Maj. Maniam: 14 years of sweat and toil

"In my opinion, what we have achieved is just unbelievable. Despite the base being very small, we have achieved a lot," says squash coach Maj. Maniam.

Coach Maj. S. Maniam is happy that a structure is in place for the development of Indian squash.   -  R. RAGU

N. Ramachandran, President, IOA, felicitating Maniam at the Indian Squash Academy annual day function in Chennai on April 22, 2016. Injeti Srinivas (right), DG, SAI, is also in the picture.   -  R. RAGU

He has always had a way with the players, coaches and also the parents of players. We are talking about Maj. S. Maniam, the Squash Rackets Federation of India’s Consultant Coach at the Indian Squash Academy in Chennai. The 61-year-old Malaysian has been strict without being rigid, kind without being soft.

He got the loudest applause when he spoke at the Indian Squash Academy’s annual day function at a city hotel in Chennai recently. N. Ramachandran, Patron, SRFI, said “Maniam and his team have done a wonderful job,” in creating a structured system.

World junior championship bronze medallist Kush Kumar, who has been with Maniam since he joined ISA seven years ago, speaks highly about the coach’s motivational capabilities. “Whenever I was 0-2 down in a match, he used to tell me the match is not over. ‘Keep the ball in play. Don’t give free points’. Even when he is not there, and I am down by two games, I remember Maniam sir,” said the 19-year-old. “Since then, I have won a lot of matches from being two games down.”

Maniam, who chose to end his 14-year-term with SRFI in June this year, spoke to Sportstar about his successor (Ashraf El Karargi), his major achievements, disappointments and, most importantly, what ISA has done for the sport of squash. “The highlight is of establishing a systematic structure which produced the desired results,” said Maniam, who will take charge as CEO and Director of the Squash Rackets Association of Malaysia.

Excerpts from an interview:

Question: What are the highlights of your career?

Answer: Firstly, the highlight is of establishing a systematic structure, which produced the desired results. I think, the best part is getting our act together, which is an achievement in itself. Having the coaches, the set-up, with backing from support staff, administrators, and the whole thing falling into place is something of an achievement.

What have been the main challenges?

As far as Indian squash is concerned, it’s been the lack of facilities nationwide and lack of participation. Yes, it continues even now.

Why has squash not picked up in a big way in India?

Yes, it’s not at the same level as other sports. It’s because squash is perceived to be an expensive sport. Unless you are involved in it, you don’t really see it is not that expensive. For someone to pick up a game of cricket and football, it is everywhere. But to play squash you have to come to one Academy, that is ISA. If you are from a lower income group, it is just not possible.

Would it be better if similar infrastructure is replicated in other cities?

That certainly is the way to go. In my opinion, what we have achieved is just unbelievable. Despite the base being very small, we have achieved a lot.

Can there be an ISA in every major metro? Is that going to happen? If so, will Chennai’s importance diminish?

No, that’s not the way to look at it. Healthy competition is necessary. In the global scenario we have to look at more Ramachandrans who are willing to put in their money and effort to promote the sport. Ramachandran fought a lot with the government for land, put his own money.

Who is going to do that? We have tried. SRFI does not have the money. Money has to come from the Government of India. The Indian Government is actually helping as much as they can for the athletes to perform. Infrastructure-wise they are struggling a little bit.

If you look at China, they have a sports community centre. Malaysia, too, prides on having one.

Here, we leave everything to the Federation. How much can the Federation do? So, we have to depend on the State associations. The State associations don’t have a Ramachandran to do all of it. Then we go into the club system.

What about that?

In Maharashtra, they have many clubs. In those clubs, coaches who are employed bring up players. Maharashtra is famous for that and so are Kolkata and Jodhpur. Hopefully, it will only be a matter of time before more of them come.

Any major achievements by players during your tenure?

The 2014 Commonwealth doubles gold (Joshna Chinappa-Dipika Pallikal) is something I’d like to be proud of. The gold medal at the Asian Games men’s team championship in 2014 is another one. There have been many individual achievements by our players like Anaka (Alankamony) and Kush (Kumar) as they have done very well. I am happy that National coach Cyrus Poncha got the Dronacharya Award. That was a proud moment for me. Being a part of the Academy has been great.

You seem to have a way with the players…

I parent them. I think that’s important. Players have their good days and bad days. Coaches want them to perform at the highest level all the time. It is not possible. I educate my coaches to believe that players can have bad days like all human beings. I always say when you lose, you learn. If you think, you have learnt something (from defeats), you have not lost.

Apart from Dipika and Joshna, there aren’t many promising ones on the horizon… Sometimes, we tend to think it is kind of a linear structure. It doesn’t work that way. If you look at many countries and sports, it hasn’t worked that way. In German tennis, how many have come after Becker and Graf left? It is not that they don’t have a system.

Who after Nicol David in squash, you can ask. It just happens. The system carries on. Big players do come. There is a glimmer of hope in Sunayna Kuruvilla, who is showing some promise. Among men, Kush and Velavan Senthilkumar are doing well.

How will your successor, Ashraf El Karargi (Egypt), do?

Ashraf is an experienced coach. All he needs is a court and players, and he will start right away. We wanted an experienced coach with some playing ability. We identified Ashraf and we hope he will do well. With Cyrus Poncha’s knowledge and the foreign coach, as a pair they will do well. The system is there. We just have to man the system. It is just like McDonalds.

There are bound to be some disappointments along the way?

Many times, we were close to winning but let the chances slip. Saurav Ghosal not being able to win the World junior championship is something I regret. I was very sad that day.

In recent times, our girls’ team was expected to win the Asian Championship senior title but lost in the final in Chennai in 2010. Not able to have a World junior champion is also saddening.

As a foreign coach, how was your stay in Chennai?

It was great. I don’t think any foreign coach has stayed in a country for 14 years like me. Which is quite a record. I feel proud of that.

How do you see the growth of squash in the future?

It is only going to get stronger. If I come back five years from now, I am going to see a strong Indian contingent.

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