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The Independent Online

The early-19th-century origins of squash lay in London taverns and prisons. By the 1820s, it had been adopted at Harrow School, where it gradually developed into the game we know today. The sport's popularity in Britain peaked in the late 1960s, Seventies and early Eighties, when Jonah Barrington – the latter-day Fred Perry of squash – won six British Opens, became a national icon, and the number of active British players topped three million.

Since then, squash has suffered a dip in fortunes. A notoriously difficult game to televise, despite the advent of glass courts and various attempts to introduce luminous balls, it has missed out on much of the sponsorship generated by other sports. In recent years, it has reportedly been afflicted by a mass exodus of players to the gym.

The Squash Rackets Association, the sport's governing body in England, estimate that there are now only 1.5 million people playing squash regularly on Britain's 10,000 courts. Furthermore, despite being played in 135 different nations, squash is the only major racket sport not to be recognised as an Olympic event.

The game is played on an enclosed indoor court measuring 21ft wide and 32ft deep. The india-rubber ball, which should be warmed up to match temperature before play begins, has minimal bounce in order to maximise the effort and skill required.Play commences with a service into the opponent's designated "box" via the upper section of the front wall and, optionally, the side wall. Points can only be scored on service; when a receiver wins a rally he or she becomes the server.

A match is the best of five games, the winner of each game in the traditional scoring system being the first to nine points (or two points ahead should the score reach 8-8). At men's international level, though, the American scoring system holds sway, in which all serves count as points and the first to 15 wins. The game is fast and energetic, providing excellent cardiovascular exercise.

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Beginners should contact their local squash club or leisure centre, who should be able to provide rackets and balls as well as court time and lessons.

Each of the home nations has its own dedicated squash association: England Squash/Squash Rackets Association (www.englandsquash.com, 0161 231 4499), Squash Wales (www.squashwales.co.uk, 01633 682 108) and Scottish Squash (www.scottishsquash.net, 0131 317 7343).

The World Squash Federation (01424 429 245, www.worldsquash.org) are based in Hastings and have 109 national associations in membership.

This year's Squash World Championships take place in Melbourne from 6-28 October.

Beginners should look for the lightest racket they can afford. Aluminium frames are the cheapest but also the heaviest and most likely to break. Opt instead for a graphite composite racket. These start at around £50, going up to £100-plus for more advanced rackets. Slazenger, Prince, Dunlop and Head are the leading brands. If you can, borrow different rackets to try out before buying your own.

The rule of thumb is a slower ball for more advanced players and a faster, bouncier ball for beginners. Originally, these balls were classified according to a system of coloured dots: yellow being the slowest, blue the fastest. Recently, though,Dunlop have introduced new designs, including an advanced double-yellow ball. They are also marketing the Max, a special ball for beginners 12 per cent larger than the standard ball and boasting 40 per cent greater "hang time".

Most sports-shoe firms produce dedicated squash shoes with non-marking soles made of a gum-rubber compound. A decent entry-level model is Hi-Tec Squash, retailing at about £20. More expensive models, which provide better grip and cushioning, include: Reebok Smash (£30), Hi-Tec Excell x 4 Squash (£30), Adidas Vendetta (£50) and Adidas Equipment Light (£80).