Missing the Point

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By ALAN THATCHER

Professional squash made a massive step forward as a
spectator sport with the introduction of a video referee system at the ISS Canary Wharf Classic.

The trial was such a success that PSA chief Alex Gough announced that the system would be introduced at all major televised tournaments.

Those behind the innovation are confident that this will help to transform squash as a viewing spectacle, both for the live audience at the venue and for TV viewers. It will also make it easier to play and referee, with technology on hand to clarify difficult calls.

World champion Nick Matthew, who beat Peter Barker in the Canary Wharf final, was an enthusiastic supporter of the project, as were all of the players I spoke to during the tournament.

This has been a long time coming, with Squash Player magazine suggesting such a system more than a year ago with support from several leading players including former world No.1 John White.

Referees were thrown in at the deep end at Canary Wharf but any initial concerns were swept aside as they quickly got used to the system and the technology available to help them review any decisions that were disputed by the players.

To start with, players were allowed two video reviews per game but this was changed to one per game from day three onwards. (They also had another single review during any tiebreak).

If players were not happy with a decision made by the three referees, they were given the opportunity of referring an appeal to a TMO (Television Match Official).

The reviews in this first tournament trial were only for lets, no lets or penalty strokes, which are always the most contentious incidents on court and the most difficult for TV to communicate to non-squash-playing viewers.

The TMO, who was seated in the TV production truck outside the venue, could watch any incident from a variety of angles and ask for slow-motion replays to assist his or her decision.

All of these replays were simultaneously shown on the giant screen above the front wall of the glass court at the superb East Wintergarden venue at Canary Wharf, allowing players and spectators to watch the incident unfold. When the decision was made, a big sign saying Let, No Let or Stroke flashed up on the screen.

There were two instant, massive, plus points for squash. Firstly, the whole system became part of the show and the audience enjoyed being involved in the process, just as they are in other sports such as tennis, cricket and rugby.

Secondly, the review system instantly removed the ugly altercations between player and referee that do so much damage to the integrity of our sport.

Instead of shouting and arguing with the match officials, players were able to relax and watch the incident again. Often they were right to appeal a bad call. More often, they were wrong and the review upheld the original decision.

The statistics supplied by Tournament Referee Linda Davie show that, of the 50 reviews monitored during the final four days, 29 upheld the decision of the referees and 21 calls (42 per cent) were overturned.

On reflection, a third, important element confirms that referees have a tough time dealing with the blockages and obstructions that are unique to squash as players move around each other on their way to and from shots.

The most positive aspect for me was to see the interaction between players and referees as they met each morning in the tournament office to discuss the decisions made the night before in a friendly and respectful manner.

Players were given a fresh insight into refereeing and admitted that they understood how difficult it was to make split-second decisions.

Mrs Davie said: “My initial thoughts were perhaps a bit on the negative side as I had four referees ranging from National level to World level and we were thrown in at the deep end on day one.

“However, as we all got used to the idea we think it turned out to be a great success. Once everyone got used to viewing the reviews, things calmed down. 

“With the various cameras, especially those giving views from the front wall and from overhead, we had new perspectives with which to make more informed decisions.

“Also, the TMO had another advantage, being able to look at a particular incident in slow motion. The referees all agreed that it was the way forward and we all thoroughly enjoyed the experience.

“It certainly cut down any excessive dialogue and the players were on the whole happier to move on with game after the TMO’s decision.

“Interestingly, when we asked players to review decisions the next day, most of them found it difficult to make a decision in a split-second. They all agreed that, given more time, plus all the different angles and slow motion, did indeed help. They also noticed that sometimes the decision can be marginal.”

“My own view is that I would like to test it with a centre referee and marker instead of three officials.”

Her senior official, WSF world referee John Massarella, added: “It was an undoubted success. The appeals referee, with time to reflect, and the availability of different camera angles, has that extra advantage to correct a decision.”

“This is an exciting new development for the professional game,” said PSA CEO Alex Gough. “With the latest enhancements made to the TV coverage, we were able to bring in the technology that assisted referees in one of the fastest games on the planet.

“We were able to fine-tune the process during the PSA International 50 championship at Canary Wharf and will now roll out the initiative in all televised events.”

Nick Matthew said: “I think it worked well. There were one or two tweaks by the end of the week and allowing one appeal per game, plus one in the tie-break, was the right number.

“It cut out the arguments between players and referees and helped the crowd to get involved in the whole process.”

Tournament Director Tim Garner, from Eventis Sports Marketing, said: “We felt that the Video Review was a positive addition to this year’s event. It gave the crowd the opportunity to be more involved in the match and reduced the discussions between the players and the officials to almost a minimum.

“Generally when it did happen there was a more humorous rather than aggressive slant to the dialogue between the two parties. We have always been keen to experiment with new concepts that can take the sport forwards and so were delighted first to be asked by PSA and then to see the results have a positive impact on the event.”

Mark Bousfield, TV producer for the Perform Group, said: “I thought that the TV review added a positive edge to the TV output of squash.

“It gives extra scope for analysis for viewers at home as well as cutting out potential conflict. It therefore improves the image of the sport by placing fairness firmly at the heart of its progression and agenda.

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World Open Stats (Abbreviated)


Missing the Point
(Click to see Excel Spreadsheet from Burmuda 2007 World Open Refereeing Statistics)

Squash Player editor, Ian McKenzie gives a personal view on the refereeing debate and asks: can we have some facts, some proper analysis and some open debate.

I am sure we have been here before in the refereeing debate. One perspective on the issue encapsulated in the the latest PSA press release, which explains it as “solving the problem of player-referee confrontation and inconsistency.” 

I think we are really missing the point.

There is belatedly a realisation in the sport that the constant friction between players and referees and the regular decent of referee’s decision is harming the sports prospects. Let me quote from the same PSA press release again: "The PSA are very driven to attaining Olympic status for our sport and it was noted that one view of the Olympic committee was that squash is a sport with too much vocal confrontation between referees and players.”

If this is really the problem it can relatively easily be handled. Referees have massive power – and can award conduct warnings, strokes, games and even matches when required.

However is not the problem really that the best players in the world cannot play the game without constantly running into each other?

We are asking the wrong questions. Should not we should be asking? What is an acceptable number of stoppages? What is an acceptable number of decisions for a referee to have to make? What are facts?

After a little off court interference on my part at the World Open excellent World Referee Roy Gingell was exceeding helpful and compiled a full record of the number of decisions referees made in the World Open. The results are below. They showed that on average there was a decision required, (a stoppage generally) every two points. Isn’t this the central problem? Why can’t the game be played without all these stoppages? And is there a solution to this?

This is not a new problem, it is a historical one. Former PSA President Chris Dittmar grappled with it and the perception that there were too many lets. And the perception that squash would not get on TV, certainly live TV, with this number of lets. (I think it is more useful to think in terms of stoppages.)

There have been a number of initiatives to help solve this problem – ‘so called tough refereeing’ and a number of rules changes. Have they been any use? Not in my opinion but I am open to persuasion and would like to see the facts. Have the number of stoppages reduced? I do not know if any of the  the officiating bodies has any comparative statistics on the issue.

My opinion is that the perceived solution is really the problem. Giving easy strokes has only encouraged players to stop and look for strokes and look for rewards from the referee rather than playing the ball.

The solution is not too difficult. Make points won from a referee a little bit harder to come by than those earned in play.

If referees constantly reward players for stopping they will stop. If referees award punitive no lets for balls players could retrieve, without warning them, these players will be aggrieved and have no compunction about trying to pick up points from the referee whenever they can.

Certainly there are a whole range of situations were players could safely play the ball that have almost become convention for scoring points from the referee. For example: the perceived non-clearing of the front wall (especially on the forehand); the perceived encroachment into an opponent’s backswing (even resulting in a rule change); the blocking in of an opponent into a hitting area after a loose shot, to name a few.

On question we forget in jumping to solutions for the ‘refereeing’ issue: how do we want the game to be played? It is one I would like to ask referees.

Is it not that we want players to win the points on court, not for referees to award them.

My view is that we need a new culture where players play the ball, not play the referee, and accept minimal interference in doing so’.

How do we want the game to be refereed?

Can I quote Dick Hawkey: “We want the fair result to each rally”. We want referees to encourage players to play the ball not reward them for not playing it.

Look at the top rugby referees managing matches, and helping the players, letting them know when to play the ball, when not to play it, when to get on side – and they don’t have to take any backchat. Why do referees in squash continue to penalise players by awarding points to their opponents, out of the blue, with ‘no let’ decisions on gettable balls for so called ‘marginal interference’ without ever explaining to those players where there individual guidelines are.

Unfortunately with the previous emphasis of tough refereeing (easy strokes) we have a whole generation of young players who do not play the ball.

It is not so much tough decisions we want but fair ones. We want a sport where players play the ball and not the referee, and refereeing decisions aid this end not sabotage it.

It would be useful in the debate on the issue of stoppages, refereeing decisions and refereeing systems had some proper analysis of the causes and some facts. Statistics should be collected. Then we know what we are talking about.

I believe that proper analysis would show whether the rules changes implemented at PSA bequest have contributed to solving the problems or exasperating them.

The more intrusive the referees decisions are required to be, the more pressure put on them, the more mistakes they will make. Having three referees is not a panacea. It is not without a down side. We may alleviate the odd ‘wrong’ decision but we may get more ‘confused’ ones when the grounds for an appeal are not clear. What we will not get it a confident referee, committed to getting players to play the ball and to getting the fair result to each rally.

Lets face it, we cannot be an Olympic sport with one stoppage every two points. One solution, may seem ridiculous to many readers but it is already the decision the sport has made – in doubles. If the court was bigger the problem could largely be solved.

There may be of course a few logistical problems in this. Alternatively we could agree that a culture were player’s play the ball, and are not rewarded for not playing it; were points are harder to come by from the referee and than in play; is in the interests of the sport. And were the referees, whether there is one or three of them, encourage players to play the ball, make fair decisions and give appropriate explanations.

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World Open Refereeing Decisions
(Click to see Excel Spreadsheet from Bermuda 2007 World Open Refereeing Statistics)

TOTAL match statistics
Number of matches: 31
Number of games: 116
Number of points: 1,917
Number of minutes: 1,734

TOTAL refereeing decisions
Number of decisions: 959
Number of lets: 706 (74%)
Number of No lets: 111 (11%)
Number of Strokes: 145 (16%)

Decisions
Decisions per match: 31
Decision per game: 8