From A Toss Of The Coin To This Year’s Pathbreaking Thomas Cup Triumph, The Story Of How Indian Badminton Rose To The Top of The World
It was a mere toss of the coin that launched the shuttle in Indian badminton. Just a coin toss to kickstart a sporting dream that has gone from strength to strength since. That’s so hard to believe in today’s times, when a dominant India dethroned four-time champions Indonesia for the Thomas Cup title two months ago.
In the 1947 All England championships, Prakash Nath became the first Indian to reach the final, where he would lose to Conny Jepsen, a Dane who emigrated to Sweden during World War II.
But before that, he would have the luck of the toss on his side, calling correctly ahead of good friend Devinder Mohan to make the semifinals. As they watched Kidambi Srikanth smash home the winner for India in Bangkok on television, it was a dream come true for the pioneers of Indian badminton. To think it all started with a gleaming coin spinning in the air.
“We grew up hearing about the exploits of Prakash Nath and Devinder Mohan, who impressed at the All England in 1947,” remembered 79-year-old Dinesh Khanna, independent India’s first semifinalist at All England Championships in 1966. An engineer by profession and also the first Indian to win the Asian title (1965), Khanna travelled down memory lane as he recalled some path-breaking performances by India on the world stage that would set the tone for future generations.
EARLY TRYSTS WITH THOMAS CUP: 1952, 1955 & 1979
“In May 1952, India reached the inter-zone playoffs (semifinals). The squad comprising Trilok Nath Seth and Devinder Mohan Lal lost to USA 4-5, after beating Denmark 6-3. If we had beaten the US, we would have challenged Malaya (now Malaysia), who directly entered the final as defending champion. Three years later at Singapore, the Indian team comprising young Nandu Natekar, who would go on to become a household name, again reached the playoffs.
“This time they paid back the US 6-3, but lost to Denmark 3-6 next, missing out on another chance to challenge Malaysia.”
Khanna spoke highly of Natekar, arguably Indian badminton’s first breakout star. “Natekar was an elegant player and his anticipation was uncanny. He was a fantastic stroke player with a fair amount of deception. His match against Dane Fin Kobber in 1955 was hailed as the match of the tournament.”
Then he pointed to the realities of those times. “Natekar could play in the All England only once in 1954 and that too after his friends raised money through a ‘Natekar Fund’. Only TN Seth’s trip was sponsored by the government.
Khanna remembered the legacy of Indonesia, putting in perspective the enormity of India’s Thomas Cup triumph. “In 1969, it was a great fight. That was the first time we had a three-month long camp in Jaipur. We lost 2-7. I won the singles against Muljadi, the then Asian champion and All England runner-up. Romen and Dipu Ghosh won the doubles. It was hard as we ran into legendary Rudy Hartono, who was pushed by Satish Bhatia in the first round. “During our time we used to tell the stronger players not to hit the shuttle hard, as the shuttles were expensive. For training, we mostly had Indian shuttles, which were made of duck feathers and were of poor quality. Not only did they break easily, their flight was very different due to the heavy cork. As I was a defensive player, I had to keep a margin from the baseline. Whereas with the RSL shuttle, English-made with goose feathers, the length was so true and rallies used to be much longer,” said Khanna who used to train and play only with the leaves granted generously by his employer, Indian Oil.
THE PRAKASH PADUKONE ERA
The next era in Indian badminton shone through with a 16-year-old from Mysore becoming the national champion by shocking senior players. Prakash Padukone, who went on to inspire thousands across the country, announced his arrival by winning the Madras Nationals in 1972. Padukone’s exploits also helped shuttle badminton to dislodge ball badminton from the prime spot in south India.
In the first round of the Thomas Cup, played in Auckland, Prakash teamed up with Asif Parpia to help India beat New Zealand 5-4 and enter the play-offs for the first time after 1955. “The referees were faulting Asif for his serve and also faulting him while receiving. The hosts wanted to win badly and we were on the verge of walking out,” Khanna said. In Jakarta next, the team lost 4-5 to Canada.
“I was the captain of the team that won the bronze at the 1974 Asiad when China first emerged. “Prakash, Partho (Ganguly), Romen (Ghosh) and others were staying at the Railway stadium in a dormitory that had no ventilation. I once saw Prakash coming with a bucket of hot water filled from the officers’ guesthouse. A family member of another player was cooking food,” Khanna said, remembering the administrative apathy in Indian sport. In the 1979 Thomas Cup, powered by Padukone’s mastery, India beat Malaysia. Padukone won three singles as India won 5-4 to top the Asian stage.
It was in 1979 that a major shift occurred. Till then a player could be debarred for taking prize money. “In 1979, Prakash won the London Masters (beating Morten Frost) and the prize money was an eye-popping five thousand pounds, especially for badminton players, as we got nothing,” Khanna said. “When I won a tournament in Bombay in 1966, legendary actor Ashok Kumar wanted to give me prize money. But I told him, ‘Sir, your wishes are good enough because if I accept money, I’ll lose my amateur status and I will be debarred.’”
A DREAM COMES TRUE
Former national champion and India coach Vimal Kumar said the Thomas Cup triumph is a dream come true. “I played my first Thomas Cup in 1981 against Sri Lanka. Then we went to Peking. Prakash, myself and Syed Modi were the three singles players. Though Prakash pulled out, China fielded their strongest team thinking that we are all of Prakash’s level,” Kumar said, breaking into laughter.
“We were all like lambs for the slaughter as I lost 2-15, 3-15 to Cheng Changjie. Then Syed Modi got thrashed 15-3, 15-0 by Han Jian as we lost 0-9. The sort of thrashing we got, I was wondering whether we would ever win the Thomas Cup,” says Kumar who accompanied the team as a coach this time.
After Padukone, who also helped India win a second Asiad bronze in 1986 along with Vimal, and Aparna Popat, India’s first female badminton Olympian in Sydney 2000, came Pullela Gopichand and his trainees.
Gopichand emulated Padukone, winning the All England after a gap of 21 years. The champion then produced a string of world beaters including Saina Nehwal, PV Sindhu and Kidambi Srikanth.
Khanna said the 2010 Commonwealth Games gave a big fillip. “We had formed a core group of 40 players in 2008 including players from the Padukone academy. And Saina (singles), Jwala Gutta and Ashwini Ponnappa winning the CWG gold added to the impetus.”
Vimal Kumar feels Saina was the big game changer. “Her exploits contributed immensely to the visibility of the sport and that also motivated Sindhu.” Among men, it was Srikanth and Parupalli Kashyap, with Lakshya Sen and Priyanshu Rajawat now ready to take over the baton. What the women started; the men are taking forward.