Happy tidings in squash

NOTHING could have come as music to squash administrators' ears than legendary Pakistani Jansher Khan's comment that India is fast emerging as a global force in the sport.

NOTHING could have come as music to squash administrators' ears than legendary Pakistani Jansher Khan's comment that India is fast emerging as a global force in the sport. In fact, Khan was generous to predict that the day is not far off when Pakistan will see India as a threat to its supremacy.

Indeed, Pakistan-India contests in squash have not produced the kind of intensity that is prevalent in cricket or even hockey. Such had been the overwhelming dominance of the Pakistanis, Jansher and Jehangir Khan being the glowing examples, that none could challenge them.

However, things are changing now. Pakistan seems to have lost its edge while India has begun to take the upward curve. The current crop of Ritwik Bhattacharya, Saurav Ghosal and Joshna Chinappa, to name the three best known Indian stars in contemporary squash, have been making waves not only on the Asian scene but also on the world stage. Bhattacharya and Ghosal defied all odds to reach the final in the World Doubles Championship held last December in Chennai. When seen against the backdrop of the presence of players such as David Palmer and Anthony Ricketts, ranked in the top ten in the world, in the tournament their performance can be hailed as a path-breaking moment for Indian squash.

Soon after the tournament, Chinappa retained the Asian junior title and she bagged the British Open Under-19 title as well (she was the runner-up the previous year). Ghosal also won the British Open Under-19 title. More recently, Bhattacharya, the highest ranked Indian in the Professional circuit, had a series of title wins in PSA tournaments. Overall, Indian squash looks healthier and gets noticed on the international stage as never before.

The Squash Rackets Federation of India, particularly its influential Secretary-General, N. Ramachandran, is right when he claims that the happy tidings are a logical culmination of systematic training and coaching, backed by Government support. Today, the ICL-TNSRA Academy, which had come up in Chennai with the blessings of the Sports Development Authority of Tamil Nadu, is the nerve-centre of squash in the country. The start of the Academy, which has eight modern courts including one glass backcourt, virtually signalled the end of squash as a clubs-only sport in Chennai and the country in general.

It is true that places such as Mumbai, Ajmer and Indore were traditional bases where squash flourished but there is no denying that the game got an additional thrust only when the state-of-the-art Academy came up in Chennai and year-round coaching became a reality. With Maj (retd.) S. Maniam, who has the reputation of turning around Malaysian squash with his penchant for systematisation and planned development, moving over to Chennai, SRFI showed that it meant business in charting the course for the game's development in India.

Khan's comments in a Pakistani newspaper referred to these positive aspects and his own response to these was the acknowledgement that Indian squash had begun to look up. Possibly, this was the best compliment that SRFI could have got. SRFI's action plan is a model that can be emulated by the other federations in the country, particularly the vision to build an exclusive facility. It helps in organising uninterrupted coaching schedules and in conducting events, both national and international, to increase the popularity of the sport. Today, a major squash tournament in Chennai is not a novelty but a routine platform to showcase Indian talent.

India, though, has a long way to go in sustaining a high level of performance, the very index of a sport's popularity. To achieve this, there would have to be mass induction, grooming and fine-tuning of talent, an area where SRFI is involving itself fully. Already, it has set up bases in various parts of the country to ensure uniformity of training and coaching and to trigger interest among schoolchildren simultaneously.

SRFI's emphasis is on the dictum that even a child from the street can make it big. Already, the experiment is reaping dividends in Chennai, where the sport has now made its entry into government-run corporation schools. In the years to come this will help in broad-basing talent, a prime requirement to ensure that the supply line to high performance acts is never clogged.

This is all the more necessary now as squash is among the disciplines for the Asian Games in Qatar next year. Observers believe that India already has the potential to obtain a few medals in Doha. The world governing body believes that by 2012 it would succeed in making squash an Olympic discipline. There is much to look forward to, and it is heartening that India is moving along the right path.