Play on

PSA Squash TV has posted a few clips on their YouTube channel in a series called “So You Think You Can Ref?” The video below is one example. In this series, squash fans view a tricky refereeing situation like this one and then have the opportunity to (tactfully) weigh in with their opinion on the ref’s decision.

It’s interesting to deconstruct the point and see how it “should have been called” according to the current rules. But I’m also interested in how we could tweak the existing rules to make the game more exciting. I’ve written about this before, and others have weighed in too.

You could argue whether making the game more exciting should be one of our goals. In my opinion, it should be. I want to help more people get into the game of squash. I want squash to be in the Olympics. Improving the fan experience is key to both of those, as long as we don’t degrade the experience of playing the sport in the process.

Squash would be more exciting if there were fewer lets. Other commentators have said much the same. But if we’re going to reduce the number of lets, how do we do it, practically speaking? I thought I’d explore the idea a bit here.

If there are to be fewer lets, then by definition there must be more non-calls, strokes, and/or no-lets. I think the best outcome is more non-calls. That makes the game more exciting for spectators.

The easiest way to control the number of non-calls is to take away the players’ ability to stop play. Currently, it’s the players who have the power to stop play and ask for a let. This is a longstanding rule in squash, which, when you think about it, is a very unusual practice compared with the wider sports world. They don’t let football players stop play. Ideally we’d take this power away from the players and give it to the refs. But I don’t think this would realistically happen anytime soon. It’s too much of a departure from the current flow of the game, and making a radical change like that might have unexpected disruptive consequences.

To get more non-calls, we’ll have to get there indirectly, with incremental changes. We can’t very well tell the players to call fewer lets. Or rather, we could try, but they’ll do what’s best for them during the match, so it’s not an effective approach. Instead we have to tweak the rules to encourage players to play on.

Giving out more strokes wouldn’t really help. If you give out more strokes, then players will still be tempted to fish for strokes. If anything this might result in more stoppages, rather than more non-calls.

This leaves us with only one option: more no-lets. In order to get more no-lets, we’d have to raise the bar on the amount of incidental interference allowed.

Here are the relevant parts of the rulebook, I think:

12.2 To avoid interference the opponent must make every effort to provide the player with:

  1. unobstructed direct access to the ball after completion of a reasonable followthrough;
  2. a fair view of the ball on its rebound from the front wall;
  3. freedom to hit the ball with a reasonable swing;
  4. freedom to play the ball directly to any part of the front wall.

You could think of those four items as dials, any of which could be turned, either in isolation or in combination with others, to create more no-lets.

I’d rule out making changes to #3. This has to do with safety. We don’t want to force players to make swings that result in injuries.

I’d rule out making changes to #4. If you’re going to make less of the front wall available to the player, where do you draw the line? The corners are an absolute point on the court and the only sensible place to draw lines to.

This leaves us with the first two items as the potential dials to be tweaked.

I would start by changing the wording of #1. We could reword it so that the opponent — the person who just struck the ball — is merely not allowed to deliberately block the other player. In other words the opponent no nonger needs to provide unobstructed direct access to the ball. They merely have to avoid causing deliberate interference.

Let’s use our clip as an example. In this case, Willstrop hits his shot and then begins recovering to the T. This is a natural squash motion. It’s probably not deliberate interference, but he does obstruct Grant’s direct access to the ball. Under the current rules that results in a Let.

Under my proposed wording, Willstrop is only responsible for avoiding deliberate interference. He’s allowed to get back to the T as part of his normal movement. But Grant is obstructed — what should he do? He must run around Willstrop. If he runs into Willstrop, as he does in this clip, it would result in a no-let because there was not deliberate interference.

If enforced evenly, this would over time result in more non-calls. It would a challenging adjustment, as we’re all used to playing under the current rules, but eventually players would get used to it. Returning to our example, Grant would know instinctively that this situation would not result in a let. He would probably not call for a let in the first place. Instead he would run around Willstrop and try to retrieve the ball.

Overall, the number of non-calls would increase, making the game more exciting.

I would be glad to hear others’ thoughts. I encourage you to weigh in in the comments!

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  1. Seshadri says

    The moment you allow the non-striker the automatic right to move to the T after playing his shot, you will open a can of worms. Players will then delay/hasten their movement to the T in an effort to add confusion to the Striker’s movement to the ball. Additionally, given that the T is a loosely defined area of the court, there is plenty of scope for mischief.
    Direct access to the ball has to always remain a fundamental right of the Striker. The penalty for denying this right might be a No-let , Yes-Let or a Stroke depending on the quality of shot and any malafide intent [if obvious].
    Giving a ref only binary choices of Stroke and No-Let will lead to ghastly experiments like the PST’s “no lets” squash where fair-play is the first casualty, and attacking/creative squash the second. The end result is that top pros play at around 75% capacity, and lower level players play a “squash for dummies” version of the game.

    • Pierre Bastien says

      Hi Seshandri, thanks for your comment!

      Good point that the T is a loosely defined area of the court. This does allow for mischief. Of course though, “direct access to the ball” is also open to plenty of mischief because the Striker can choose their path to the ball.

      The question I’m trying to pose in my post is, how do you reduce the number of lets? Not eliminate them, but reduce them. What are your thoughts on how to do that? Or do you reject the premise entirely, i.e. the number of lets at the moment is acceptable?

      I don’t agree with your assessments of PST squash, based on what I saw of their American open matches (currently available for replay here).


      • Seshadri says

        Hi Pierre,
        The reason that I dislike the PST’s rules is that it guarantees a bad decision in many cases of interference. It does not matter which way the ref rules, the decision will be unfair because the Yes-Let has been removed–though interestingly, the PST is now bringing back the yes-let through the back door by allowing the ref to “replay” the point.
        The PST idea is fundamentally flawed because it treats the repetitive Let as the problem, when it is only the symptom of the problem, which is a lack of clearly defined paths of clearing in different areas of the court .
        Nobody likes repeated Lets, least of all the players themselves, for whom a Let is basically wasted energy during the point. The solution is not simple, but can be attempted if both, players and referees get together and work out clearing patterns in situations that most often lead to interference.