Watch this rally between Jonathon Power and Peter Nicol:
What a shame that this amazing point ends in an argument. There’s an incredible rally, full of athleticism, followed by a muffled voice from offscreen, followed by an all-out tantrum. People who’ve played the game for years probably understand what’s going on here, but for newcomers, it must be confusing.
Squash can and should improve the clarity of the rules and their enforcement in order to improve the viewing experience for spectators. Especially if the squash powers-that-be want to grow the game and ultimately get squash into the Olympics.
The most significant problem with the current squash rules is that the PLAYERS have the power to stop play. I can’t think of any other sports where this is true. Imagine if a football game or soccer match could be stopped by any of the players in the middle of a play. Seems ridiculous, right?
I think that power must be shifted to the referees.
An example of my proposed system
In the above video, Jonathon Power (in red) stops play and asks for a let. Under my scheme he would not be allowed to — only the referee could stop play.
Power might be hoping for the ref to stop play and award a let or even a stroke. He might wave his arms around trying to draw attention to his plight, like pro soccer and football players do. But he would ultimately be at the mercy of the ref. He would have to play on and try to dig the ball out, knowing the ref may not blow the whistle.
(Yes, I think the refs should use a whistle. I can just feel the cringes coming from inside the Racquets Club at the mere suggestion of it, but it’s a definitive way to interrupt the action.)
If the ref chooses to stop play, s/he would then call a let or a stroke. “No let” would no longer be used, because if there were no let, the referee wouldn’t have stopped play in the first place. And there would naturally be fewer lets, because players would no longer have the power to fish for them.
Spotlight the refs
Squash should go further, and elevate the perceived importance of the referees.
The refs are an integral part of this game, and we should recognize them as such. The refs shouldn’t just be some disembodied voice from offscreen, handing down rulings while all the viewers can see is the players’ reactions. This just leads to viewer confusion and a feeling that nobody is in control of the match.
The squash broadcasts need to figure out a way to show the refs on camera. Show them delivering their decision, right or wrong. Make sure they are dressed in an official’s uniform of some kind, as with other sports. They should not be just some guy in the stands with a clipboard. Let them take center stage and deliver their verdict. Make their verdict clear, either through a microphone where they announce their decision (like American football), or through hand signals (like American football, soccer, and baseball), or both.
50% of the fans will still boo the ref’s decision. That’s not going to change. What will change is the layperson will:
- See that a referee got involved
- Hear the referee’s decision
- Understand that the referee is in charge of the match
The US Pro Squash Tour’s no-lets experiment
I know over on the US Pro Squash Tour they experiment liberally with the rules. As the PST has argued, American football is continuously re-evaluating the rules to improve the viewing experience (and further other goals, such as reducing player injuries), so why shouldn’t squash do the same? This makes sense and I’m glad some in squash are pushing the envelope in this way, though it might horrify a few purists.
One of the rule changes the PST has tried is eliminating lets. The PST says they’ve done this to make the game more exciting for spectators. I’ve never seen a PST match with the no-let rule in place. I am curious what it’s like and will check one out as soon as I have the opportunity.
I suspect it’s not quite the right solution though, because it’s still the players who retain responsibility for stopping the point.
For casual squash games, of course, you won’t have a ref. That’s fine. The players just continue making their own let and stroke calls as they do today.
Sanctioned events are different though. They can and should have tighter rules that make the game smoother for the players and for spectators.