Most of the successful coaches that we see around today are familiar faces. But usually their fame precedes their coaching careers and we know them from their years on the professional circuit. Be it Stefan Edberg for Roger Federer, Zinedine Zidane for Real Madrid, Subhash Bhowmick for the Calcutta Maidan or Pulella Gopichand for the Indian shuttlers.That is, however, not the case for Cyrus Poncha, the head coach of the Indian squash team.
Article By Proma Sanyal | The Bridge
For Cyrus Poncha, it was all about becoming the support system for others that he missed for himself. Hence, only at 18 Cyrus took to coaching children over the weekends, which would soon become a lot more than a weekend chore.
“When I was playing as a junior in Bombay, there weren’t too many coaches to help us. So I took it upon myself to help the kids out over the weekends which would eventually spread over weekdays.
“I figured that I enjoyed helping out very much and a lot of people started to encourage me to give it a serious thought and that’s how I became a full time coach for a sport I love,” said Cyrus while talking to The Bridge.
Over the years, Poncha has dabbled in the management of both the junior squash circuit and the senior and has had fruitful tenures in both stages. In the last ten years Indian squash has shown a remarkable improvement, with three players within the top 20 in the world and a crop of fast improving junior players, waiting to burst on the big stage.
“Managing the two junior circuits come with challenges of their own. It’s like raising a 5 year old, a 15 year old and a 25 year old adult. The kids in the U-12 level need a far more holistic guidance but they need it at every step and they need it from scratch. But with seniors, coaching is a whole other ball game.
“Many of them are already professional while some are on the cusp and they have ideas of their own. They don’t require taking care of like the younger players but with them, there is a lot more convincing involved if you need them to make changes or come on board with you,” he explained.
One such junior who rose from under Cyrus’s wings was Velavan Senthilkumar. To Cyrus, he was an outstanding junior who he held up as a model player. Currently, pursuing academics at Columbia University, it hasn’t been too long since Velavan, the U-19 world no.1 took the junior circuit by storm.
Recalling Velavan’s days as a junior Cyrus said, “ He was miles ahead of others in the U-15 level and even in the U-19 category, he was head and shoulders above the others. He won the British Junior Championship then and although he is studying now, I hope he comes back to give squash a professional go and see how far he can go.”
While Velavan is off on his quest for knowledge in the world of academia, Cyrus gives a heads up to India to watch out for another upcoming star who finished second, behind Velavan at the British Junior Championship in the same year. “Abhay has jumped up the rankings massively in the past 6 months and I am certain that it’s safe to expect big things from him in the future.”
With the Indian Squash Academy, where Cyrus and others work relentlessly to produce champions of the future, the face of squash in India has had a complete refurbishment. “We have developed a proper training system, dedicated team to ensure great facilities like educating the coaches, good tournament planning and so on. Things can only look better and brighter in the future for India,” said a very optimistic Cyrus Poncha.
While clearly taking great care of the juniors, and now with the Commonwealth Games almost only hours away, Cyrus does not seem to be breaking a sweat. The likes of Saurav Ghoshal and Dipika Pallikal, Joshana Chinappa and Harinder Pal Sandhu are taking part in both singles and doubles. Yet, it does not seem to trouble the coach at all.
“Of course it is hectic but this is what they’ve been training for. This is how players from all over the world will work and so will our boys and girls. These players have been paired in the past and know each other well. Moreover, both the girls hit number 10 recently and Saurav is at no.14. To reach that level, you have to be special. So I’m not worried,” said the Dronacharya awardee.
Speaking of medals, Cyrus was cautiously optimistic while being full of praise for the hard work that the players have put in. “Of course, I’d be overjoyed if the medal tally went from one to two. I’d be over the moon. But it’s all very easy for me to say. The CWG is a seriously difficult platform and I’d honestly be happy with one,” Poncha admitted.
“A good outing at the CWG would be a great boost for the Asian as the former is a much harder competition. Naturally I’d say the chances of winning a medal in doubles is better but I’m not going to rule out an upset in Singles as well,” he added hopefully.
Talking to Cyrus Poncha for even five minutes is enough to understand that getting more people involved in the sport is a cause close to his heart. According to him, the Sports Authority of India is quite a generous helping hand but the sport lacks corporate backing.
“Right now, we do get support but it’s mostly the top players that reap the benefits. There are a lot of thoughts in the pipeline and there are talks to begin a league system. With TV coverage, the sport would definitely become more popular,” opined Poncha.
For decades, squash has been treated as an elite sport, a game for the rich upper class. The coach, having missed out on systematic coaching himself, does not deny the elitist history of the British hand me down sport.
“Yes, earlier the sport was a niche one, played only in exclusive clubs or in the army. But now a lot of academies are there and even the new housing complexes include squash courts. So it’s definitely widening up. Maybe it’s still a while before every person on the street knows what squash really is but there has definitely been a steady move towards inclusiveness,” he said.
The 2005 Dronacharya awardee also won the Asian Squash Federation ‘Coach of the Year’ award in the years 2016, 2004, 2009, 2012 while in 2014 he won it as the team coach. While the real award lies in the victories of the players, Cyrus admits that an occasional pat on the back is not half bad.
“These are the little recognitions that keep reminding us of the good that we are doing. A little acknowledgment of the effort makes us push that extra mile to work relentlessly in getting more children to pick the sport up,” said Cyrus Poncha.
“It is an all weather sport, and we have so many plans for nationwide development on a junior level. I would always suggest to take this sport up because it has so much to offer. Be it money, excitement, challenges, recognition- it’s a fabulous sport,” he eagerly said.
From the efforts and recent achievements in squash, a line of future champions is not an extreme dream for Cyrus. It is now for the Indian fans to see what Cyrus’s trainees bring to the table over the next two weeks at the Gold Coast Commonwealth Games.