, Vanessa Atkinson lost 2-0 to England’s Laura Massaro. By the way, the women’s matches were played using a 17 inch tin rather than the 19 inch tin normally used on the women’s tour.

In the World Series semis, England’s Nick Matthew again beat his fellow Yorkshireman, James Willstrop, in straight games. In this afternoon’s final, he’ll meet Egypt’s Amr Shabana who beat Ramy Ashour, also of Egypt, and also in straight games. Ashour, still recovering from a hamstring injury, said in his post-match interview, “Amr’s so quick with his hands you feel he could put the ball in his pocket during a rally without you seeing him do it.”

I must try that in my next league match.

Postscript: The Bubble Bursts

Sadly, during the early hours of the morning after the semi-finals, the inflatable venue for the World Series tournament was seriously damaged by high winds. A tear in the fabric of the building led to it being declared unsafe, then to the postponement of the finals and eventually to their cancellation. At the time of writing, no decision has been made as to where, when or whether they will be played.

Never mind, here’s a funky video which should give you some idea of the Pink Bubble experience. Enjoy!