The story of the best and the rest: The Mumbai Nationals
Every National is a stock-taking time, in a way. The latest that was organised in a grand way by Otters club in Mumbai was no different. The occasion provided a vivid picture of India's squash fortunes, the best and the rest as they say.
True, there was not much of a change at the helm with established stars Saurav Ghosal and Dipika Pallikal taking up their exalted positions in their respective sections. But of particular interest was the road to the final and there was much here for the discerning eyes.
Nobody had expected a new name as a champion, certainly not in the women's section where the two top-20 players of the world, Joshna Chinappa and Dipika Pallikal were there as formidable forces. But it was the men's section that there was much more revealing.
For the record Saurav helped himself to another title, his eleventh, to replace Narpat Singh's name from the record books as the highest number of title-winner in the men's section in Indian squash history. But was the story so simple? The turbulence that the men's section witnessed particularly from the later phase added richness to the competition and lent an element of uncertainty which is the vital ingredient of any thriller.
As national coach Cyrus Poncha – who was a keen observer of the proceedings – pointed out, the kind of ups and downs seen reflected the depth of talent. There were quite a few five-game tussles where the winner had to come through arrears to highlight the closeness of the contests. If there was Vikram Malhotra demanding attention among the recent eye-catchers, then some like Gaurav Nandrajog and Siddarth Suchde who were in the forefront not long ago, showed they can still spin a fairy tale or two.
It is a different matter that beating all this Saurav and Harinder Pal Sandhu did make it to the title-round but how! Harinder, for instance, continued with his penchant to fight from the brink. He showed it against Nandrajog and then again against the second seed Mahesh Mangaonkar. It is now a feature of this former champion's repertoire but what keeps him in good stead is his sound temperament.
As he once told this correspondent, “I do not in believe in giving up. Even when I am down and with little chance, my effort is on till the last point.” But where he has missed on many an occasion is in closing a game and perhaps match too when he held the whip hand. Like in the final against Saurav, who is no stranger to him in close fights.
The man who laid the path for India's famous win in the Incheon Games, Harinder had pushed the reigning champion to his wits end, leading 2-1 in game scores and earning a handy lead in the deciding fifth game but when it came to the crunch, Saurav showed why he is a sharper professional.
Still, there was very little to separate the two, as Saurav rightly said later. Nonetheless, it was the match of the championship if anything for the thrilling edge-of-the-seat finale.
In total contrast was the women's competition. The gulf between the established and the aspirants was too much. Nothing mirrored this more than the way both Joshna and Dipika cantered away from the start. Players like Sachika Ingale, Akanksha Salunkhe, Adya Advani, Lakshya Raghavendran, Jui Kalgutkar and Urwashi Joshi, all quarterfinalists, just did not have that extra to push the experienced duo.
One reason Poncha gives is the vacuum created by the exit of players like Anaka Alankamony and Aparajitha who were the ones following behind the top two.
Anaka, in particular, had the credentials to go far but studies ensnared her and the story has virtually ended there. This is where, as Poncha emphasised ,one had to applaud the mindset of Joshna and Dipika. Both, he said, had from schooldays expressed a strong longing to become professional players.
They worked hard towards that goal when as it has turned out it was not easy for others. But still thanks to these top players a generation of young girls are getting inspired to take to squash and the increased participation seen this time is a testimony to the changing times.
Overall the national this time was a trendsetter. Higher participation level and equal prize money made it unique not to forget the near houseful moments at the Otters club. Additional enrichment came in the form of live streaming of matches and what is more, live telecast of the business-end proceedings on Doordarshan. Whichever way one looks, for the good deeds achieved, squash as a sport is turning brighter and exciting.