As squash lovers, I’m sure we agree that the last 12 months has been the most frustrating period of our sporting lives. There cannot be many, if any sports which have been worse affected than squash – so can squash recover from this coronavirus pandemic?
I think the question has two branches -1: elite professional squash which we watch on PSA Squash TV, the showcase of our sport to the world -and 2: everybody else playing the sport, from professionals outside the world’s top 50, all the way down to club fanatics, leisure centre players and beginners.
Number 1 – YES is the answer – professional squash will absolutely recover. It has already begun to appear ‘somewhat normal’, by having 4 or 5 major televised events in the last 4 months. Indeed, there were no (or very few) spectators allowed at the events, but the prize money on offer for the lucky participants was equal to the previous year’s event – and the level of squash on display was phenomenal considering the forced global covid-19 break. Sincere congratulations goes out to the PSA, the event organisers and to the eligible players for maintaining the quality of tournaments we have grown accustomed to in the last few years – from the impressive spectacle of the arena, to the quality of squash. Bravo everyone involved. Bravo. This is what we want the non-squash-playing world to see.
Number 2 – I’m honestly not sure, and this involves 99.99% of the squash players in the world. As we know, 80-90% of people who play squash, adore squash! They don’t just turn up to play once, twice or three times a week – they obsess about it. They dream about it; they research it; they watch it for hours; they plan tactics in their head when they should be listening to their wife; they try out the correct grip on a frying pan when they’re making pancakes, etc etc. The majority of these people I am not too worried about. I’m sure they will start up playing when their club re-opens – for many maybe not when solo-practice is the only activity allowed, but certainly when partner squash is allowed in bubbles and most definitely when ‘Club Nights’ can start up again. I feel ‘Club Nights’ are absolutely vital – even if they are initially for limited numbers only, or even limited partner routines – let’s not forget that squash for the majority is largely social. This is the time when we will see the biggest influx of players returning to the sport.
In The UK –I believe local leagues need to take as much responsibility as each individual club. I know it’s difficult because they are unsure about what is happening due to Coronavirus restrictions as we’re are all at the mercy of our bumbling government and their decisions. Squash clubs are also at the mercy of England Squash, who are a poor governing body. So, I feel the onus should be on local leagues to take charge and reach out to us all. As players we are craving, not just for good news, but simply for any contact from our local league.
There are many regional, county and city-wide squash leagues in The UK. We are lucky. They need to communicate with clubs, and more importantly with the individual players who play in their leagues. I have been aware of very little communication so far from leagues. I think the time has now come to acknowledge that this season (2020/21) will not see any league play. This is an easy way to begin communication from the league to its players. I think each league is holding off making this call because they don’t want to deter local players any further with bad news – however making this decision and reaching out in this way doesn’t have to be all negative – and it’s an essential start of a communication pathway.
I’m sure we all hope, and dare I say expect that local matchplay can return in the summer. Many local leagues run a ‘Summer League’ – a much shortened version of their ‘Winter League Programme’ – with less clubs entering teams and often ‘3 or 4 man teams’ instead of ‘5 man teams’ due to the obviously reduced demand for summer squash – because of summer holidays and people needing a break after the demanding ‘Winter Season’. However this summer will be very different as we’ve not enjoyed the usual challenges of our ‘Winter Squash Season’ – and it’s possible we won’t be able to go on a foreign summer holiday either (sad face!). This offers a great opportunity for local leagues to ‘open up’ their ‘Summer Leagues’ more than in previous years. I honestly think players will ‘jump’ at the chance to play some competitive squash again – but importantly it will offer local players hope. Hope is what will keep our sport alive for another 6 months, because without hope people will lose interest and possibly never return to the sport.
It should go without saying that we need to be sensible when we do eventually return to competitive squash. Planning ahead, I would suggest the idea of a ‘best of 3 format’ for the first month to allow players to ‘ease’ their way back into matchplay after more than a year out – we don’t want players getting injured in their first match back or having a heart attack! I’m not a big fan of the ‘best of 3’ game format for squash, but in these exceptional circumstances I feel it does have a place for a short period while our body’s get used to the physical requirement of squash after such a long time away. This would also allow more matches to be played on the night due to the quicker duration of matches – so then a ‘5-a-side’ match can be played. There are several other ideas out there to facilitate our safe return to competitive matchplay – which I will offer in another blog in the coming weeks.
One sector of squash I am deeply concerned about is leisure centre squash. I think this can return to what it was before the pandemic, but it will take much longer – I see the main battle here will be to stop leisure centres turning squash courts into extended ‘gym zones’ or ‘stretching areas’ on a permanent basis.
For now – our first point of action has to be with local clubs and local leagues. Communication in the local squash community is the key – and this needs to happen ASAP! Let’s talk about ‘Club Nights’ and ‘Summer Squash Leagues’ returning, and let’s begin to make provisional plans. We need to offer our squash playing population HOPE before it’s too late. If we can then I’m sure the future of our sport at club-level is safe and will return as soon as national and local restrictions allow – but if we (leagues and clubs) don’t communicate with our players or wait for much longer to do so, or wait for England Squash to save our sport, then we could be doomed.
ACT NOW PEOPLE.
By Andy Whipp.