Squash World Open On TV

Yesterday evening I watched the final of the 2013 World Open between Nick Matthew and Gregory Gaultier. It was ‘live’ on television, thanks to the BBC’s red button service. You can select extra programming via a dedicated channel. Wow, squash on national television again, brilliant! Sky has led the way and the BBC is following.

I should have said, yesterday evening I watched spellbound, what a match. Nick Matthew’s clinical concentration won him the opening two games, 11-9, 11-9. Those forty points took over fifty minutes, the two players’ wills grinding remorselessly against each other. For Greg, this was the problem: who can beat Nick Matthew in a contest of sheer will? The third game, all 28 minutes of it, saw some astonishing movement from both players, passion and flair emerging now as well as technique and concentration, shot making and retrieving of ultimate quality, racquetwork that would have been applauded as sensational had it come from Ramy Ashour. There was a millimetre-perfect dink from Gaultier to save match point. Gaultier salvaged the fourth game, too, but by then he had done too much. The fifth was sadly one-sided. That Nick Matthew! You wonder in these circumstances if Nick has ever ‘done too much’. His movement in the fifth looked unimpaired, Gaultier’s dejected.

Overall, it was the highest possible quality of squash, more than worthy of a World Open final. What about the quality of the televising? Not bad, I’m glad to say. You could always see the ball, for one thing. The backhand wall camera gave us some great views of the players’ accuracy. The Video Reviews illustrated that there are always fifty fifty calls; one player is bound to be unlucky. In the replays we saw moments of drama the front, with a camera located alongside the photographers, low on the forehand side. Regrettably, there was no slo-mo, nothing from overhead. Why not?

And sadly, non squash playing sports fans would have taken far less from this titanic battle than I did. This is partly because top squash players move so easily - it looks easy. And we don’t get a chance to fully appreciate the players’ athleticism - the best bits happen in the blink of an eye, far away from the traditionally placed camera, at the front of the court. Most tellingly, with the current package, we just cannot see how brutally hard the sport is.

What’s to be done? I’ve already written about the one essential and fundamental change: we must position one of the main cameras in front of the players. The front is where the best of the action happens. From the front you can see the players’ faces. Is there another televised sport that concentrates on the backs of the competitors’ heads? No!

Next, to see faces better, some light is needed coming through the floor. Remember, this is a human sport. Recall the pictures of Kelly Holmes and Mo Farah just as they won their Olympic medals. WE NEED TO SEE THE PLAYERS’ FACES!

Also fundamentally, we need to create a whole new language of sports analysis. Stats must be introduced and used inventively. There are so many variables that it would be great to know about: overall distance moved (who is dominating; who is doing more work?). Players’ energy output could be calculated in Watts (rowing and cycling already use this measure). With modern technology, speed of shot could be measured, fastest, slowest, average. Time between shots would be interesting - ie who is taking the ball early, who is waiting. Reaction times would be great to know for those reflex shots near the front wall; we already get reaction times off the starting line in athletics. Players’ heart rates, what a fascinating insight they’d provide, not that we’d ever get them, too revealing! Average positioning in relation to the T would show who was moving forward, who was hanging back. The number of shots per point, and average number of shots, they’d be easy to provide. The average number of shots per rally at different stages of a game would provide great insight. How many boasts, how many drops, how many cross courts?

All this still has to be converted into interesting stuff for the fans, by lively, expert commentary. In Manchester the commentary was leaden. There was some explaining and a lot of stating of the obvious. Viewers’ understanding was not much enhanced. Towards the end of the match, for instance, Gaultier started playing shots with poor body position, simply due to his tiredness. Did we hear about it? No. On one occasion, it may have been in the fourth game, astonishingly, Nick Matthew didn’t get back to the tee after retrieving a ball at the back, so tired had he become. I do that, but not Nick Matthew! Did we hear about it? No. No mention was made of how wide Gaultier had to play his cross court shots from the front to avoid Matthew’s amazing reach. The list goes on. Early on in the match both players allowed more balls go to the back wall than I’ve seen with them in particular, presumably in the interests of accuracy. Nothing was made of the battle of wills in the opening games.

Great progress, then, just to have been able to see a wonderful contest live on terrestrial television. Well done the Beeb, well done squash with its Olympic push, well done the organisers, and sponsors A J Bell for finding such a great location. Well done Manchester. What’s needed now is to find ways of better showing and explaining the sport. Squash remains in the shadows. Squash will never be ski jumping. Squash is a wonderful game that desperately needs to be sold to the television public. Everyone should be talking today about Nick Matthew and Gregory Gaultier.

The opportunity is out there. I challenge everyone running the game to make it happen.