‘Ours is a proven, structured programme’

V. GANESAN

“I made a bold decision to move to India. It was a huge challenge. I shall never regret this decision,” says Singaraveloo Maniam, Technical Consultant, SRFI, and Director of Coaching, ASF, in a chat with S. R. Suryanarayan.

National squash coach Cyrus Poncha is never tired of describing those winning moments at the Incheon Asian Games. “Saurav (Ghosal) had just won his final point. He drops his racquet, screams and rushes towards the back wall as though he was going to crash through it. In a jiffy, the other players join in and almost instantly Saurav disappears under a heap like a scene from a football field. Spectators in the packed indoor stadium are up, the Indian Tri-colour flutters all around and cheers reverberate. That was history and I was fortunate to be a witness to it,” he said. In a nutshell he had encapsulated the feelings of all, the moment that squash lovers had waited for. Indian squash had become a gold medal-winning sport.

Fourteen years may not be a long period in history but for squash it is a renaissance — from a time when many talented players failed to find opportunities, to a post-2000 period which saw plenty of opportunities for talented players to become top-flight players. If Mr. N. Ramachandran, the SRFI patron, envisioned the Indian Squash Academy then he also did the good turn of roping in the reputed Maj Singaraveloo Maniam from Malaysia and a young Poncha from Mumbai to run the Academy. A Malaysian No. 1 in the mid-1980s, Maj Maniam was at the coaching helm when Nicol David surfaced and later became the best in the world. Not only that, the Director of coaching in Asian Squash Federation was a witness to Malaysia’s rise in the sport. A former Major with the Malaysian Royal Signals, his was a ‘bold decision’, as he put it, to leave the country for a fresh challenge.

Excerpts from an interview:

Question: Before coming to India to take up your new role, what is that you remember of Indian squash history? The players you have heard of and the players who were in the scene then?

Answer: I’ll always remember Indian players whom I met at various international events. Narpat Singh, Bhuvaneshwari Kumari, Yogendra Singh, Arjun Singh, Raj Manchanda, Ananth Nayak, Anil Nayar, Vaman Apte and Narjit come immediately to mind. At that time India had a formidable senior team. Malaysia always finished below them. Then it is the juniors. My family and I had played host to a number of Indian junior national and State players who had come to train and stayed with me over the years. The likes of Adrian Ezra, Parth Doshi, Dilip Abraham, Deepak Abraham, Pia Abraham, Anjali Ponni, Sumangali Krishnan, Vasanth Williams, Abhijit Kukreja, Junaid Nathani, and many others. And, of course, how can I forget the 30 days in 1999 when Cyrus Poncha came to learn the ropes of coaching?

Seeing the state of affairs in Indian squash, did you think a major change was possible?

I always felt (and still do) that the Indians had the potential to do well in squash. This was proven by players like Anil Nayar, Adrian Ezra, Arjun and Bhuvaneshwari Kumari. All of them achieved reasonable international success. I realised that most of the squash action in India was in Mumbai and Delhi. I felt that a major change was definitely possible.

In comparison to Malaysia what was the basic thing that Indian squash lacked when you stepped in?

In one word — structure. Players and coaches were not exposed to a systematic and scientific approach to training. The use of support services such as strength training, mental training, lab and field tests and diet and nutrition were at a minimum. In so far as the game itself was concerned there were not enough international tournaments in India. Coupled with this only those who could afford travelled abroad to play tournaments. Finally, a large part of the playing population was from wealthy families. This was perhaps due to a lack of public facilities.

Were you confident that a structured training and development programme would help Indian squash? Is this the model you had followed in Malaysia?

Absolutely. I remember, in Pakistan, once when I had gone to conduct a Level 2 coaching course, around 50 coaches turned up. At the introductory session one participant asked, “Does Pakistan, a land that has produced great squash players like Hashim Khan, Mohibullah Khan, Qamar Zaman, Jahangir Khan, Jansher Khan, and also has a large pool of world-class players, need such a course?” Though surprised, I was prepared for this. I told him, “Years ago many of Pakistan’s great players used to come to Malaysia to play in tournaments and we used to watch them in awe. Malaysia was nowhere on the squash map at that time. Then, under the leadership of Prince Imran (the squash President then) we embarked on a systematic and structured junior development programme. Today, around 10 years later, we have produced outstanding players like Nicol David, Beng Hee, Azlan and many others. More than that, we have one girl and one boy in the top 10 of PSA and WISPA rankings. Pakistan has none. This, we owe to a structure. I am not here to teach you how to play squash but to discuss a systematic approach to coaching.” The point was well appreciated. The structured programme is what helped Malaysia. It was welcomed in India thanks to Mr. Ramachandran who had the vision.

MANIAM AND PONCHA during a training session at the SDAT Squash Academy.-V. GANESAN

Tell us about a few players who had come up in Malaysia under your training programme?

Nicol David, Beng Hee, Mohammad Azlan, Jay Lim, Kenneth Low, Sandra Wu and Delia Arnold, all came up via the junior development programme. Ong Beng Hee became the world junior men’s champion, while Nicol became world junior women’s champion twice. Sandra Wu was three-time Asian Junior champion. Besides, a few coaches/players who had worked with me have taken up top coaching assignments within and outside the country.

In the 14 years since the ISA was established in Chennai there has undoubtedly been a change in the way people in India look at squash now. How do we sustain this progress?

Like a McDonald’s programme ours is a proven, structured programme, which should be successful wherever it is implemented under the supervision of competent people. Just continue with it. Obviously, with the passage of time things change, so must we. Adapting accordingly is the need, I would say.

If India has to rise to the level of Egypt or England, what more needs to be done?

Both these very successful countries have a huge competitive playing base. The club-based approach is huge in Egypt. A well structured development programme is England’s hallmark. India, through the ISA, has shown that a well-executed structured programme can produce results. All we need is to reproduce this concept in the rest of the country. We are currently looking at Delhi.

You have been in India for more than a decade. What has been the most satisfying moment yet?

Many wonderful moments. Our junior men and women breaking into the top-4 in the World Junior championships, our women finishing fifth and men seventh in the World Senior Championship, Saurav’s British Junior Open Championship tile, the many Asian Junior titles, CWG doubles gold, Asian men’s team gold, some of our players being conferred Arjuna Awards and Cyrus Poncha’s Dronacharya Award are all intensely satisfying moments.

Is there any other goal that you have set for yourself with regard to Indian squash?

In coaching, I’d like to see more competent elite level coaches. In the development area, a larger pool of players nation-wide and more States promoting the sport. In performance, I will not be satisfied until a player/team becomes world junior champion.

In a country where cricket has major attention and some other sports take a generous space in the media, do you feel squash is at a disadvantage?

It’s the same in Malaysia where football and badminton hog the limelight. Nicol David occupies ample space now. In India, we cannot compete with cricket. However this should not be seen as a disadvantage. We can and should let our performance do the talking. In due course the media will have to sit up and take notice. Due to outstanding performances in recent times we are indeed getting a fair bit of mileage now.

Any other observations that you would like to add?

I made a bold decision to move to India. It was a huge challenge. I shall never regret this decision. I must first thank my family which has supported me through thick and thin. At the ISA, I have a pool of dedicated coaches led by the competent national coach Cyrus Poncha, who has stood by me all these years. I had the opportunity and pleasure to work with some talented, hard working and pleasant players. Most importantly, I have worked all this while for a man who has vision and supports the programme fully. He is the backbone of our success. Thank you ‘Rami’ (N. Ramachandran).

Finally, it must have been tough to see a team trained by you (India) beat your own country’s team, as it happened in Incheon.

I always feel for the losing team. Be it India or Malaysia. I try to be a professional and not show too much emotion. In Incheon, the two teams I had worked with all my coaching life played against each other. That was something special.