1 gold, 2 silver and 1 bronze - the haul from a single Asian games. A Commonwealth games gold in Women's doubles. This is Indian squash's total for a single year - 2014. Indian squash also sent its' first representative into the World Junior semi finals this year and boasts a top 20 player in both Men's and Women's. Squash, like most other sports in India, never had it this good. Most others still don't. But how did a nation in which squash is still an elitist sport, played mostly in gentlemen clubs and boarding schools, conquer Asia and become a force to be reckoned with on the world stage?
This is a three part investigation into Indian squash's success story.
The tall lanky player wanted to come out of the glass cauldron deep in the fifth game. Close to 500 people packed in the arena, the air was heavier that what Chennai air already is. He wanted to throw up courtside. He was pushing himself that hard. His coach, also his father, asked him to stay on. Three mammoth rallies later, he emerged from the glass court a beaten man. Beaten in five sets in the final of the under-15 national championship. The year was 2003, the winner Hariderpal Singh Sandhu - a 14 year old on that day. Almost 11 years to the day, he beat a former World No. 9, punching way above his weight, to set India on its' way to claiming the gold in Incheon, Korea. The beaten man, Vikram Malhotra, would go on to become the only Indian to clinch a national title in each age group, from the under-11s to the under-19s and eventually lead Trinity University to three national inter collegiate titles. India's success has been forged in this very place - the India Squash Academy in Chennai. Every now and then a player like Vikram emerges, one who thrives outside the structure of the national academy, however India's success is down to the planning, training and scheduling that happens in the offices above, behind and below India's best squash courts.
In the greatest traditions of sports teams and institutions around the world, the Indian Squash Academy hosts both the players and the officials. Think the Twickenham-Pennyhill combine of English Rugby, National Cycling Center in Manchester which houses Team GB (and the mastermind Sir Dave Brailsford), National Squash Center in Manchester. This is what St. George's Park aspires to be for English football - a nerve center. A center of excellence. A base from which a single sporting philosophy trickles down to the rest of the playing clubs/states/districts. This is the biggest factor Indian Squash got right - they set up the India Cements Squash Academy in right earnest, in early 2001. It boasts eight courts - one a stunning all glass court. It also houses the offices of national coach, Cyrus Poncha and the consultant coach Major S. Maniam (Malaysian Army).
N. Ramachandran, a sports administrator and part owner of India Cements, is the driving force behind setting up the academy. Some might know him as the brother of the all powerful former BCCI president N. Srinivasan. N. Ramachandran is also now the President of the World Squash Federation and the Indian Olympic Association. A joke doing the rounds is that one brother controls 80% of the money in Indian sport whereas the other controls 80% of Indian sports. Whatever the merits of this oligarchy, it hasn't done Indian squash any harm. None of the the brazen commercial exploitation of the cricketers is seen here. It has become a hub for sporting pursuit in its truest and richest tradition - the amateur athlete - labouring away for world and continental titles, whilst still pursuing an education. The athlete for whom the Olympic Games were designed. It has turned into home for many of India's best squash players. In December 2002, Ramachandran stated, "India will win a medal in the 2006 Asian Games in Qatar and produce a junior world champion in the next 10 years".
Saurav Ghosal duly delivered at the 2006 Asian Games, winning a bronze. Perhaps Ramachandran also expected Saurav Ghosal to be the one who won the World Junior title. Saurav was, going into the 2004 World Championships in Pakistan, a reigning British Junior Champion and seeded no. 1, but crashed out in the pre-quarter finals in straight sets to Basit Ashfaq. You might know him as Basit Choudary, the one who went crazy in a collegiate title decider against Yale in 2010. A certain Ramy Ashour won the title that year.
Having a long term vision is what drives day-to-day activities, but a year is a long time in an athlete's life and by shunning the typical Indian mindset of a "summer camp", the academy has done Indian sport a huge favour. Ramachandran articulated his vision for the next ten years, but the coaches, Poncha and Maniam, delivered at the more granular level. As Cyrus Poncha puts it, "We’re really working scientifically and we are making a structured training programme for our athletes – not just for the summer camp, it’s round the year – that’s what we do,”. Well, that is also what is needed. No doubt, the squash academy has set an example for other sports to follow. It has shown other sports and other athletes what a year-round program can achieve. A program which focuses on building a base across various dimensions: aerobic, strength and skills, interspersed with tournament exposure. Year round scheduling has enabled athletes to peak for the most important tournaments as opposed to the old system where gains made in the summer would be long gone by the time the squash season (typically the autumn and winter months) came along.
Due to these efforts Indian squash started harvesting a battle hardened crop of youngsters from around 2006-2008, as opposed to a team of individual talents that mostly comprised Indian contingents at earlier championships. It is this crop which will be the feature of the next article. Till then, hope this gives you enough ammunition to further question sport administration in India and piques your interest in one of the lesser known success stories on Indian sport in the past decade.