Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Interfering with the Interference Rule

I recently posted an article discussing the etiquette required for players to help deal with the ‘let’ rule whilst playing
(See: Just imagine the carnage if the following rule was implemented at the DAC…

…Most of you are aware that squash has been desperately trying to get included into the Olympic Games. Whether or not it should be is a discussion for another day, but many believe that one of the reasons it did not get accepted on the 2016 schedule was (amongst other things) because of the ‘confusing’ issue of having to understand different scoring systems. Some tournaments used the hand-in-hand-out scoring to 9; some used the point-a-rally (PAR) to 15; some used the point-a-rally to 11. In order to keep it uniform, most national bodies adopted the point-a-rally to 11 as the sanctioned scoring hoping it would satisfy the Olympic committee. It did not. (All international men’s and women’s squash events now use PAR to 11.) Another issue blamed for the rejection was the ‘let’ - or interference – rule.

Criticism has been leveled towards players for excessive amounts of blocking, arguing, and interrupting the flow of the game with constant appeals for ‘lets’. These regular disruptions subtract from the enjoyment of the sport for the casual spectator – or so some of the experts say. The first question that springs to my mind is: Squash has a casual spectator? It’s not like baseball, or football, or even tennis. I have never heard anyone walking down the street or in a bar say, “Hey, I think I’ll pop down to the courts to catch that squash match” or “what channel is the Ashour / Matthew match on?” or “how much is that scalper asking for those Palmer – El Hindi tickets?” People who watch squash matches and actually go to pro events are generally squash players themselves and can appreciate the game for what it is. The casual spectator is normally that guy who has been sent from his company because they are sponsoring the event and someone needs to show their face and he wouldn’t be able to tell a great squash match from a bad one if it kicked him in the backside.

When you have two players covering the same area of floor, chasing a ball, constantly changing direction with racquets swinging, guess what? Interference is inevitable. At the pro level, players are fitter, faster, more skillful, and hit the ball harder than ever before. Rule changes have already been implemented over the past number of years to make the game more exciting including lowering the tin from 19 inches to 17, and changing the scoring system. I think both of those changes have worked wonders for the sport. It is more athletic, dynamic, and a lot more exciting to watch than what it used to be. But apparently, this isn’t enough.

Now, the ‘let’ rule itself is in the firing line. Trials have already taken place in exhibition events in the US that limited the amount of ‘let’ calls a player could make during a match. They got five. That’s it – five. The idea was to force the players to a) clear the ball better for their opponents to get to it, and b) play through minimal interference instead of stopping and asking for a ‘let’. In theory, a terrific idea. The changes gave each player 5 ‘lets’ per match. If a player requested a ‘let’ and received one, they then had 4 left. If they received a ‘stroke’ or a ‘no let’, they still had their 5 ‘lets’ to use. Once they used up their 5 ‘lets’, the only decision the referee could make if they asked for a future ‘let’ was either a ‘stroke’ or ‘no let’.

The 5-let rule received top grades from the exhibition tournaments – although I don’t know who graded it. The organizer? The players? The spectators? So successful was it that next season they will be experimenting with a no ‘let’ rule. That means all ‘let’ calls will be decided with either ‘stroke’ or ‘no let’! Replaying the rally will not be an option at all. The brains behind this radical idea suggests that the American spectator does not want ‘do-overs’ in sports. They want a point awarded to somebody after every rally. Really? Let’s agree that is true, but has squash become so riddled with ‘lets’ that the spectators are crying for change and eliminating them altogether will improve the quality of the spectacle? He goes on to compare squash to the NBA, NFL, and MLB that are constantly changing the rules to further enrich the audience’s experience. Comparing squash to these sports is like comparing apples to a bowl of cold soup. They could not be more different: team sports of such monumental following that do not comprise of individual rallies. (By the way, the MLB is littered with ‘do-overs’. How many 2-strike foul balls require the pitcher to re-pitch?)

Here are some issues I have with the no ‘let’ rule:

1. Aren’t there situations in squash where both players are equally to blame for the interference? Now the referee will have to penalize a player anyway.
2. It will encourage more arguments. A player will protest more vehemently for ‘strokes’ or ‘no lets’.
3. It will make the game rougher and more dangerous. If a player does not have a ‘lets’ to ask for, they are suddenly forced to push through ‘minimal’ interference that would normally be a ‘let’ situation in order to reach the ball. More pushing, more contact, more injuries.
4. This will not improve decision making. Referees still have to make a call. They will not suddenly become more ‘enlightened’ to the interpretation.
5. Referees will feel inclined to make ‘strong’ decisions for ordinary situations. ‘Lets’ will be turn into something else, the referee will be able to influence the outcome of matches more evidently. Referees should not be noticed during a match or determine outcomes.
6. There are already rules in place to deal with blocking, arguing, and all the issues this new rule wants to eliminate. It’s in the rule book.

So what is the answer? No matter what way you tinker with the rules, it still comes down to one common denominator: the referee. The problem, it seems, is just that. Referees have been too lenient on player dissent, too lenient on blocking, too lenient on minimal interference. If the referee did their job properly and consistently in the first place, they would minimize the disputes and keep the play flowing, and it wouldn’t even be a discussion. Squash bodies should get together to train better referees. Make them professional. Pay them. Maybe retired players would be willing to make it a career if the money is attractive enough. Plus, no one knows and can interpret the game better than the players themselves. But instead of addressing that problem – because that would cost money, time and effort – they are addressing the symptoms.

I have not seen the rule in action (or the original 5-let rule), so all of my concerns are based purely on speculation. Even though the rule changes were hailed as a screaming success, it’s coming off exhibition tournaments where nothing was really at stake. I’m not suggesting the players didn’t go flat out to win, but they would have played in flippers if paid to do so. I am unmistakably skeptical this would work at professional world ranking tournaments.

As a club player, I wouldn’t be worried. I doubt this will ever get past the experimental stage. Can you imagine the heated ‘disagreements’ on court if the no ‘let’ rule was in place here? We’d need a medic on constant stand-by. I am a little surprised that this is even a topic worthy of such drastic measures. Interference is part of the game and rules are in place to deal with them already. It’s a matter of enforcing those rules more effectively. In any case, I think spectators like controversy. Everyone loves to watch a car wreck during a race. Everyone loved to watch McEnroe blow a gasket. Jon Power was popular not just for his racquet skills, but for his quick mouth and wit as well. Spectators want characters on court; they need a hero to cheer for, and a villain to cheer against. Yes, the amount of blocking and arguing can get excessive during a match on the odd occasion, but isn’t that the same in all sports? And it isn’t as if it happens all the time, in fact I bet it’s a tiny minority of matches that are guilty of it. So improve the standard of referee, rather than change the rules to accommodate for the deficiency of it.

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