A view of the portable squash court during the National junior championship in Chennai.-S. THANTHONI

ONE hardly expects eyebrows to be raised on the Marina beach. With the exception of the horrific images of December 26, the golden sands of the second longest beach in the world usually bear witness to strolls (quiet and the not so quiet ones), beach sports and food fiestas. But for three days many an eyebrow was raised with squash players greeting passers-by from the big screen, and even luring more than a few inside to check out the sudden emergence of glass in the open. That was probably the defining moment of the junior Nationals, and maybe even squash in India, with the game finally coming out into the open, literally. Those who accepted the invitation were treated to some fine play from the cream of the emerging crop of squash talent in the country, like Sandeep Jangra, Anwesha Reddy and Harinderpal Singh to name a few. Squash had finally woken up and smelt the charm of outdoor sport.

The tournament, played at the ICL-TNSRA Academy courts and the Lady Willingdon college campus (from the quarterfinal stages for the under-19 and under-17), stuck to the script. The usual suspects did their bit and took home the silverware. Anwesha Reddy (under-19 girls), Sandeep Jangra (under-19 boys), Harinderpal Singh(under-17 boys) and Surbi Misra (under-17 girls) smashed, stretched and slid their way to junior glory. The team championship saw the hosts claim three of the four titles (under-19 boys and girls and under-15 girls), which is further proof of how high Tamil Nadu is perched on the squash tree. But looking at squash from both sides of the Vindhyas, the question to be asked is, how many of these promising youngsters, with one foot already there, can undertake a successful climb up the senior ladder? Srivatsan Subramaniam, joint secretary, SRFI, believes that the likes of Sandeep, Dipika Pallikal, Parthiban Aiyappan, Anwesha, Harinderpal, Vikram Malhotra and Shivangi Paranjape are all capable of moving up to the next level. "Kush Kumar in the under-11 category is another kid who shows very good promise," he said. "There are many talented youngsters who can do it, if they pursue the sport diligently," said National coach Cyrus Poncha, hinting at how squash is squashed by some players when the `studies syndrome' overcomes them.

One way that the SRFI hopes to tackle the inevitable exodus is by promoting the game amongst the lower income group. "Our main aim is to target children from the slums and other lower income areas," said Major S Maniam, consultant coach, SRFI. For starters, such a project is being implemented in Tamil Nadu at the ICL-TNSRA Academy courts, with weekend training being provided for the slum dwellers. Besides the ground beneath their feet, the kids are also given rackets, balls and any other equipment required to master the game. "Kolkata, Delhi, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh are also in the fray," said Maniam. One such youngster from this background, who rose from a cleaner to someone who, now, simply cleans up the opposition, is Tamil Nadu's Parthiban Aiyappan, who almost claimed his first junior National title. "Apart from showing great promise, he is also extremely hard-working," said Cyrus on the youngster. Squash, with its high-nosed, club-trotting image needs the likes of Parthiban to give it a new face and mass appeal. The weekend training will soon extend to the weekdays as well, and if more such Parthibans emerge from such initiatives, squash will slowly but surely emerge out of the elite `stroke' given against the sport in the public mind.

`Catching them young and watching them win', in order to get them more involved, is a concept that has got off to a great start with the SRFI launching the Natalia National Squash Development Programme (NSDP) for kids between five and thirteen, in the year 2002. The federation is now in the process of setting up courts in all Kendriya Vidyalaya schools across the country. With around three courts per school, 2006 will witness Kendriya Vidyalaya kids hitting more than just their books.

If the SRFI's plan to go glass in a few other tournaments is any indication, squash lovers might soon see more rallies of the kind one is used to seeing at the French Open — the surface doesn't make the ball die down very fast, which means hard-hitting squash, and not to forget more screeching and scampering will be in the offing. "We are planning to use these courts in Delhi, and maybe even in the Asian Championships," said N. Ramachandran, Secretary General, SRFI. Players like Vikram Malhotra and Sandeep Jangra prefer it for their own reasons. "It suits my game, so I like it" said Vikram, while Sandeep explains, "the ball dies fast on these courts, which is why I prefer this."

The big crowds have prompted officials to look at the future, with big stadiums accommodating crowds of more than 5000. Sport always has room for a huge dose of passion, and nothing can arouse that more than massive crowds vigorously exercising their vocal chords, while watching players exercising their skills. With India occupying the fourth and fifth spot in the junior women and men's categories respectively, the Federation's immediate goal is to increase the number of Indian players in the Professional Squash Association.

The young and the talented have shown their stuff and have proved unbreakable on glass, and elsewhere. But they need to keep performing and continue the good work against the big boys and girls to find a place in the public mind, already cluttered with the Men-in-blue and the girl with `guts'. — Nandita Sridhar