A breath of fresh air: a new look for the Indian squash team

When the Indian team arrived at the venue of the 22nd Asian Squash Championships in Dalian, China, their opponents looked at them in amazement and amazement at the composition of the team.

This was the first time in about a decade that the team did not have both Saurav Ghosal (men) and Joshna Chinappa (women) in a tournament as prestigious as the Asians.

There were no expectations when the Squash Rackets Federation of India (SRFI) announced a young team full of debutants, except for Velavan Senthilkumar, who played a prominent role in the previous edition in 2022 when India clinched gold.

Young blood

In its press release, the SRFI made it clear that it had selected the team with an eye on the 2026 Asian Games and the 2028 Olympic Games. “Following India’s spectacular performance at the recent Asian Games in Hangzhou – where the team won five medals in a highly competitive field – the SRFI is focused on developing younger players with an eye on the 2026 Asian Games in Japan and the sport’s much-anticipated Olympic debut in Los Angeles in 2028,” the national federation said.

While the men’s team finished sixth, the women’s team came fifth. Undoubtedly, it was not a performance to write home about. But there were many positives and lessons that the SRFI and the players learned from the outing.

Cyrus Poncha, SRFI secretary, who has watched the Indian team closely for more than two decades, said it was a remarkable achievement by a young team.

“We expected both the men’s and women’s teams to finish in the top six. Our girls’ performance, in particular, was quite good and encouraging, with Rathika leading the team. This was uncharted territory. Our aim was to showcase our reserve players,” he said.

The necessary impetus

Giving opportunities to the younger players, Cyrus stressed, will encourage the experienced players to perform better. “There are other players in the race. In the men’s category, we have Ramit Tandon, the world’s top-ranked Indian. Of course, there is Abhay Singh and Velavan. Veer Chotrani has just graduated from Cornell University and wants to play full-time. That is a plus for us. The athletes who have now played in China are our junior players. They will perform better and that in turn will encourage the experienced players to work harder,” he noted.

The absence of Saurav Ghosal, Joshna Chinappa and Dipika Pallikal has left a gap in the Indian team, Cyrus said, but added that he is confident that the young team will steadily fill the huge gap that is looming. “We believe Abhay (world ranking 66) and Velavan (WR 55) can take the lead as they have the potential to improve their rankings and fill the gap in the long run. Once they are up there, we will not feel their absence,” the SRFI secretary assured.

For 26-year-old Velavan, it was his first chance to lead a young team in the men’s section and he said he enjoyed it a lot. “It was a great opportunity to lead the team, it was a new role that I really enjoyed. I was the oldest member of the team. The players have potential and all they need is attention and experience. The future of Indian squash is bright,” he assured.

In Group D, which included Kuwait, Japan and Mongolia, India (men) finished second, losing only to Japan 0-3. In the quarter-final against Pakistan, India lost 1-2. The women’s team (Group A), on the other hand, beat Macau, Chinese Taipei and Mongolia, but lost to Malaysia and South Korea and failed to make it to the semi-finals.

Unfortunate circumstances

Due to visa issues, Velavan arrived in Dalian only the night before the tournament and was not in the best shape to play two matches against Kuwait (3-0) and Japan (0-3). According to Poncha, Velavan might have performed much better in the match against Japan without the delay. A win for Velavan, he argued, would have bet India’s advantage.

The loss to Pakistan in the quarter-finals was not one-sided. After Muhammad Asiam Khan defeated Rahul Baitha in the first game, Velavan levelled the scores by defeating the lower-ranked (185) Nasir Iqbal.

Suraj Kumar Chand, playing his first international tournament, lost in the third and deciding game in three consecutive matches to Noor Zaman.

The 23-year-old spoke about his experience against Zaman. “I played the third game. There was pressure against Noor Zaman but I was hopeful. The team supported me. They told me not to let myself be pressured. Velavan supported me a lot and told me how to prepare well before the match. It was a great learning experience to play against top players from Japan and Pakistan,” he said.

The Indian women’s team had to compete in Group A against number one seeds Malaysia and number five seeds Korea. It was not an easy task as only the top two teams from each of the two groups qualified for the semi-finals. India lost 0-3 to Malaysia and Korea and failed to make it to the knockout stages.

Hours learned

Nevertheless, Rathika was delighted with her first international appearance. “If we had beaten Korea in our last group match, we would have won a medal. Obviously we lacked experience. We will get better,” she said.

Wearing the Indian jersey was a great experience, said Rathika, and winning the first match against Liu Kwai Chi of Macau was special. “Playing for India is a dream come true,” she added.

Rathika also noted that her match against S. Sivasangari of Malaysia will stay with her for a long time. “This experience of playing with a top 10 player is something I can never repeat in training,” she said.

The best, said the 23-year-old, was the biggest surprise of her international career when she defeated Singapore’s Au Yeong Wai Yhann (WR 88) in five games. “I played my second game against Yhaan on courts 5-8. The game lasted 56 minutes. It was my best game at the Asians,” she said.

The transition from junior to senior is rarely easy as the balls are hit harder and the angles are sharper. Rathika noted that she has learnt a lot and will apply what she has learned in the upcoming tournaments.

Pooja Arthi, 19, said the Asian teams have shown her where she needs to improve to make it in the professional game. “I want to participate in more PSA tournaments and be part of the Indian women’s team for the 2026 Asian Games,” she said.

India has always performed well at the Asian Team Championships. The men have won gold (2022), three silvers and five bronzes, while the women’s team has achieved the same medal haul, winning its only gold medal in 2012.

It was a pragmatic move by the SRFI to put together a young Indian team for the Asian Team Championships. The SRFI hopes that the younger and more experienced players will work harder and perform for the country in big events.

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