Asian Games: Thriller to win gold but hunt for more squash medal is on

With the gold medal match-up tied 1-1, Abhay Singh had to face the same opponent he lost against on Wednesday.
Indian men's squash team. (Photo | PTI)
Indian men's squash team. (Photo | PTI)

CHENNAI: Four points down in the final game of the gold medal clash. Against a rival like Pakistan on one of the biggest stages of the sport. Away from home and amidst the roaring support for the opposition. That genuinely sounds like the final act of the Bollywood sports movie. It is not for the faint-hearted. Well, Abhay Singh is not one of those. The 25-year-old literally became the embodiment of his name in the concluding moments of the gold medal clash between the neighbours at the Hangzhou Olympic Sports Centre Squash Court on Saturday. India won gold in the Asian Games after nine years.

"It is an amazing victory," Cyrus Poncha, secretary-general of Squash Raquets Federation of India, told this daily from Hangzhou. "We were down in this match, we had lost to Pakistan before. In this match as well, we were down. Abhay was down but managed to win from there. It's a massive victory for India and Indian squash," he added.

The group stage went exceptionally well for the Indian team other than the hiccup against Pakistan, where they went down 1-2 and Singh lost to the same opponent in Noor Zaman. India dusted themselves off and beat Malaysia in the semifinals. Pakistan were bronze medallista at the 2018 edition. In the summit clash, Pakistan started with a bang as Mahesh Mangaonkar lost the opener to Iqbal Nasir 8-11, 2-11. 3-11. With all the expectations in the world to keep India afloat and in the hunt, experienced Ghosal brought the Indians back into the contest with an 11-5, 11-1, 11-3 win over Muhammad Asim Khan.

"The plan was to keep Saurav fresh for the important matchups," Harinderpal Singh Sandhu, a member of the squad, told this daily from Hangzhou. "And I would come in if anyone needed rest in between. In the group stage match against Pakistan, all three played well, even though the result didn't go our way. We couldn't execute our plans in the group stage, so we tried to learn from our mistakes. We spoke about how the result is not in our hands but we can put our 100% effort in every point. If we fight for every point we can potentially break the opposition and in the end, exactly that happened."

"We learned from our loss against Pakistan without being disappointed. Because our semi-final was equally tough against Malaysia. We implemented our strategies well in the semi-final and took that momentum with us against Pakistan," Sandhu added from Hangzhou.

Ghoshal, with his experience, kept India in the hunt. Poncha couldn't help but laud his ward. "Saurav is the best player India has ever produced. He has been there and performed at every stage and every level and him being the number one in the team and guiding the team has made a massive difference. He has held the team, his performance has been par excellence," Poncha praised one of the most decorated players from India.

With the gold medal match-up tied 1-1, Singh had to face the same opponent he lost against on Wednesday. He bagged the first game as the 19-year-old Zaman fought back to take two back-to-back sets. In the final game, Singh was stranded at eight points as he saw his opponent take four consecutive points. His composure in the last few minutes of the game prevailed as the 25-year-old took India over the line.

"He kept his cool and he kept fighting. He was down in games and there was a crowd, the massive crowd was there. So many people from the Pakistan contingent were there. But he held his nerve, he just stayed focused.  All the hard work and training that he has done has paid off today. This was the biggest victory of his life at the biggest stage that we have in Asia," the Dronacharya Awardee added proudly.

Other than Ghoshal and Singh, Mahesh Mangaonkar and Sandhu, who were both part of the squad that won the gold medal in the 2014 Asian Games, gave consistent performances for the team. Poncha congratulated the duo. "Mahesh and Harinder both were members of the winning 2014 team. That experience has been with them. I strongly believe all the experience they have has helped our team to go and perform today."

The Secretary-General also credited Chris Walker, the coach for the team's success in the Asian Games. "We have to give credit to the partners who came here. Of course, Chris Walker has been wonderful. Chris traveled with the team for the Commonwealth Games, we did well, we just continued (the momentum in the Asian Games). A year before the Commonwealth Games, we started planning with Chris. A lot of things go on behind the scenes that people don't know about. But Chris has been there and provided great support for all of us." he added.

Along with golden glory for the men's team, Joshna Chinappa led the women's team bagged a bronze medal, after missing out in the 2018 edition. Anahat Singh, the 15-year-old sensation, in her first ever Asian Games, has helped her side win a medal and Poncha believes this success will inspire the teenager to aspire for more. "(Winning medals in the team events) this is the target that we have set for our team. Anahat has seen how it works now and in a few years, I am sure she will be one of those who will win gold as well because she is heading in the right direction."

The fairytale finish in the team's event is not the end for India's squad contingent in China. Poncha believes only half of the job is done. The mixed doubles and individual events await them. "We are certainly looking at 2 to 3 more medals. That is something which we would love to do," he declared.

The action thriller at the Hangzhou Olympic Sports Center was a blockbuster. The sequel is scheduled to be released soon. The genre of that event is undecided for now, but the unscripted drama of the sport will take over everything once Indian players take the court, because "Picture abhi baaki hai."

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