With his extensive business interests, former BL chairman Sir Michael Edwardes has to book his squash games months ahead. The sport suits him, he tells Times squash correspondent Colin McQuillan, because it's for scrappers.
'I love this game,' says Sir Michael Edwardes, peering down into the centre court of the squash complex at the RAC Club in London's Pall Mall. 'I played when I was a lad and rediscovered it at 41 when there was not enough time for golf and no sensible rationale for returning to rugby. I needed exercise and some release from stress. Squash provides both in a time package that fits into the busiest diary.'
His first club was Richmond Town, in Surrey, a flourishing doubles scene.
'I took to doubles happily at Richmond. I found I could keep going longer, getting more enjoyment without exhaustion and the variety of shots and tactics makes it much more interesting.' Teaming up with fellow South African Toddy Berman, a former British vintage singles champion, he began a doubles partnership that now carries 133 years of experience into matches carefully scheduled weeks, even months, ahead on courts all over the world.
Edwardes started playing squash in South Africa, but only as a second game to rugby, while at St Andrews College in Grahamstown and later, at Rhodes University, where he was studying law. In old school photographs he looks more like rugby mascot than player but contemporaries say he was a ferocious scrum half. In business discussion he has a considered approach that is at odds with the fast and inventive action he takes to the squash court.
With Berman and two other doubles regulars, he researched the ideal dimensions for doubles play on a court in Bournemouth, and persuaded the RAC club in Epsom to build a court to these dimensions. He later got the World Squash Federation (WSF) to adopt them as an international standard for the softball doubles game now gathering such interest around the globe. 'Most people play doubles on a 32ft long, 21ft wide singles court,' Edwardes explains. 'But we found that the ideal width to take the extra spread of cross-court lob and drop is 25ft 3in.' The Epsom court was built to this width, but the plasterers reduced it to 25ft, and the WSF accepted this as the international standard. 'It plays havoc with my backhand cut drop across the face of the front wall,' he insists.
Such compromise does not sit too comfortably with a man who, at 65, is still chairman of four major companies - ARC International is one of them - and on the board of four others.
Of course, his British reputation still hinges on the battles with Red Robbo and the unions at British Leyland in the '70s and the more recent international £2.9 billion boardroom battle between Minorco and Consolidated Goldfields a decade later. 'I am now really a management consultant. And I have applied myself in a number of areas that have drawn more public attention than most,' he admits.
He is short, just 5ft 3in tall, but he has an undeniable presence. As most short or tall men often do, he has attracted a number of nicknames along the way. He nearly died of pneumonia at the age of 10, survived severe rheumatic fever at 12 and was almost killed by a truck in his early teens. 'I might have been called Lucky but inevitably at school it was Tichy,' he says. Over the years the sobriquet evolved into Torchy (at Chloride Battery Group) and Head & Shoulders when the workers on the TR7 line at Speke claimed they saw him only when he appeared on television to talk about them. From the moment he started work as a management trainee with Chloride in 1951, Edwardes gained a reputation as a pugnacious character.
'I relish a good challenge and a bit of a fight if that is what it takes,' he confesses. 'You could say I'm a bit of a scrapper and squash is a game for scrappers.'
His love of the game led him to accept the role as president of the Squash Rackets Association in England (SRA) in 1993. He believes he did well by the game he loves, but despite his honorary status there, some see him as responsible for the association's management and financial crises in the early 1990s. He resigned when challenged for the presidency by Jonah Barrington, the former world number one, but there is still some legal action pending over some of the opinions published during that scrap. It hasn't diminished his enjoyment of the game, though.
'These are the courts on which I want to conduct my squash business,' he says, looking down on Berman beating yet another cocky youngster into submission. 'You can't let a bit of name-calling interfere with the reward of all this.'