Asian Games: When India-Pakistan epitomised the beauty of squash
Abhay had thought about quitting the sport by 2022 end but became the architect of what will no doubt be among the greatest memories of his sporting career.
It had been a while since I’d watched a squash match live even on TV and what was compelling about the decider in the Asian Games men’s team gold medal match was that the physicality and the lunacy and the beauty of the sport which over-rode everything. Abhay Singh stepped outside the court after the match somewhat joyously disoriented. He hugged his teammates who were celebrating with wide grins and shouting before the scale of what he had just done hit his core. He suddenly doubled over in what can only have been tears of disbelief and gratitude.
Abhay has just turned 25 and had thought about quitting the sport by the end of 2022 but today became the architect of what will no doubt be among the greatest memories of his sporting career – if not its very peak. Of being the man who kept snatching games and eventually the gold medal itself away from teenager Noor Zaman and Pakistan. There were two match points in the fifth after he had trailed 1-2 in the fourth with Pakistan within two points from gold before Abhay ground down Noor and stayed alive.
For sixty-five minutes, Abhay and Noor Zaman went at each other and at some point in the decider, maybe around 6-6, the game stopped being part of that old India-Pakistan spiel and showed off the sport for what it is. What also played its part in this slightly altered reality was that the two athletes in my eyes didn’t appear to fit into familiar scripts. Abhay’s shirt in the fifth game was white on the back and sky blue at its front with white shorts and Noor was in the deepest of blue from head to toe.
This combination somehow evaporated conventional sporting nationality, ensuring that Abhay floated free. All you saw of their obsessive dance around each other for control of the centre of the court was athleticism and creativity and the most marvellous theatrics in their appeals to the chair.
There was the sight of their teammates hunched over, bodies questioned-marked into nerves and anxiety. But inside the court, Abhay and Noor were not merely rivals, but curiously enough also partners. Inseparable from one another in giving to this match and their sport something to savour, a script drenched in sweat, drama and shot-making wizardry. There were retrievals out of the tightest of corners, stinging winners hugging the walls, mocking whispers from inaccessible drop shots.
Outside of combat sport, there is no other one-on-one sport in which two competitors go at each other inside a small enclosed space, that too armed with equipment that can do grevious physical damage. Squash is an examination of lungs, wrists, ankles, knees, shoulder and endurance. Much of it is brawny but comes with a mandatory consideration of each competitor having to respect the other’s physical space to the extent of being able to make a clean shot. Mano a mano with manners, let’s say.
What added to the charm of the contest was that neither men is a star or his country’s No.1. Abhay is world No. 69 behind Sourav Ghosal (No.19) and Ramit Tandon (No. 37) with Pakistan’s Muhammad Asim Khan (no.65) ahead of Noor, who is No. 113. India and Pakistan are a very long distance from the best squash nations in the world. Pakistan’s fall is particularly heart-breaking after it was home to the likes of Jahangir Khan and Jansher Khan, the sport’s legends, who these days would have battled for GOAT titles. Like Indian tennis, if ever there was an example of letting a heritage waste away in an individual sport, Pakistan squash would be it.
This is India’s second Asian Games team gold, after Incheon 2014. Ghosal, 37, has won a medal in every Asian Games since 2006, seven in all and a bronze at the far more competitive Commonwealth Games. Joshana Chinappa was once world No.10 and won the 2022 world doubles title with Deepika Pallikal. In the mid-1990s, the revolutionary all glass court (nicknamed the Thunderdome) was installed in the middle of the Brabourne Stadium, where the world’s elite players – including Jansher – turned up to play night-time matches to packed, screaming stands around them. While other Indian sport have leapt ahead and broken new ground in the 21st century, Indian squash has remained leaden-footed and shoddily governed.
Squash has tried hard to be included in the Olympics and still keeps getting its heart broken, which is very unfair for a sport that is watchable and made-for-TV drama. Like we saw this afternoon from Hangzhou. Despite everything, an Indian and a Pakistani gave their sport a match for the ages. And yes, this article would have been written had the result not gone India’s way too. Congratulations to the Indians for the gold. To Abhay and Noor, competitors yet comrades, thank you.