Cyrus Poncha’s squash empire flourishes even as he retreats behind the curtains
Having been head coach of the Indian squash team for two decades, Cyrus Poncha has built the foundations of the sport. Now in an administrative role, he speaks about HCL’s role in promoting the sport and the road ahead for Indian squash.
Squash has slowly but surely caught the fancy of Indian crowds over the last decade or so, as the recent World Cup in Chennai showed. A lot of firsts have also been scripted by Indian squash players on the international stage in recent years, so much so that the likes of Saurav Ghosal, Joshna Chinappa and Dipika Pallikal have become household names.
If there has been one man who has been the common link between all these success stories, it is Cyrus Poncha - head coach of the Indian national team from 2001 to 2019, and now the secretary general of the Squash Rackets Federation of India.
It has been four years since Poncha moved into a full-time administrative role, but he remains as involved as his former wards continue to break further barriers.
“What we did with the Chennai World Cup got the global squash community talking. It was a social media success, it was shown live on Jio Cinema and we successfully went to the public. By doing it at a shopping mall, 100,000 people at least saw what squash is. That’s a good starting point,” he told The Bridge.
Back in 2012, Dipika became the first Indian to break into the top 10 world rankings. Saurav followed suit in the men’s section in 2019, the last year of Poncha’s coaching tenure. India won their first Commonwealth Games and Asian Games medals in 2014 as Poncha shouted out instructions from the sidelines. When Joshna won the Asian Championships in 2017, India’s first big success at the senior level, then too he had been the coach.
Having coached all of these modern-day legends since their childhood, how does Poncha view the flourishing squash empire he helped build?
“Saurav has always been self-driven. He sets his targets, and then goes out and achieves them. At a junior event in Malaysia, I remember he beat a tough opponent in the exact way he said he would. The greatest moment in the modern era for Indian squash came when he won the British Juniors U19 title. He was a top junior, he laid the path for others,” Poncha said on India’s top male player, who he has been coaching since he was 14 years old.
As for Joshna and Dipika, the top women players, Poncha says what unites them is their amazing comeback stories.
“Joshna came back stronger after a nine-month break after her ACL tear. Dipika has been amazing in coming back to the sport after three years not on tour to win two World Doubles Championship medals. Her prime focus has been on doubles since coming back, but what an upward trajectory she has been having!”
Poncha said his philosophy of coaching has always remained the same - be it the kids he started out with in his club in Mumbai in the 1990s, or stars such as Saurav, Joshna and Dipika.
“What I’ve believed from day 1 is that you have to build a bond with your athletes. You have to make them believe in you and you have to make them believe that you care,” he said.
Road ahead for Indian squash
Cyrus Poncha might not be involved in the actual match strategies any more, but he has an even bigger responsibility - steering the course of Indian squash, in association with HCL.
“HCL's tagline, 'Human Potential. Multiplied' is very apt for us. Everyone in the squash community, be it referees, coaches, players, sports science staff, have all come under the ambit of HCL’s support. The best thing about the 7-year-old partnership between SRFI and HCL is that they genuinely want to see the sport grow. They want to work on aspects where we need additional assistance. It’s a godsend,” Poncha said.
He laid out how HCL is chipping in with guidance at every step of the way, like organising events ranging from nationals to world championships in the country, by helping players with sports science programmes and foreign coaches, and improving the coaching standards within our country by coach education programmes.
"HCL has been a massive help in building a 360 degree ecosystem around squash. For coaches, there are coach education programmes. For the players, we are bringing in international coaches, so that people who cannot travel get quality coaching at their doorstep. Players are being helped by sports science testing, a massive aspect that HCL has brought in, and by the events that are being conducted in India," he said.
"HCL has also been a huge help in organising events, not just the local domestic events but also Asian-level events. They supported us in conducting the Asian Championships and very recently the World Championships. They are with us for the whole journey," he added.
Just the number of squash events in India these days is indicative of the work that has gone in. From 10 tournaments in the 2014 calendar year, there were 56 national-level tournaments in 2019.
But Poncha still sees a lot of room for growth.
“Where we need to grow is in having more public facilities. We need more cities playing squash, more cities organising events. We need new squash venues. Once these things are in place, more children will automatically start playing.
“Fifteen years ago, squash was more popular than badminton, today we pale in comparison. Olympic medals have done great for the sport. Because of the ease of space for it, badminton has exploded. That is what we need for squash,” he said.
Cyrus Poncha’s playing days
Having won the Dronacharya Award in 2005, the country's highest honour for a coach, the Asian junior coach award in 2003, 2004 and 2008, and the Asian Squash Coach award in 2010, 2014 and 2016, Cyrus Poncha is one of the most decorated coaches in Indian sports history across all sports.
When was it that he decided this was to be the path he would follow? Poncha says his trajectory into coaching was quite unusual.
“I started playing squash at the age of 12 at a summer camp in Mumbai after my brother suggested I pick up a sport. I reached the top four at the junior nationals consistently for a few years,” he said.
“From the age of 16-17, I started volunteering at squash events. At the age of 18, some parents approached me, asking me to coach their kids. My first student was Alisha Mashruwala, she went on to be the junior national champion many times,” he added.
The group of kids with junior ranks training under him in Mumbai started to grow after that, till in 2001 he got a call to shift to Chennai to take the helm of the Indian coaching team from N Ramachandran, the then secretary general of the SRFI. The rest, as they say, is history in motion.