Tuesday, November 22, 2011


In the squash community, the PST (Pro Squash Tour) seems to be a little like the New York Yankees – you either love ‘em, or you hate ‘em. Ever since Joe McManus started this tour about 18 months ago with the no ‘let’ rule, controversy has ensued. The tour is growing rapidly, and PSA ban their players from competing; the rule itself has met much criticism, and from what I read on the squash forums, some (if not most) of that disparagement is from people who have never seen the rule in action and simply speculate. Even I wrote a disapproving article without ever witnessing it. But now, I have personal experience from watching and playing in the recent PST tournament held in Cleveland.

As I feared, my draw was not particularly kind. Recently retired from the world tour when ranked number 9, David Palmer’s PST debut was me. It was an experience to cherish. Not too many players can boast about playing a match with such a legend of the sport, and through the entire 3 games we played, through the agony of exploring every single square millimeter of the floor boards, through the torture of oxygen deprivation as David extended the rallies at will, the wobbly knees, the circling stars, I played well and adored every second of it. In case you’re wondering, I lost (du’h!) 14-12 (had him 10-8…!), 11-5, 11-6.

Interference in our match was rare. With the guillotine of the referee’s ‘no-let’ decision hanging on every call, asking for a let in the first place is a risk. Unless you are sure it’s a stroke, you need to get used to playing the ball. Putting the shoe on the other foot, the fear of the ‘stroke’ for not clearing properly definitely makes you take that extra step away to allow your opponent in. It takes a little to get accustomed to. David asked for one let in the first game, and I asked for one in the third and we both instantaneously knew we should not have done so. Both lets were denied and rightly so. Under normal rules, these calls were 100% lets, and 30+ odd years of playing that way makes it a tough habit to break when requesting a let on such trivial interference situations.

I watched the other 3 quarter final matches, the 3rd / 4th playoff and the final (I missed the semis) and paid close attention to the no ‘let’ rule and the affect on the squash. The word that came to mind was… “refreshing”. Of all the matches I watched, there may have been a total of 25 requests for lets. If that. Play was continuous, that is, rallies were not being interrupted by constant appeals from the players. Because of that, because of the players making an overall greater effort to play the ball and clear, many of the rallies were rather spectacular, athletic, long, and the reaction from the crowd was extremely positive. PST rules are also extremely strict on player behavior. There is a no tolerance position on arguing, verbal or racquet abuse. This is of course does not stop all the issues – but eliminates 95% of it. Players still get emotional, and those emotions can get the better of them. But compared to what I have regularly witnessed at PSA events, it was absolutely no comparison.

But before you all think I’ve been sold on the rule, I’m not. Not yet anyway. It is not a perfect system and there are still issues. Although abolishing any replay of the rally, there is still one common denominator you cannot escape from no matter what system is used: the referee. The PST rule actually puts the referee in a more stressful position. Now, when a player asks for a let, the referee is the one who must decide who wins the rally. There is no easy way out with a “yes-let”. If the score is 10-all in the 5th, such a call becomes incredibly crucial.

PST implements side judges for a challenge system too. Players are allowed 3 challenges per match – much like the NFL. Once the central referee makes a decision, a player can choose to challenge it to the side judges. If the side judges overrule the central referee, the player keeps the 3 challenges. The challenges do ease the pressure off the referee a little, but only slightly. I witnessed 3 calls that were overturned during the event (that I remember), and probably about the same that were upheld. But once a player has exhausted their challenges, the pressure returns squarely on the referee.

I am still convinced that some interference situations are simply ‘let’. Even though the amount of lets called over the tournament was (refreshingly) minimal, when the calls come up, some of the decisions were incredibly harsh if not bizarre. And, given the 2 options of ‘stroke’ or ‘no-let’, in some cases I had no idea. I guess the referee didn’t either. But he had to choose one. That’s where the system broke down for me. Thankfully, such situations were relatively scarce.

I do not have a solution. You cannot have it both ways. The spectators were thrilled with the show. I did not hear one single negative comment about the refereeing – at all. The referee was called upon to make a decision infrequently, and it was only a handful of those I found the decision perplexing. I have watched numerous PSA matches where the amount of lets, fishing, blocking, the arguing, gesturing, rudeness, disrespect towards the referee, was nauseating and the audience were not pleased. You could hear the murmurings, the jeers. Even if the squash was fantastic, the antics watered it down.) On one hand, the PST rule forces the players to go for (just about) every ball, the squash flows and the quality of the game reflects positively. On the other hand, the rule brings out some bewildering calls.

My verdict? An A-. I think Joe and the PST are well on the way. It works. The quality of the squash unquestionably outweighs the rare odd decision. All you have to do is speak to the people in the audience. Their comments are all about the squash, not the refereeing incidents. Over time, I am sure that these decisions will improve anyway as the referees understanding gets better.  Not only that, as more sponsors jump on board, more money becomes available, more players will join the tour. The quality of the squash will improve. Joe is constantly looking at ways to develop, tweak, further, the tour. The tour is for the fans, and the fans – who are the sponsors and are paying the bills - loved it. The DAC is in for a treat come May 2012.

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