A bold show by Bhattacharya and Ghosal

IT may not have been a title triumph. Yet, for Indian squash, it was the stuff of which dreams are made.

S.R. SURYANARAYAN

Cameron White (left) and Byron Davis of Australia celebrating their win in the men's doubles final. -- Pic. VINO JOHN-

IT may not have been a title triumph. Yet, for Indian squash, it was the stuff of which dreams are made. By reaching the final of the World Doubles Championship in Chennai, Ritwik Bhattacharya and Saurav Ghosal illustrated that Indian squash has come of age. The achievement of Bhattacharya and Ghosal came as a surprise to everybody, including even the person who is the architect of the development plan of Indian squash, the Consultant Coach from Malaysia, Major (Retd.) S. Maniam. "I could not have imagined this," said Maniam. Another person who can also be given credit for Bhattacharya's and Ghosal's good show was over the moon. "It has to be the happiest moment for every Indian squash fan," said N. Ramachandran, Secretary-General of the Squash Rackets Federation of India (SRFI) and the man behind the launch of the India Cements Limited Academy.

Happiness was not just for the people involved in the system. The small gathering at the glass-back centre court of the ICL-TNSRA Academy roared its approval on the night of the semifinal when Bhattacharya and Ghosal were putting it past the formidable American pair of Jamie Crombie and Preston Cook. Indeed, who would have imagined that in a field consisting of players from Australia, Pakistan, New Zealand and Malaysia among other countries, India could reach the final!

Before the championship began, the focus was on Australia which had sent a strong contingent comprising world No. 4 David Palmer and world No. 14 Anthony Ricketts in the men's section and world No.1 Rachael Grinham and world No.4 Natalie Grinham among others. On top of this, Australia was coached by the living legend Geoff Hunt. "We are eager to grab all the medals," Hunt had stated before the tournament. "We are preparing for the 2006 Commonwealth Games in Melbourne. Not many doubles tournaments are held in the world and hence this event has come in handy to have a work out." When the tournament ended, Australia had achieved whatever its legendary coach had spelt out as their target by winning the men's, women's and mixed doubles events.

Bhattacharya and Ghosal came closest to upsetting the Aussie applecart in the men's draw. How did the Indian pair achieve what should have been the task of top pairs such as the Malaysian duo of Ong Beng Hee and Mohd. Azlan Iskandar or the Pakistani duo of Mansoor Zaman and his cousin Shahid Zaman? (Mansoor Zaman is the son of Qamar Zaman, one among many of Pakistan's great players of the past.) The championship was proof that being a top singles player is no guarantee that the billing will be transferred to the doubles scene as well. For instance, top seeds Palmer and Ricketts did not reach the final and second seeds Ong Beng Hee and Mohd. Azlan Iskander did not even win a match! The same reason can be attributed for the failure of the Pakistani pair and for the series of surprise victories registered by Americans Jamie Crombie and Preston Cook to reach the semifinal.

The Grinham sisters, Natalie (left) and Rachael, who bagged the honours in the women's doubles. — Pic. VINO JOHN-

The semifinal witnessed the battle between Bhattacharya and Ghosal and Crombie and Cook, the two surprise pairs of the tournament. With doubles squash a lot more frequently played event in the US, the Americans were the pre-match favourites.

The Indian duo had other ideas. Egged on by a partisan crowd, they brought forth all their brave fighting qualities and superb skills to win a 65-minute thriller. There was everything in the match — fast rallies, delicate drops and some amazing full-length dives by Crombie — for the crowd to be on the edge of their seats till the last point. And when the win came, it was the most profound moment for everybody cheering the two heroes. For the crowd, it did not matter then what the final would have in store for Bhattacharya and Ghosal. That the duo won a thriller of a semifinal might just be the tonic needed to strengthen Indian squash and improve its image at the international level.

In the other semifinal, an All-Australian affair between David Palmer and Anthony Ricketts on one side and Byron Davis and Cameron White on the other, the quality of squash was of top quality and so was the competitive element. No quarter was given or taken as the two pairs battled it out fiercely. The match ended with a lot of unsavoury action, all involving Palmer. Though his credentials as a player are incredible, Palmer illustrated that he is certainly not the one who takes defeat with a cool head, especially if the match was influenced by what he perceived to be a refereeing faux pas. What Palmer forgot when the lower-ranked pair of Davis and White won was that his loss was attributable more to the superb opponent-reading skills of Davis, a master coach in the Australian Institute of Sports, than to perceived refereeing errors.

Palmer could not accept the Pakistani referee Fayaz Khan's decision of `no let' on the final point. "It is a let because there was a back swing of the racket", he angrily cried out to imply that the rival player had hindered his movement. When the referee announced that Davis and White had won, Palmer's fury knew no bounds. He proceeded to swear at the referee, banged his racket repeatedly on the glass wall of the court and kicked a chair on his way out, even as the people around stared in disbelief. All the while none in the Australian camp went to pacify him.

David Palmer (right) and Rachael Grinham, who won the mixed doubles title, pose with Natalie (left). -- Pic. PTI-

Worse was to follow. Palmer stormed the Championship office and breaking all canons of sportsmanship he gave vent to his ire by abusing a lady WSF official. The matter was quietly passed to the local police and the next day, at the mixed doubles final where he and Rachael Grinham played, plain-clothed policemen waited to question him. Profusely apologising for his bad conduct, Palmer said he did not know what had possessed him. Palmer also tendered an apology to WSF and to the organising body. But going by what WSF officials state, Palmer's conduct could earn him a stiff penalty.

Thankfully, the final was played in the best of spirits. In the early stages of the match, Bhattacharya and Ghosal held their own against the excellence of Davis and amazing mobility of White. They were, of course, helped by the support they received from an expectant gathering. Before long, though, the Australian ascendancy became marked. If Davis showed his mastery with his subtle placements (his soft drops were a marvel!) then White took one's breath away by his acrobatics — he even dived backwards once and won a point! The Indians grabbed a game but the Australians wrapped up the match.

Mixed doubles was another category that was of local interest because of the presence of Joshna Chinappa and Saurav Ghosal as a pair. The two reached the last eight, where they lost to the Australian pair of Cameron White and Dianne Desira. The match showed White's ability to shore up his weak partner. As a strategy, both Ghosal and Chinappa had repeatedly targeted Desira, testing her mobility. White was able to make timely interventions and not once did he make a wrong shot in the whole match.

The women's category did not have an Indian pair. On the eve of the championship, Maniam had spelt out the reason behind this in no uncertain terms. "Lack of depth in talent," he had said. The presence of formidable pairs such as the Grinham sisters, Rachael and Natalie, from Australia, Nicol David and Tricia Chuah of Malaysia and Louise Crome and Lara Petera of New Zealand meant that the bar was too high for an Indian pair to compete. In keeping with the depth of talent in the women's field, results went topsy-turvy till the final, when the Grinham sisters stamped their dominance in keeping with Rachael's status as the number one ranked player in the world. Rachael Grinham also won the mixed doubles title, partnering David Palmer.

Credit should be given to the SRFI for its bold decision to host the championship, which has had few takers since its first edition in 1997. The SRFI even had its existing courts converted for doubles play. In the end, the organisation got ample dividends for their bold decision as well as their efforts. India's participation in the 2006 Commonwealth Games has now become a certainty.