poona: How badminton got its ‘Poona’ back by shuttling back & bravely forth

It’s finally come home! With a 3-0 sweep over 14 time champions Indonesia, the Indian men’s badminton team picked up its first ever Thomas Cup title, the World Team Championship.

It’s about time, given that the first place that badminton was played on a regular basis was India, especially in the Madras and Bombay Presidencies. In fact, the game was originally called ‘Poona’, after the city where the first official rules were drawn up in the 1870s. But just like the Kohinoor diamond and the Elgin Marbles, the naming rights were whisked back to Britain and a suitably English title was chosen, badminton, after the Duke of Beaufort’s estate in Gloucestershire.

Indian badminton talent, however, continued to flourish. And much before Deepika Padukone’s father put it on the map, there was the tale of Prakash Nath and Devinder Mohan, who both made it to the quarterfinals of the All England Championship in 1947. Nath and Devinder were regarded as two of the best players on view. The British, of course, made sure only one of them would progress by arranging a quarterfinal clash between them.

The two friends decided to toss a coin to progress, reasoning that a tough quarterfinal between two evenly matched opponents would tire the winner out before the semis. As it happened, Prakash won the toss, and swept his way through the semis to a title clash against Denmark’s Conny Jepsen. On the morning of the final, Prakash Nath glanced at the London papers and saw his city, Lahore, in flames on the front page. Rioting had broken out, and a shaken Nath barely put up a fight, going down in straight sets to Jepsen.

In the post-war period, it was the Malays and the Danes who dominated the scene, before the Chinese and Indonesians got into the picture in the early 1950s.

In India, however, the game took a back seat to hockey and cricket. Barring a final eight All England appearance by Nandu Natekar, most Indians only saw the sport on screen with Jeetendra and Leena Chandravarkar playing along in the song ‘Dhal gaya din’ from the 1970 film Humjoli. Small wonder that the song makes most Indian badminton players cringe.

It took a Mysore boy to make the next big charge. Prakash Padukone played his first state junior championship at the age of 7, and won it when 9. Seven years later, he won the national junior and senior titles the same year, following it up with a stellar international career, including an All England title. in 1980. He even managed to carry the Indian team almost singlehandedly to the Thomas Cup semifinals in 1980.

He was followed by the likes of Syed Modi and Vimal Kumar, and then in 2001 by Pullela Gopichand, who replicated Prakash’s win at the All England – and then made even bigger headlines for refusing to endorse an aerated drink as it was bad for athletes. .

What both Prakash and Gopichand did almost immediately after their playing years was to try and build world class academies. Prakash started his in Bengaluru in 1994, and in 2008 Gopichand mortgaged his family home to build his academy. The two gharanas of Indian badminton have served India well, Gopichand finding success with the likes of Saina Nehwal, Kidambi Srikanth, HS Prannoy and PV Sindhu, while Lakshya Sen is a protege of Vimal Kumar from the Padukone academy.

The most encouraging part of this Thomas Cup triumph was that it was a team effort, not the triumph of a single outlier individual. Srikanth, Prannoy, the doubles pair of Chirag Shetty and Satwiksairaj Rankireddy and Lakshya all won crucial games to get India the win, five different players playing out of their skins to bring it home for India.

Can Indian badminton take this forward? Almost surely – unless the federation or government manages to mess this up. There is a great crop of young players coming through, and an increasing number of parents, inspired by recent results, are sending their kids to academies.

In fact, just the National Capital Region has added over 200 indoor badminton facilities in the past five years. Tennis’s loss is badminton’s gain, and the huge increase in good physiotherapy facilities and innate talent probably make for a concerted bull run for badminton in the near future. Jeetendra anybody?


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