Despite being part of the Asian Games gold medal winning squash team, Harinder Pal Singh Sandhu was content watching celebrations from the backseat. India No. 1 Saurav Ghosal was showered with praise for that success, given that he had also managed to muster a silver in the individual event. Yet, just last week, Sandhu stepped out of the shadows and stunned Ghosal in the final of the senior nationals. The latter was looking to win his ninth straight title, and 10th overall. As it happened, the three-time runner-up won his first national championship.
Like he did after returning from Incheon, Sandhu maintained a low profile. The shy and polite nature has usually been associated with the Mohali-native. That, however, is only for those who don’t know him well. “He’s actually quite a funny guy. Pretty much the team comedian,” says Mahesh Mangaonkar, the India No. 2. One-liners are his claim to fame, almost all of which come when Sandhu, as a bystander, is watching two or more teammates argue. “He’s a big Sunny Deol fan, and he comes up with random dialogues at the weirdest times. All of a sudden, people forget what they’re arguing about and start laughing,” adds Mangaonkar.
Deol’s famed dialogues, ‘yeh dhai kilo ka haath kisi pe padta hai to aadmi uthta nahi, utth jata hai’, and ‘yeh mazdoor ka haath hai, loha piglakar uska aakar badal deta hai’ are often recited in the locker rooms with Sandhu’s own personal touch. His love for Bhangra is also another key preference. “It’s something I just can’t live without,” asserts Sandhu.
After proving his potential, Sandhu left home to set up base at the Indian Squash Academy (ISA) in Chennai. The move from home effectively brought to an end any cricketing hopes the youngster may have harboured.
As a student of the Yadavindra Public School, well known for its cricket culture, Sandhu too professes being attracted to the popular sport.
Nonetheless, once a squash court was set up, curiosity got the better of him. “It was very unusual running inside four walls, trying to hit a small ball on the wall. I was fascinated by it. Slowly I saw my seniors playing it and I started training to beat them. Then I got into it quite seriously,” he recalls.
It was as a 10-year-old that he was introduced to the game. By 11 he had already started showing his willingness to excel in it. The thought of Sandhu running on the school ground, at 6 am in the unforgiving Northern winters, brought back memories. “The whole school couldn’t believe I was out in the freezing cold, training,” he mentions.
While the temporary hiatus last year owing to academic pressure kept his ranking stagnant, this year his return, marked by the Asian Games and the local PSA wins that followed took him to 60 in the world.
Nonetheless, the brand of squash he produced in the final against Ghosal, world No. 18, was unseen. “Harry is a bit faster than Saurav, but what we saw him do in the final was simply not him!” exclaims Mangaonkar, whom third-seed Sandhu had beaten in the semi-final. “He’s never been overly aggressive. But in the match he was going for it. He was volleying with power and running for everything. I’ve never seen him play so well,” he adds.
Ghosal, on his part acknowledges losing out to the better player on the day. “I had to play catch-up the entire game. He deserved the title,” says the 28-year-old. “To the outside world I was always expected to win. But I knew Harry has been in good form of late and I can’t win forever,” he added. He goes further to claim that he has already started looking toward next year’s competition, where he will compete as a challenger for the first time since 2006.