It was about time, given that the first place where badminton was practiced regularly was India, especially during the Madras and Bombay presidencies. In fact, the game was originally called “Poona”, named after the town where the first official rules were written in the 1870s. But just like the Kohinoor Diamond and the Elgin Marbles, the rights to denomination were brought back to Britain and a suitably angrez title was chosen, badminton, after the estate of the Duke of Beaufort in Gloucestershire.
Indian badminton talent, however, continued to flourish. And long before Deepika Padukone’s father put it on the map, there was the story of Prakash Nath and Devinder Mohan, who both reached the quarter-finals of the All England Championship in 1947. Nath and Devinder were considered as two of the best players on view. The Brits, of course, made sure only one of them would progress by setting up a quarter-final clash between them.
The two friends decided to flip a coin to progress, thinking that a difficult quarter-final between two evenly matched opponents would tire the winner before the semi-finals. As it happened, Prakash won the coin toss and fought his way through the semi-finals to a title clash against Denmark’s Conny Jepsen. On the morning of the final, Prakash Nath glanced at the London newspapers and saw his city, Lahore, in flames on the front page. Riots had broken out and a shaken Nath was barely fighting, going down in straight sets against Jepsen.
In the post-war period, it was the Malays and Danes who dominated the scene, before the Chinese and Indonesians entered the scene in the early 1950s.
In India, however, the game has taken precedence over hockey and cricket. With the exception of Nandu Natekar’s last eight all-England appearances, most Indians have only seen the sport on screen with Jeetendra and Leena Chandravarkar starring in the song “Dhal gaya din” from the movie Humjoli from 1970. No wonder the song makes most Indian badminton players cringe.
It took a boy from Mysore to do the next big load. Prakash Padukone played his first state junior championship at age 7 and won it at age 9. Seven years later, he won the national junior and senior titles in the same year, followed by a glittering international career, including an All England title. in 1980. He even managed to carry the Indian team almost single-handedly to the semi-finals of the Thomas Cup in 1980.
He was followed by Syed Modi and Vimal Kumar, then in 2001 by Pullela Gopichand, who replicated Prakash’s All England win – and then made even bigger headlines for refusing to endorse a soft drink because it was bad for the athletes. .
What Prakash and Gopichand did almost immediately after their playing years was try to create world-class academies. Prakash started his in Bengaluru in 1994 and in 2008 Gopichand mortgaged his family home to build his academy. India’s two badminton gharanas have served India well with Gopichand finding success with Saina Nehwal, Kidambi Srikanth, HS Prannoy and PV Sindhu, while Lakshya Sen is a protege of Vimal Kumar from Padukone academy.
The most heartening part of this Thomas Cup triumph was that it was a team effort, not the triumph of one outlier individual. Srikanth, Prannoy, the doubles pair of Chirag Shetty and Satwiksairaj Rankireddy and Lakshya all won crucial matches for India to claim victory, with five different players playing out of their skins to bring it home for India.
Can Indian badminton get things done? Almost surely – unless the federation or the government manages to screw it all up. There is a great crop of young players coming in and a growing number of parents, inspired by recent results, are sending their children to academies.
In fact, the National Capital Region alone has added more than 200 indoor badminton facilities in the past five years. The loss of tennis is a gain for badminton, and the huge increase in good physical therapy facilities and innate talent will likely lead to a concerted bull run for badminton in the near future. Will I extend to someone?