SQUASHED: The age of the deskbound lunch has put the squeeze on the sport of the executive hot-shot of the '70s. Can the game be raised? Will smart ideas like glass walls, multi-angled cameras and spotted balls alert new TV audiences to its speed and skil

SQUASHED: The age of the deskbound lunch has put the squeeze on the sport of the executive hot-shot of the '70s. Can the game be raised? Will smart ideas like glass walls, multi-angled cameras and spotted balls alert new TV audiences to its speed and skil

by OWEN BOWCOTT
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

For corporate executives of the 1970s, squash was the game to play. It sharpened competitive instincts, sweated away the remnants of the Sunday roast and kept young bucks up to speed with locker-room gossip. There was a British world champion (the formidably athletic Jonah Barrington), clubs materialised in the suburbs and queues formed in the mornings to book courts weeks ahead.

Even Sir Michael Edwardes, head of British Leyland, made time during the turbulent years of industrial confrontation with Longbridge's unions to work off his frustrations on a squidgy rubber ball. 'I used to play with the chairman of Ford, Red Polling, out at their European headquarters in Brentwood,' Sir Michael, now 70, admits. 'We were deadly industrial enemies: I was chairman of BL, he was chairman of Ford. I was quite surreptitious.

Imagine the row if the press had noticed my arrival. I slipped up the back stairs to his office and we went out for our match. It was very even; usually 3-2 in games one way or the other. And we were both bloody tired afterwards.'

That was the heyday of squash, peopled by obsessive players who made the game a priority in their lives. Now, 30 years on, there is once again a British world champion, a Scot, Peter Nicol, but his name does not trigger instant recognition.

Today, lunch for executives often consists of sandwiches eaten at the desk, and work has expanded to take over our early evenings. Squash courts have been converted to gyms. The only hand-eye co-ordination being refined during office hours these days involves clicking on a mouse and picking crumbs out of the keyboard. Inner-city living may have cut commuting time, but young professionals appear more committed to a sofa-centred adulation of soccer on satellite TV. As a result, British squash has been going through a protracted mid-life crisis, worried about losing its pulling power. And, despite being played in 132 countries, the sport has been repeatedly turned down by the Olympic Committee. Beach volleyball and synchronised swimming are in, but squash, deemed less telegenic, is unlikely to be admitted to the next gathering.

'Water-skiing is the only new sport requested by Greece for 2004. Squash came in third behind karate,' says Ted Wallbutton, chief executive of the Hastings-based World Squash Federation, the game's governing body.

'We hope to be in the Olympics one day - we've been trying for years.' To add to the humiliation, the British Open championship - the sport's equivalent of Wimbledon - had to be postponed in 1999 because no sponsor could be found.

Mike Corby, president of the Squash Rackets Association (SRA), sponsored the event the year before and agrees that the sport has dipped in popularity after peaking in the early '80s. Since setting up his first squash club in 1974, at the London Bridge Sports Centre, Corby's business has expanded to include a string of City-based clubs. 'In the mid-80s, we suddenly had fitness centres coming in,' he explains. 'People seemed to become conscious of their bodies. Squash, as a means of getting fit, lost out.

Training takes less time, you don't need to meet a partner. It's easier to work out if you are away from your office for only half an hour. Longer working hours and shorter lunches have taken their toll.'

Indeed, a recent Data Monitor survey, 'Changing Lunch Occasions', found that Britons take an average break of only 36 minutes these days. 'Time pressures and work demands have resulted in fewer people taking time out for lunch,' the report stated.

We are also working far longer hours. A report by Professor Francis Green of Kent University found that the average two-adult household is working seven hours a week more than in the late '80s. One in six of us worked more than 48 hours a week in 1981; today, the ratio is one in five. The Henley Centre has reported that 57% of Britons say they work on Saturdays and more than 37% on Sundays - many more than in Italy, France, Spain or Germany.

Starved of members, many squash clubs have closed. Corby, who has captained England at both squash and hockey, suspects the advent of the Breathalyser may also have damaged the social side of the game. Viewed through the eyes of one of the more venerable clubs in London, the decline has been precipitous. The Grampians squash club, purpose built in the basement of an art deco block of flats on the edge of Shepherds Bush, is down to 180 members from a peak of 400.

'In the 1970s everyone played,' recalls manager Gul Khan. 'Van drivers, builders, all types of jobs. Jonah Barrington, who trained here, was a milkman. At least three other local clubs have closed recently and been turned into flats or health centres. When you can get 20 people paying to do aerobics in the area of one squash court, it's hardly surprising.

Our hard-core membership has got older and there are too few youngsters taking it up. Nor are members as religious about it as they used to be. They no longer play three times a week; there are too many other distractions.

'It's a shame. The game's got such potential. You get as much exercise in 40 minutes on court as you do in three hours of tennis. At one time we had queues outside at 10am, people trying to book courts for the following week. The phone didn't stop ringing.'

The Grampians is a family shrine-cum-trophy-museum for one of the longest-ruling squash dynasties. Cups, medals, gilt figurines and framed certificates line the walls above the courts. Most were won by Azam Khan, Gul's father, pictured in post-match photos shaking hands with Pakistani generals and presidents. Azam, now in his seventies, was world champion from 1958 to 1961.

His elder brother Hashim was champion for seven years before him. Jahangir Khan, a cousin's son, held the title from 1982 until 1991. Originally from near Peshawar, on the north-west frontier, the Khan family discovered the game after 1901 when British troops, sent to quell troublesome Pathan tribes, built two roofless squash courts. Hashim's uncle learnt to play and became resident professional coach. Young Hashim was employed to hunt through the shrubbery for missing balls. Improving his game, he insisted that his younger brother, Azam, give up tennis so that he could have a regular partner.

'There's more than pounds 100,000 in prize money at the Open championship now,' sighs Azam, who stoops slightly from arthritis. 'In our day, it was just pounds 50. So it's better, but tennis, snooker, golf and football are really big business. Not squash.'

A consequence of the sport's eclipse has been that veterans' leagues are often busier than the main club ladders and competitions. Those who were hooked in squash's glory days still get a buzz out of playing - even though it's popularly seen as a game for agile youngsters. The development of a slower-paced doubles game, on a court four feet wider, has extended the involvement of those who have the leisure time. 'I played at school briefly, but I really started when I was 40 and now I'm 70,' Sir Michael says. 'I play three times a week in Pall Mall and at Epsom.'

He and his partner won the over 65s British doubles championship. 'There are more veterans playing now. A lot of people used to go out of squash at 40. With doubles you can keep going. My partner is a 73-year-old - and runs like a 20-year-old. The minute you stop playing squash, you get old.'

Advertising squash as the 'fount of eternal youth' would give it a unique selling point. One recurring problem in promoting the sport, however, has been that it is peculiarly difficult to translate the game's drama, skill and exhilaration to television. The pattern of play - tight rallies up and down the side wall, for example - can look surprisingly static.

(In fact, during an average five-game match, players run between two and three miles on the court.)

Without television, a sport cannot build a higher profile and attract funds. Football's dominant international position and its saturation coverage on TV have been blamed for damaging other sports. Squash was in danger of being locked into a downward spiral: no broadcasts, no sponsors, fewer participants, fewer courts.

'On television, you don't get a sense of how quickly people are moving,' says Khan. 'They've used see-through perspex courts with a blue floor and white ball to improve visibility. It's better, but it needs to be on terrestrial television every week.' Dunlop has developed a double-yellow spot ball that is 10% slower and slightly larger, enabling the viewer to appreciate the accuracy of drop-shots or overhead lobs.

Further help is at hand. The Eye Group, which acquires and exploits television rights, recently signed - for an undisclosed sum - an eight-year deal with the SRA. Consequently, the British Open, held at Birmingham Arena, was shown live for the first time on Sky Sports 2 last November. Jonah Barrington was the commentator.

'The old-style coverage made it look deceptively easy. We've transformed it from a two-dimensional into a three-dimensional sport,' claims Paul Gittings, a director of the Eye Group. 'We have special cameras that track play alongside the court and others following shots from above. We deployed eight cameras altogether and used slow-motion replays.

'With a new glass court, properly lit for television, you can see perfectly; it's one-way glass so players can't see out. It's better than perspex, which used to get scuffed. Putting cameras in the corner of the court captures all the action, aggression and speed.'

To 'bring the sport into the 21st century', a few nubile cheerleaders were recruited for the event. 'We've pledged pounds 1 million in prize money over the next eight years,' says Gittings. 'Squash's decline has been arrested and the only way is up. It's the supreme gladiatorial sport.'

His confidence is shared by many. There are currently seven Britons, including Peter Nicol, among the top 10 world players. Both Khan and Corby insist that membership at their clubs is beginning to pick up as people tire of solitary gym workouts. Even after recent closures, there are still about 7,000 courts in the UK.

Sport England, meanwhile, has begun to use lottery funding to channel support to individual players like Cassie Campion, the current number one in the women's international rankings. Squash is put on a par with badminton, each sport receiving about pounds 1.25 million a year out of Sport England's annual budget of pounds 235 million.

Internationally, the sport has been making better headway. Squash made its first appearance in the 1998 Commonwealth Games in Malaysia and will be there again at Manchester in 2002. 'It's been growing at a fantastic rate over the past 20 years,' says Wallbutton. 'It develops fast in new countries, peaks, then falls back and begins to retrench. In the Netherlands now it's a frenzy, as it was here in the 1970s. In Egypt, it's a cult; their championships are live on TV every day.' A floodlit glass court was erected in front of the Pyramids at Giza for one competition.

Squash has come a long way since it began at Harrow School in the mid-19th century, when pupils played up against a wall using broken - hence 'squashed' - rackets while waiting for a proper rackets court. The game managed to transcend its public-school roots long ago and it is unlikely to fade away now.

Andrew Castle, formerly Britain's number one tennis player, has, like a number of other Wimbledon veterans, become a convert to squash, regularly playing at the South Bank Club in Vauxhall, London. 'I used to play Stefan Edberg at squash. He volleys magnificently; the game was as good as we have ever had in tennis. We were battling at close quarters. Tim Henman plays a good game of squash as well. Tennis takes longer and golf takes a day. So wherever there's a court, I'm going to play squash. I need to soak my body in endorphins. I need my fix.'

Find this article useful?

Get more great articles like this in your inbox every lunchtime

Subscribe

Get your essential reading delivered. Subscribe to Management Today