Triumph of the English spirit

England players celebrate after beating Australia in the final.-PICS: V. GANESAN

Besides playing host, what really made the World Team Championship memorable for India was its maiden entry into the quarterfinals, writes S. R. Suryanarayan.

So what’s new, one may ask of the just concluded World Men’s Team Championship in Chennai. England was the defending champion, and even if the pundits were not willing to recognise it as the favourite, the English spirit and determination prevailed in the end as the status quo was maintained in the championship.

As for India, the Chennai edition of the World Team Championship — the first and easily the biggest squash event in the country — will be remembered for its maiden entry into the quarterfinals. That the team failed to progress beyond the quarters didn’t matter.

The Chennai edition of the championship, ironically, will be known for wrong reasons, such as the fall of World Open champion Amr Shabana, which resulted in the fancied Egypt failing to win the title, the eclipse of Frenchman Gregory Gaultier, who bamboozled all his opponents barring Shabana at the World Open in Bermuda, the slump of Pakistan, which finished behind India, and the failure of veterans like Jonathan Power, the former World No. 1, to put up an inspiring show. Then there was Shabana’s furious outburst against the establishment which infuriated the World Squash Federation and other officials.

The World No. 1, who is acknowledged by the experts as prodigiously talented, charged that squash suffered for want of good administration. Shabana was also unhappy with the fact that the sport did not feature in the Olympics and that the WSF officials have so far not done anything to get squash into the Games. Perhaps he should have also said that the sport suffered in the absence of a proper rule that would prevent the players from arguing with the referees or committing frequent racquet abuse.

The prevailing rules do not prohibit players from confirming with the referee his ‘let’ and ’stroke’ calls. However, the real problem is when the players, upset by the referee’s decision, not only make remarks that can clearly be classified under indiscipline or misdemeanour but also get away with such acts.

At the championship in Chennai, there were a number of embarrassing moments and incidents of players slamming the glass panel with their racquets. When such incidents happen in front the spectators, even the best of matches loses its sheen. So, how can the sport then be in tune with Olympic ideals?

Squash otherwise is a game that imbibes the grace of a ballet dancer, the nuances of a fencer and the flexibility of a gymnast. A close encounter can be a treat to watch, just as the contest between India’s Saurav Ghosal and Pakistan’s Amir Atlas Khan in the league phase. The battle between David Palmer and Shabana in a crucial Egypt versus England semifinal was sublime. However, Palmer lost his cool at one stage and the talking point at the end of the match was not only about his brilliant performance that knocked the Egyptian out, but also his spat with the referee. “What could you do when the referee is so obviously wrong in this calls,” Palmer thundered later.

Sourav Ghosal (foreground) takes Alex Gough of the Wales in his stride in the pre-quarters. India went through to the quarterfinals with a 3-0 victory.-

Maybe there is a way out to ensure the game is played in good spirits. As Rod Symington, the WSA Assessor who was in Chennai in connection with the Referees Conference, put it, “we have to go in for the three-referee system.” Under this system, just as in boxing and weightlifting where a panel of judges adjudicate, each match would be supervised by three referees — two of them at the floor level, sitting on either side of the two walls, and the other at the conventional elevated place. Consensus will then decide on ‘let’ and ‘stroke’ calls. So, there would be little room for the players to contest any decision.

Symington is of the view that the system will ensure smooth conduct of matches and prevent unwanted scenes that mar competitions. He, however, has no answer to why this system was not introduced in Chennai.

Considering that WSF has been working hard on getting squash into the Olympics, many observers believe that the emphasis at every world-level competition should be on minimising sore points. And the referee-player spat is a poor advertisement for the sport, which is identified with high fitness levels.

Nonetheless, fans in Chennai had the opportunity to feast on top quality squash. Shabana was the crowd favourite to start with. Ghosal held his own as did Ritwik Bhattacharya and Siddarth Suchde. Their combined effort enabled India to enter the quarterfinals of the World Team Championship for the first time, at the expense of Wales.

Self-belief was the India players’ strength against the likes of veterans Alex Gough and David Evans. Gough was a quarterfinalist in Bermuda. India finished eighth in the championship, one place ahead of Pakistan, which was shocked by the Netherlands. After coach Fahim Gul’s repeated statements that “we are here to cause a few upsets”, the end result was a big disappointment for Pakistan.

Shabana was not at his best, while Karim Darwish carried an injury. And in the absence of World No. 2, Ramy Ashour, Egypt only lived on hopes, which crashed sooner than expected. The England players were focussed and seemed pleased with their steadiness, while Australia saw a chance which it tried to exploit but in vain.

France, like Egypt, disappointed. Gaultier was expected to spearhead his team, but barring Thierry Lincou, a former World Open winner, none of the Frenchmen rose to the occasion against England in the semifinals.

England and Australia thus set up the title clash, just as they did in 1991. Australia won then, but this time it was England’s turn, and it won in style.

* * * ’A huge happening’

“Completing a major task successfully is a huge satisfaction,” said the SRFI Secretary-General, N. Ramachandran after the conclusion of the 21st ICL World Men’s Team Championship.

“Finishing eighth is a huge happening,” Ramachandran said.

He recalled: “It was at the Mauritius AGM of the World Squash Federation in 2004 that the world Team Championship was allotted to us. I accepted it on behalf of SRFI for two reasons. One, it would help us improve our infrastructure; two, it would enable our players and enthusiasts to witness world-class competition. Having all the best players at one venue can happen only in a World Championship.

“We cannot sit on our laurels. We have to look ahead and that is the Senior Asian Championship in Kuwait in February 2008. The training has already begun,” said Ramachandran, making it clear that SRFI now means business.

Then, there is the Commonwealth Games in 2010 in New Delhi. “A medal there is our goal,” said Ramachandran.