Even as the Indian juniors continued to fall like dominoes to squash players from Pakistan in the recently concluded Northern India Open championships, it was ironical that in a team that swept almost all the age-group titles in the men’s section, the top ranked player was World No 57 Khayal Mohammad Khan. Khan is ranked almost 15 places below India No 1 Ritwik Bhattacharya, the top seed.
But rankings took a backseat as the boys from across the border once again laid claim to being much better at their national sport than the Indians, who are yet to warm up to squash.
But it also throws up the question as to whether, after Ritwik and to some extent Sourav Ghosal, India really has the talent to make it to the top league in world squash?
India has only two players in the top-100 in the PSA rankings to Pakistan’s 10. The recent world junior championships in New Zealand saw a complete domination by Pakistanis, apart from Egypt.
But the worst part, perhaps, is the fact that most youngsters who take up the sport do not aspire to play it professionally. “Most of the kids who take it up today stop gradually, once they get admissions in a good college,” says 16-times National champion Bhuvaneshwari Kumari, considered perhaps the best Indian woman player ever. Bhuvaneswari, who is into coaching now, has seen the squash scene from close quarters.
A national champion from 1977-1992 -- a record she still holds -- she is the only squash player to get both the Padma Shri and the Arjuna.
“We had fewer players earlier but very good. Now, it is more and more kids playing but most of them do not pursue it seriously beyond a point.
Some of them go abroad for studies -- mainly on the basis of their game, incidentally -- and some pursue further studies at home. In either case, squash loses out,” she explains.
The facts support her. Promising names in the game like Siddharh Suchde and Bikram Uberoi are no longer based in India, Sourav moved out last year, Sandeep Jangra is also based in Europe and though Ritwik keeps coming back, he has also been training abroad for the past few years.
In Pakistan, talented kids as young as 8-10 get free coaching, and those who can’t afford also get free racquets and balls and free use of courts.
Many of them also get financial support from the public-sector companies like PIA and WAPDA. “There is quantity and some quality here, but not really what it should be to compete in the top league,” added Bhuvaneshwari.
And the solution? “Squash needs to be promoted. I won’t say there is no money, but more is needed. Compare this to the scene in Pakistan In Pakistan, playing decent squash will get you employment and playing on the PSA circuit means free transport through PIA.
This, despite the fact that they do not have anyone in the top-10 right now. All this helps a lot,” she says.
They have also started providing free coaching to talented girls. A girls’ team in town has done reasonably well with two of them -- Roshna Mehboob and Zoya -- reaching the finals.
In contrast, except for Joshna Chinappa, most Indian women players lack support. The thinking that most girls quit playing once they complete school -- true to some extent -- also acts as hindrance to corporate support.
Also, Pakistan has a legacy in the sport. “The legends in the game like Jahangir Khan and Jansher Khan worked hard, they got the results. Then there was a slump.
Now we have players coming up again,” said one of the managers with the Pakistan team in the capital. Shoaib Hassan, who won the men’s open title, just turned 19 but is already planning to play on the senior circuit by the end of this year.
Davis Cupper Aqeel Khan had said on his visit here in 2004 that if you play squash in Pakistan, you are assured of two square meals a day, at the least. Any assurance like that in India would be welcome.