Squash in Tamil Nadu: Snookered in Ooty

In January, 20-year old Dipika Pallikal became the first Indian ever to contest the final of a World Squash Federation ‘silver event’ when she faced the Netherlands’ Natalie Grinham in the Tournament of Champions in New York.

Less than a month later, in her home city of Chennai, Pallikal was again in finals action in the inaugural WSF Under-21 World Cup. This time, the event was held before an ecstatic crowd at the Express Avenue Mall, the largest shopping complex in Southern India. Throughout the 3-match final, a significant percentage of the estimated 75,000 ‘walk through’ crowd were either surrounding the all-glass show-court or hanging over the balconies of the three floors overlooking it.

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Squash Court in the Express Avenue Mall, Chennai

A week after the final, I arrived in the Tamil Nadu capital at the start of a journey across the subcontinent. I wasn’t exactly on the lookout for signs of squash, you understand, but sometimes you do tend to stumble across them.

Even if you’re just passing through.

Heat and Dust

With average day-time temperatures in the mid to high 30s Centigrade, Chennai in February isn’t exactly the ideal place to wander around seeing the sights. Except for Mad Dogs and  Englishmen that is. Even so, a fair amount of my time in the city was spent in the air-conditioned confines of my hotel and, on one memorable occasion, in a vegetarian restaurant overlooking a chaotic petrol station forecourt.

Despite India’s recent successes, I found absolutely no coverage of squash in the media, either in the newspapers or on any of Tamil Nadu’s numerous TV channels. Instead, there was wall-to-wall, non-stop coverage of India’s most popular sport, cricket, the main topic of interest being India’s performance in a tri-series ODI tournament being played in Australia. “Will Sachin (Tendulkar) get his 100th international century?” was the question on everyone’s lips. Three weeks later, when I was still travelling, India had been dumped out of the tournament, and he still hadn’t.

After leaving Chennai, I caught the India Railways sleeper to Vilapuram before heading for the former French colony of Pondicherry. Next stop was Madurai followed by Rameshwaram and then Thanjavur. The city was hotter, and dustier, than anywhere I’d visited so far but did provide me with the first sign of squash since leaving Chennai. In the window of the Deepu Sports shop, I spotted a squash racket.

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Deepu Sports Shop, Thanjavur

Inside the shop, I asked one of the assistants whether I could play squash in the area. “Certainly!” she replied enthusiastically. After a lengthy pause, I cracked and asked where. “Chennai!” she beamed triumphantly. I decided not to point out that a 200 mile round trip to Chennai for a squash match might not be something that a Thanjavur-based squash player would wish to undertake. Even for a vital league match.

Back at the hotel, I switched on the TV to be rewarded with recorded highlights from the semi-finals of the Under-21 Squash World Cup. I started to feel that I was getting warmer. Figuratively speaking.

Into the Hills

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Squash on Indian TV

To escape the heat of the plain, I did what European colonialists in India used to do in summer-time. I headed for the hills. Travelling from Thanjavur via  Erode to Mallapuram, I caught the Nilgiri Hill Railway via Wellington to Ootacamund, known to British colonialists as Ooty.

Situated at 2200m (nearly 7500ft) above sea level, Ooty, known as ‘The Queen of the Hill Stations’, is one of 80-odd high altitude towns used as places of refuge from the summer heat. The British Indian Army built 50 or so of the Stations, the remainder being built by various Indian rulers over the centuries as places of leisure or even as permanent capitals.

Before I got to Ooty, I knew that in 1890, His Highness the Maharaja of Vizianagaram presented a squash court to the Ooty Club. Nestled in the hills above Ooty, the Club is fondly referred to as the “Snooty Ooty Club” and also as “The Morgue” due to the many hunting trophies adorning its walls. It’s also the place where the rules of snooker were formally finalized in 1884 by Sir Neville Chamberlain. They’re still posted in the Club’s Billiards Room.

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The Billiards Room in the Ooty Club

I asked the Ooty Club’s Secretary whether squash was still played there. “No” he said. “The squash court was dismantled many years ago and never replaced.” Despite searching for it, he still didn’t know where in the Club’s grounds the court had been located. He also told me that the rival Wellington Gymkhana Club no longer had any squash courts although he did know that the first one built there had been commissioned in 1927. However, he said, there were two courts at the Defence Services Staff College also located in Wellington.

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Squash at Wellington Staff College

So, squash appeared to be alive in the Nilgiri Hills and being played by the officer classes of the Indian Army, Navy and Air Force.

But what about the civilian population of Ooty?

Did any of them still play?

And, if so, where?

Back to School

On my second evening in Ooty, I stumbled across another sign of squash life in the Charing Cross district of the town. Painted on the wall next to the Shanghai Company Sports and Chinese Footwear shop was the legend ‘squash racket’. And, lo and behold, displayed in the window itself were several rackets….of varying vintage.

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Shanghai Company Sports and Chinese Footwear shop, Ooty

The mystery buyers of the shop’s rackets proved, in one instance, to be less than 15 minutes walk away from the shop. The Hebron School, located near Ooty’s Botanical Gardens, was founded in 1899 to serve the mission community of India and South-East Asia. Now, it’s a co-educational and predominantly boarding school for children aged 5 years to 19 years. And squash is one of the school’s ‘curriculum’ sports.

Slightly further out of town is the Good Shepherd International School, a full time boarding school located on a 70-acre campus near Ooty Lake. Established in 1977, the campus include classrooms, laboratories, lecture theatres and sports facilities including squash courts. All of which gave me the feeling that squash was being passed on to at least some of  India’s younger generation in the Hills of Tamil Nadu.

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Outside the Shanghai Company shop

The day after my Shanghai Company experience, and amid reports that a leopard had been seen in the grounds of Hebron School, I left Ooty for Cochin in neighbouring Kerala. In many ways, I was sad not to have had the opportunity to meet Ooty’s squash players. But, on the other hand, I’ve never been keen on the idea of encountering a leopard on the way to the squash courts.

I don’t think having a racket with me would help much.

Acknowledgements

Thanks to The Hindu newspaper for its article on the Express Avenue Mall and to Al-Ahram for it’s report on the WSF Under-21 Squash World Cup.  Also, thanks to the Secretary of the Ooty Club for his insight into the local squash community.