“12-10 in the fifth, in the decider of the Asian Games gold medal match, India vs Pakistan, how do you write it!” gasped Abhay Singh. “How do you write it?”
India’s man of the moment, who nearly quit the sport two years ago, captured the emotions best.
Where to even begin to describe the relentless drama, the unbearable tension and the astonishing fightback that ultimately led to a squash gold medal with a 11-7, 9-11, 8-11, 11-9, 12-10 victory? With the bickering start to what turned out to be one of the all-time classic India-Pakistan matches? Or the cold-blooded, thoroughly professional exhibition by veteran Sourav Ghosal, which brought India back into the mix?
Perhaps, it’s best to start at the end of this titanic clash that transformed from ugly to sublime to compelling. With the hysterical scenes at the end of an adrenaline-fuelled gold medal match. A rhapsodic Abhay flinging his racquet so far into the packed stands that it landed in the row in front of the referee’s table; his opponent, Pakistan’s Noor Zaman, burying his head in his hands and bolting out of the arena, unable to fathom what had just happened; his teammate Harinder Pal Sandhu, unable to control his emotions, climbing to the top of the court.
Seconds ago, Abhay and Zaman were locked inside the cage like prizefighters as the capacity crowd roared in delight and shock, taking turns to chant names of both the countries. And the 25-year-old Indian, on whose shoulders rested the gold medal hopes, looked dead and buried.
Down two match points in the deciding game, Abhay’s shoulders dropped, the Indian bench went silent and the momentum was firmly with Pakistan. “In your head, you have lost,” Abhay said.
From that hopeless position, Abhay resurrected himself with courageous stroke-play to win four consecutive points, clinch the tie and lead India to a thrilling 2-1 win over Pakistan, an erstwhile squash powerhouse, and claim the team gold medal.
It was India’s second gold medal of the day, after Rohan Bopanna and Rutuja Bhosale won the tennis mixed doubles title, and just before the historic triumph of the women’s doubles table tennis team of Suthirtha Mukherjee and Ayhika Mukherjee stunning Chinese world champions and world number 2 pair Chen Meng and Yidi Wang to enter the semifinals and assure themselves a medal.
But on a day when India’s athletes won big across sports — from tennis to table tennis to track and field — the squash gold will not be forgotten any time soon for its unrelenting drama and the sensational comeback.
The victory was even sweeter for India as this was a grudge match, having lost to Pakistan in the preliminary round just three days ago. And more so for Abhay, who had suffered a humbling defeat at the hands of Zaman.
Sparks flew throughout this three-match tie, just like it did when the two teams met Wednesday. After India lost that encounter 2-1, veteran player Ghosal got his younger teammates, Abhay and Mahesh Mangaonkar, together for a briefing.
“Both Abhay and Mahesh got very, very emotionally charged. It’s my belief that’s not the way to play them (Pakistan),” Ghosal said. “I told them yesterday you almost have to be robots. Literally, like no emotions. No emotion is more powerful than any other outward thing you can show.”
No love lost
If staying bereft of emotions was the game plan, India did not begin well. The opening match between Mangaonkar and Nasir Iqbal turned into an unpleasant brawl with both players colliding into each other — sometimes inadvertently, at times strategically — and then complaining constantly to the umpire, alleging interference.
The antics seemed to backfire on the Indian, who got increasingly frustrated when the referee did not listen to his pleas. Mangaonkar was losing the mental game as well as the technical one as Iqbal made him move all over the court, finding the right angles, height and placement to keep the ball away from the Indian, especially on the far side of the forehand.
Iqbal won the opener in straight games, putting the onus on Ghosal — India’s No. 1 player for 860 consecutive weeks. The man who has kept the country’s flag flying ensured it did not bow out tepidly in this tie.
Digging into his decades of experience and showing impenetrable calmness, Ghosal made short work of Muhammad Asim Khan, allowing the Pakistani player just nine points across three games to force the gold medal match into a decider.
Ghosal may have wrapped up his contest in exactly half an hour but he was deeply involved all through the two hours the tie lasted. The 37-year-old was the chief cheerleader from the bench, shouted words of advice and caution in between points and went into breathless monologues during game intervals, giving instructions to his teammates.
Before the all-important match between Abhay and Zaman, both Ghosal and coach Christopher Walker sat Abhay down and went over the strategy. “It was quite cold so we just had to be very careful hitting the ball back,” Walker said. “We made sure he’s covering the front very well since when the ball doesn’t bounce much when you take it to the front and play the drop shots. The drop shots become a bigger weapon as the match goes on.”
These words ringing in his ears, Abhay entered the court to play what turned out to be a match of great deception, artistry and gamesmanship. He seemed to be heading for a straightforward win after wrapping up the first game within no time, and racing to a 7-4 lead in the second.
But then, the tide turned and Zaman made a strong comeback with a flurry of cross-court hits, pinning Abhay to the backcourt and using the drop shots with deadly accuracy.
Abhay stayed alive in the match with his incredible athleticism and stubbornness to not give in despite being put under relentless pressure. Eventually, he did just enough to deny Pakistan what, at multiple points, felt like an assured gold.
Especially when Zaman had two match points to seal the gold medal and had the crowd vociferously backing him. “The only thing I was thinking at 10-8 was how did I get here but I had all the confidence in myself,” Abhay said. “There was a lot of talk from the other team three nights ago, some on social media… Well, I am looking forward to some tonight.”