Of Fathers and Sons, and Staying Fit in Outlandish Places

Fathers and sons. Where ball games are concerned, usually the competition between them is sharp. Sadly, chance had it that I played my father just twice at squash. And I’ve been on court with two of my three sons about the same number of times. A small ration for a lifelong squash nut.

My father, Broughton Waddy, was fine man, a specialist in tropical medicine. He spent the majority of his working life in hot countries, far from what most of us would regard as comfort. Certainly far from squash courts. As a newly qualified doctor in 1937, with a sense of adventure, he went along to the British Colonial Office and said, “What have you got?” The response was the Gold Coast, now Ghana. For the friend who accompanied him, the young Dr Aubrey Hodges, after whom I was named, it was Nigeria.

Captain B B Waddy of the Gold Coast Regiment , during WW2

My father was to spend the next twenty years of his life in the Gold Coast, up to the granting of independence, when the majority of colonialists were thrown out. He met my mother there, and that’s where they started their family. I can clearly remember my last visit as a child, accompanying my sister for a summer holiday. My father was then stationed in a town called Kintampo, in the middle of the country.

My father was Australian. He came from a terrific cricketing family, and he ‘was no slouch’, to use one of his phrases, at the game himself. In The Parks at Oxford he took the wicket of the great Jack Hobbs, whose name will mean a lot to anyone with even a scant knowledge of cricket history. His own father, as an eighteen year old in New South Wales, top scored against the English tourists of the time, who included the legendary W G Grace in their number. His uncle, E F Waddy, would have played more times than he did for Australia but for another all time great, Victor Trumper.

Ah cricket! The West African savannah is an unaccommodating place for someone passionate about the game. So my dad hugely relished his trips back to England each summer ‘on leave’: six weeks of cricket. Not wanting to waste the first couple of those weeks – fast bowling is as strenuous as any sports discipline – he had to get fit in advance. Citizens of Kintampo must have been bemused by the sight of the respected and vigorous Dr Waddy, running up at full speed to fling a five and a half ounce leather ball the prescribed twenty two yards at whoever he could dragoon into batting against him. It might be his gardener, whose name I don’t remember. It might be his unfortunate colleague Dr David Scott, who from the sound of it was totally dyspraxic and hardly able to defend himself. And it might be his accomplished cook, Mr Ali Moshi. Separately, I remember one December day Mr Moshi liberally dosing the Christmas turkey with brandy, as a prelude to decapitating it. After the deed had been cleanly executed, I watched in horror as Mr Moshi, quick on his feet but decisively outrun, chased the headless bird around the compound.

I manifest far too few of my father’s admirable genes, but as will become clear, I’ve inherited a degree of his obsession for sport. Far away from West Africa, my squash playing started at school. It was interrupted while I was at university by two major operations in the space of six months on my knee. After the second of these, stupidly while my knee was still the size of a grapefruit, I played my only two games of squash with, or should I say against, my fifty seven year old dad, who had been an effective player in his younger days. It was not a success: I didn’t want to prolong the rallies with my still ailing knee, and he was mortally offended when due to his lack of speed I won points at will with my accurate drop shots.

Happily, we were able to indulge our ‘gentle’ family rivalry with no holding back when I joined my dad in Nigeria in the summer after I left university. He was overseeing the health of the hundreds of thousands of villagers about to be displaced by the
damming of the River Niger and the resulting vast lake. A social club had been built in Kainji, the centre for construction, for all the expats involved, Italians for the dam itself, Canadians for the hydroelectrics, and sundry other nationalities for the roads and the agriculture and the diseases. This club had two excellent laterite tennis courts, the same colour and speed as those at Roland Garros. We were perfectly matched, the two of us, my energy more than countered by my father’s superior skill. We’d go at it hammer and tongs for an hour or so most evenings. Slaking the ensuing thirst is one of my great memories.

Social Club, Kainji, where the tennis was far from social

Ironically, with my father the fittest guy on the planet, he died aged just seventy of leukaemia, not long before my first son was born. It will remain my biggest regret that my boys never knew their grandfather. Goodness knows the fun they would have had with him, and the effect his wonderful sense of humour and his joie de vivre would have had on them. And on their cricket. Furthermore, grandchildren would have given him a new lease of life during what was a frustrated retirement. The world really was his oyster, not the narrow horizons of an English county town.

My father in his element, somewhere in tropical Africa, camera to hand

My bad knee stopped me playing squash soon after my father died, so my sons never saw me play. No matter. They were inspired into other sports. I did tell them, though, a lot about their grandfather, of how he made major discoveries in tropical medicine, notably establishing, in the face of scorn from desk bound experts back in the UK, how the debilitating disease river blindness was transmitted; how he played a big role in the eradication of smallpox; how he was able to save literally thousands of lives threatened by epidemics of meningitis by trekking - up to thirty miles a day - through the bush to dispense the then newly discovered miracle sulphonamides. I encouraged them to read his memoire of his time in the Gold Coast, ‘Life and Death in the African Bush’. This concludes with what he thought was a forlorn hope: that all the achievements of the colonial ‘Medical Field Units’ would not be frittered away.

Preparing for a trek into the bush

Winding the clock forward twenty five years, I discovered that my muscles had become so atrophied they no longer overstressed my bad knee. So I started playing squash again. And, what a thrill, the boys have now seen me play, and a couple of them have been on court with me.

In part due to the Ghana connection, my youngest son Josh spent 2010 in that country, but far from Kintampo, as a volunteer for an educational charity.
JwithRockman Josh with one of the kids he taught
Josh’s visit has led to a happy closing of family loops. He wanted to go back to Elmina, the town where he was based, to catch up with his Ghanaian friends. He had truly taken to life in Ghana in the same manner as his grandfather. I was keen to go back out there too, and it wasn’t difficult to persuade Josh’s brothers that it would be an exciting trip. My underlying wish was to give my sons a stronger connection with their grandfather.

Finally we settled on two weeks in November, at the end of 2013. This fitted with my boys’ various priorities and fell neatly between two of the regional English Masters squash tournaments. Nevertheless, two weeks off squash was going to seriously impair what these days passes for my fitness. So, full circle, bemused Ghanaian citizens, this time from Elmina, were able to watch an eccentric ‘bruni’ (white man) attempting to do shuttle runs on the soft sand of the magnificent beach to the West of the town.

The beach near Elmina

Perhaps one or two of the observers came from families who had moved south, and were descended from the Kintampoans who sixty years earlier had flinched as my father thundered towards his pressganged practice cricket partners. Who knows.

The story has a good ending. We made a pilgrimage north to Kintampo, now less than a day’s drive from the coast where it had been a long, dusty slog over two in the 1950s, hoping to find my father’s house. We did indeed find the house, derelict but still standing.
I was able to wander round inside, fifty eight years after I had last been there. We didn’t find the place, but somewhere outside in the compound, twenty two yards of the laterite dirt were probably still pitted by the repeated impact of an eighty-mile-an-hour cricket ball. Even better, we met up with an elderly man, Mr I W Frimpong, who as a lab technician had worked with my father for five years. Mr Frimpong remembered my sister and me from 1955, and we had a lovely chat.
And best of all, we discovered the existence of the ‘Kintampo Health Research Centre’, for the education not of doctors but of rural health workers who would not be drawn to money making in Accra or Kumasi but would minister to the rural people whom my father loved so much.

And better even than the best, we found that one of the principal buildings at the Kintampo Health Research Centre is known as the ‘B B Waddy Block’. Bother cricket. Bother squash. That was very emotional.
Ghana3 1641<untitled>BBWaddyBlock

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.

More on A Club From Hell

John Branston, one of my fellow authors of the squash story, A Club from Hell (Chapter 16 just posted, see Ted Gross’s excellent go to site for squash news, www.DailySquashReport.com), breezed into London last week from Memphis, Tennessee, with his lovely wife Jenny and his equally lovely sister, Ann. We and the other two UK-based authors, journalist, entrepreneur and squash nut, Alan Thatcher and bloggist, scientist and squash nut Peter Heywood met for lunch in the Leadenall Market. Regrettably it was the authors rather than John’s entourage that made it into the photo.

ALW, Peter Heywood, John Branston, Alan Thatcher

Televised Squash

I’ve a bee in my bonnet about televised squash. For one thing, there’s not enough of it on terrestrial television or Sky. But the main issue, which links directly to the first, is the unimaginative way squash is televised. I got it all off my chest in a response to a blog on ‘Squash and the Olympics’ by Brett Erasmus, which I accessed on The Daily Squash Report on July 1st.

Here’s the rant:

Brett, you're right about television. And this is where squash has to take a risk. We are all accustomed to watching the game from behind. We've grown up looking on from the trad squash gallery, at the back of the court. With all our experience we players can read the game from there. Anyone who visits Daily Squash Report can understand the nuances of the action from behind the players. We enjoy the regular cut to the backhand wall. We KNOW how hard those players are working. It may not look it but we've all been there and copped out with a weak attempt at a winner because we're too tired to do anything else.

But readers of Daily Squash Report are not the guys and gals we want to enthuse. We enthuse already! The people we need to capture are the folks on the couch, flicking through the channels on a wet Saturday afternoon, accidentally dropping into Nick Matthew against Gregory Gaultier, Nicol David against Nour el Sherbini. If we get these general sports fans, we get the big money sponsors. And squash will be IN!

What is it these sports fans see if they happen on televised squash in the present day? They see some admittedly not unattractive Aussie and Egyptian and Pakistani butts, and backs, and why are those guys and gals sweating so much in the close ups between points when they're just strolling round the court? Sure I can see some fast action from time to time at the other end of the court, but again, it's backs and butts, and it's too far away to appreciate the effort.

In seeking to promote squash, we should pay attention to our own publicity. Take a look at ANY shot of a James Willstrop or a Ramy Ashour or a Dipika Pallikal. Are we looking at the backs of these athletes' heads? Are we looking at them lunging AWAY from us, with their shoes artificially magnified by the perspective? No way! The drama of squash can be seen nowadays in the wonderful photographs of the stretches and dives and grimaces TAKEN THROUGH THE FRONT WALL.

It's a no brainer. The front wall photos are the ones we use, for obvious reasons. It plainly begs the question: why don't we TELEVISE from the front, with the other angles used for support and colour?

The detail has to be worked out. Technology will make it possible, the superb all-glass courts and modern videocams. The imperative is to televise squash at its most dramatic, where you can see the strain on the players' faces, you can appreciate the astonishing scrambling and you can admire the prodigious physicality. Television is the key to the sport's development, and we'll never succeed if we concentrate on the backs of the heads of our stars. It doesn't make sense.

It's time to take a chance. Let's show the FACE of squash to the world! I challenge the WSA and PSA to show some imagination. Take that risk! It will be the last piece of the Olympic jigsaw.

A Club From Hell

Ted Gross runs the go-to squash web site, Daily Squash Report. Ted has been very kindly serialising Sex and Drugs and Squash’n’roll on the site for the last three months. I hope anyone who followed the story on the site was minded to pay for the Kindle version, or the full-cellulose paperback with its crisp, high quality pages!

Maybe to assuage the withdrawal symptoms of his readers now that S&D&SnR has EXPLODED to its conclusion, Ted has assembled a group of squash luminaries, and me, to produce a squash story in weekly chapters. The story is called, ‘A Club from Hell’.

Steve Cubbins, noted photographer and SquashSite entrepreneur completed the difficult task of the scene-setting first chapter. Steve is co-publishing the story on the SquashSite. Mick Joint introduced a number of tantalising threads in Chapter Two. I’ve just emailed Chapter Three to Ted, and I hope it’s left enough hooks for blogger and squash junkie Will Gens to restore order in Chapter Four!

Go to http://www.dailysquashreport.com/ or click on the link above to follow the story, every Thursday. You can read the background to it here.