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2016 South Asian Games: An Indian victory that was special

549   //    12 Feb 2016, 13:26 IST
The victorious Indian squash team

Whatever may happen from here this much is clear that South Asian Games 2016 will have a special place in the history of Indian squash. For it was in Guwahati at the R G Baruah sports facility that India for the first time established its squash supremacy over one time powerhouse Pakistan in both the men’s and women’s sections. India has had the upper hand earlier in the women’s section. In fact, Indian women’s team has never lost its supreme position in South Asian Games. However this was the first time that honours were wholesome with the men also winning. 

True Pakistan’s Nasir Iqbal and Farhan Zaman did not allow a total sweep for India after the duo fought for themselves for the gold medal after disposing of Harinder Pal Sandhu and Saurav Ghosal respectively.  That one result did dent the Indian pride in those initial phase of squash competitions.  Everybody had anticipated that the individual phase, both in the men’s and women’s section would be a toss up between Pakistan and Indian players but Indian followers, it seemed, had over-estimated India’s chances.  There were reasons too.  

Top seed Saurav Ghosal is ranked 20th and has had the best experience of playing some of the top players in the world. Harinder at 66 was only marginally below Pakistan’s number two player Farhan Zaman. The danger it seemed was only Nasir Iqbal (ranked 35) for he has beaten Saurav before.  There were, of course, no such doubts on the women’s side with two top twenty players Joshna Chinappa (ranked 14) and Dipika Pallikal (now Dipika Karthik) ranked 17 there.

Yet for all this the Indian national coach Cyrus Poncha was guarded in his optimism.  He did think that India would do well but heart of hearts it seemed an act of auto-suggestion because only he knew of the imponderables ahead. Firstly Saurav after his right foot injury in the Hong Kong Open had not played a competitive match till coming to SAG. He did indicate his fitness with his training sessions in Doha and England but was that enough was the question.  

Harinder has never played with the same splendor that had made him a rage in 2014 and as for Kush Kumar, he was still a game trier yet to make winning moments with as ease as he had done in the juniors.  The fourth member Ravi Dixit has never been in great form either.  Added to this was the last minute worry that came through Dipika’s announcement that she had strained her shoulder while playing in the Cleveland Classic, something that requires her to take a specialist’s help.  The Squash Rackets Federation of India(SRFI) permitted her to withdraw from the individual events but she was keen to play in the team event.  Her absence meant  a 16-year old and inexperienced Sunayna Kuruvilla was virtually to be thrown into the big time arena.

If the Men’s failure(Saurav tumbling and Harinder hopping out with a hamstring injury was bad enough), then Sunayna’s inability to handle the pressure wrecked India’s image in the individual phase even though Joshna, as was her won't, did well to win the gold. Portends were bleak for India in the team competition.  On the other hand, Pakistan players were raring to go for  a sweep of the medals.

But such is the uncertainty of a sport that no matter what statistics state, the mood indicate or rankings point or even the experts believe, it is the work on the court that had to count.  A lack-lustre Saurav in the earlier phase, shed that look and touched devastating form and Kush picked a leaf from his mentor’s form to produce dream squash and the men had done it, won the gold! 

Similarly, Joshna  did her role and what more, inspired Sunayna to pick up the thread. The youngster played her heart out to oust the experienced Sammer Anjum and instantly she had scaled a peak in her career by ensuring the gold for India.  Two unbelievable moments had left one set of players in shock and the others jumping for joy as the Baruah complex was flooded with emotions.

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Over three and half decades of experience in sports journalism. Been a squash writer for over a decade and covered virtually all major championships in the sport from World championship, Asian to national championship.
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