Tempers fly as India beat Pakistan to win gold in squash

By, New Delhi
Oct 02, 2023 08:09 AM IST

Abhay Singh saved two match points to pull off a sapping, stunning, and exhilarating 3-2 win over 19-year-old Noor Zaman.

It is hard to tell when, but at some point, during the India-Pakistan squash men's team final on Saturday, the sense of time and space went out of the window. We could well be sitting in Mumbai or Multan, watching the legendary hockey or cricket teams having a go at each other. There were a few verbals -- Saurav Ghosal was heard telling Muhammad Asim Khan "Just play your game" when the latter complained of a block, a few jeers -- chants for India were met with delirious cries for Pakistan, and in the end, a John McEnroe-sque launching of the racquet in the stands.

Gold medallists India's Saurav Ghosal, Abhay Singh, Mahesh Mangaonkar and Harinder Pal Sandhu and silver medallist Pakistan's team pose for photos during the presentation ceremony (PTI)
Gold medallists India's Saurav Ghosal, Abhay Singh, Mahesh Mangaonkar and Harinder Pal Sandhu and silver medallist Pakistan's team pose for photos during the presentation ceremony (PTI)

The latter, courtesy a 25-year-old Abhay Singh who saved two match points to pull off a sapping, stunning, and exhilarating 3-2 win over 19-year-old Noor Zaman (11-7, 9-11, 8-11, 11-9, 12-10) to earn India their second-ever Asian Games gold, after winning their first at the 2014 Asiad in Incheon.

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First, some context. Three nights back, top seeds India had lost 2-1 to fourth seeds Pakistan in their Pool A match. Then, Zaman got the better of Singh in four games in 51 gruelling minutes to set wild celebrations in the Pakistani camp. India then beat Malaysia in the semis while Pakistan got the better of Hong Kong in their last-four fixture to set up the grudge match.

This time, Singh, smarting from the earlier loss, was ready. "We were obviously very disappointed to lose three nights ago. We are seeded No.1 for a reason, and we can't be losing to a team seeded fourth. For me, to lose to a 19-year-old ranked outside top 100 when I am ranked top 70 is not good. When you lose on tour, you lose for yourself. When you lose here, you lose for India and it does not feel good," he said after the breathtaking final that India won 2-1 in a little over two hours (123 minutes), more than half of which (64 minutes) was played by Singh.

"It takes a lot of character to come back after two nights and the credit goes to the golden boys Saurav Ghosal, Mahesh Mangaonkar, and Harinder Pal Sandhu. Those guys won us the 2014 gold and if they choose to retire now, they deserve to go on a high. This win is for them," Singh said.

The 25-year-old, who thought of quitting the sport two years back because he was not happy with his progress, was fired up for the final by some verbal barbs from the Pakistani camp and also on social media, and it took Ghosal's maturity and wisdom to calm him down.

"There was a lot of talk from the other team (Pakistan) three nights ago and some on social media. Well, I am looking forward to some tonight. There was no banter but there were proper one-sided jabs. I am going to make some noise on the social media tonight," he said.

Tempers flared on both sides in the match as well with aggressive gesticulations, body blocks, and an instance of Mangaonkar replying with a curt "Really?" to Nasir Iqbal when the latter asked him to stretch his arm after a fall. Mangaonkar, who had gone down to Iqbal in the pool stage too, tried to play an imposing, physical game but Iqbal was clearly the better player on the day as he cantered to a 3-0 (11-8 11-3 11-2) win in the opening game.

Ghosal then swatted aside Khan 3-0 (11-5, 11-1, 11-3) in exactly 30 minutes to draw parity and set the stage for Singh. The Indian began well, taking the first game 11-7 in 11 minutes flat. Zaman though was just warming up. Moving fluidly across the court and using his supple wrists to good effect, he began to test Singh on the front court. He began to get under Singh's skin too, forcing the Indian to ask the referee to "watch his movements."

Unmoved, Zaman went about his task dutifully, breaking away from 5-5, 7-7, and 9-9 to take the game 11-9. However, Zaman came back from 4-7 down to win the second game 11-8 to cue mass delirium in the arena.

By this time, the match had become the squash equivalent of pound-for-pound boxing. Singh won the tight game 11-9 to force the decider and sped to a 6-4 lead but Zaman kept pegging away. As did Singh. From 6-7 down, he clawed back to 8-8 but when Zaman won the next two points, a hush fell over the Indian camp.

The Indian corner would find its voice soon with Singh going on a four-point streak to close the game, set, and match. Singh let out a guttural roar, flung his racquet into the crowd, and dropped to his knees as the Indian team rushed to embrace him. Zaman, certain to carry Pakistan's rich squash legacy forward, stood crestfallen. Moments later, away from the prying eyes, Singh would walk up to Zaman and congratulate him for the fight.

The win was also a nod to Ghosal whose pep-talk on the match eve fired the boys. "Win or lose, it is important to dig in," and Abhay dug in. Tactically, he could have done a few things differently but in the heat of the moment, anything can happen. Even if we had lost, we could not regret any of the effort," the 37-year-old veteran said.

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    Shantanu Srivastava is an experienced sports journalist who has worked across print and digital media. He covers cricket and Olympic sports.

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