DRENCHED in sweat and gasping for air – I sought respite by the side of the hall and contemplated both the good news and bad news, writes Fraser Watson.
The good news was that I had successfully completed a severe indoor fitness session that covered core stability, shuttle runs, speed and agility runs, sit ups, leg raises, burpees, tuck jumps, squats, power lunges, alternate leg lunges and squat thrusts.
The bad news, was that it was now time to start playing squash.
This was the reality that faced me as I joined Peter Crook and his elite group of players at the Meads Leisure Centre in Milford Haven for my fourteenth Commonwealth Games challenge.
Indeed, squash is a game that has long intrigued me. Prior to my visit to Milford, I had never properly tried it, yet had often heard others wax lyrical about its dynamic nature and the fitness components involved.
Now, I was beginning to see what all the fuss was about.
“You get fit to play squash, not the other way round,” Peter told me.
“A fitness session like this is standard before we start training. The top players are burning around 1,000 calories an hour on court and you have to be prepared for that physically and mentally.”
And Peter, with more than 30 years experience in the game, is in a better position than most to judge.
Recently, his Milford Haven side won promotion to the South Wales Division Two after topping the Pembrokeshire Division One.
A second Milford side, as well as a junior side, will continue to compete in the Pembrokeshire leagues next season.
But as he explained, he hopes the elevation will benefit all clubs in Pembrokeshire, not just his own.
“Our South Wales League team will be a mix of players from around the county – who can then return to their local sides to play in the Pembrokeshire league.
“We want to create a pathway to give people the chance to improve their squash at a higher level.”
And the ambition doesn’t end there. Peter explained the eventual aim was for the side to gain further promotions to Division One West and then the Premier League B.
He added that should the group secure the necessary funding, the intention was to create more qualified and capable coaches in the county, juniors included.
“There have been good coaches and set ups in Pembrokeshire before but there has never been anything beneath it. In that situation, when the coaches leave then things inevitably fall apart.
“But we want to create sustainability and plan for the next decade.”
The vision impressed me. Until of course, it dawned on me that I was soon to make my on court debut against the very players who would be at the centre of it.
And to give an idea as to what I was up against – two of the people training alongside me were Nick Dyer, a former Welsh international, and James Walters, who only this May also represented his country at masters level.
Both play their squash for Swansea in the Premier League, but still feature heavily in the set up at the Meads.
“Hopefully now more players here will get experience in the South Wales League – and bring what they learn back into Pembrokeshire,” said Nick.
From a personal point of view, any kind of elite involvement looked a long way off following the afore mentioned fitness session.
And there was to be no let up in intensity. The on court ‘warm up’ consisted of Peter’s ‘T routine’ – where three players alternated between executing a shot and a shuttle run.
At this point, given I was to face three high quality opponents later on, I bailed on the complex stuff and opted instead for a crash course of the basics.
In a 20 minute tutorial – Peter expertly talked me through the finer technical points of my grip, serve, and follow through, and we practiced placing shots using the angles and dimensions of the court walls.
I also clarified the rules, somewhat essential as my first opponent was to be Keeron John – a Milford junior player ranked No 8 in Wales at under-12 level. Keeron regularly travels to Cardiff to train with the national squad and practices four times a week, often for up to six hours at a time when on Welsh duty.
Optimistically, I asked him to go easy on me. Like a typical youngster, he didn’t listen.
The first three points inevitably went his way, before I reached my first objective. Namely, avoiding a whitewash when a miss hit from Keeron got me on the board.
Sadly, this proved an isolated moment as Keeron consistently out foxed me with unerring accuracy. In the blink of an eye, my first ever game ended in an 11-2 defeat.
However, there was one positive. My opponent had been so ruthless that I had little chance to get embroiled in any rallies – meaning I had at least conserved plenty of energy before a 90-second gap and my second opponent, a familiar face in William Beresford.
And I soon learnt that in squash, there is a major difference between being in a rally and controlling one. William sprayed the ball to all angles as I desperately sped around the court to keep myself alive.
Between us, we managed to please onlookers with some epic exchanges – few of which ended my way. But I did at least manage respectability as I went down 11-5.
So after defeats against a boy 18 years my junior, and a man my own age – my finale was to be against a player at the other end of the scale, the vastly experienced Nick Dyer.
Again, I managed to at least stay in the points long enough to make Nick work – although I suspected he was operating slightly below top gear.
Encouraged by Bill Carne, who was safely tucked away in the gallery, a brief flurry saw me trail just 6-4 after the opening exchanges,
Unfortunately for me and Bill, there was to be no Rocky and Mickey fairytale ending, and Nick effortlessly upped the ante to win 11-5.
But regardless, it had been an intriguing few minutes and as I staggered off court, the reason for so much pre-game core work suddenly hit home.
“When you play a shot in squash, you have to be able to hold your body position and then move away quickly,” said Nick.
“You are throwing your weight around all the time and without a strong core it’s easy to lose your balance.”
I couldn’t help but think how my performance must have looked to the purists, as I bounced from wall to wall with little thought for posture or aesthetic grace.
But in truth, I learnt a considerable amount from a thoroughly enjoyable morning. The game is about so much more than darting around a hall sweating. It’s a severe test of your reactions, endurance, technique, hand eye co-ordination, and even intelligence. It’s also a game that, as the Milford Haven Squash Club proves, is accessible to all.
Just one line of advice though – get fit before you try it.
Bill Carne's verdict:
WHEN Fraser Watson tells me the core exercises he has just completed are the toughest he has undertaken I listen - because I have seen him enjoy a range of sporting activities where he has been pushed hard.
We visited the Meads with four members of the Milford Haven Squash Club and coach Peter Crook, who carries out the training with a calm assurance that is soothing – unless you happen to be one of the club’s aspiring players who put themselves through torture every Saturday morning for two hours.
The aim is to establish a team in South Wales Division Two and get promotion, whereupon Nick Dyer and James Walters could return to the club and those eager to play at that level could then move through a pyramid system for players in Pembrokeshire.
James, who manages the Meads, and Nick, a local head teacher, play Premiership squash for Swansea whilst Will Beresford and Chris John are two of those looking to reach a higher level.
Peter told us that squash is a sport of attrition, where fitness is allied to hand/eye co-ordination, ball skills and tactical awareness – and there was no sign of a racquet during the first hour, as those involved pushed themselves to the limit with a range of stretches, lifts and runs.
This was followed by circuit training designed to help squash players, and Fraser was equal to the demands because it was similar to the indoor fitness sessions he does in rugby.
Then came the playing segment and Peter had three players on court at one time so movement and anticipation were paramount alongside the ability to avoid flailing racquets and a ball travelling very quickly!
Fraser visibly flinched when he saw what was going on knowing he was soon expected to have a bash!
From there it was onto a match against 12-year-old Keeron Evans, but he won a couple of points before a 90-second rest and a game against Will Beresford - then a similar gap before he took on Welsh vets’ international Nick Dyer.
Both were kind to Fraser and he did well to pick up a few points– and in all three games he chased bravely and Peter said Fraser he had done well for a raw novice.
I consider that high praise from someone who doesn’t just dish out plaudits – and Fraser can be pleased with his first venture onto a squash court!
Tune into the this week’s Radio Pembrokeshire Friday Night Sport Show, between 6-8pm, to hear Bill Carne speak to Fraser about his session, and to Peter Crook and co about squash in Pembrokeshire.
For more on squash in Pembrokeshire, visit the Sport Pembrokeshire Facebook page or www.pembrokeshire.gov.uk/sport.