Column | A historic triumph defying huge odds

India win Thomas Cup
Indian team members and support staff pose with the national flag after winning the Thomas Cup. File photo: PTI

Legend has it that producers of blockbuster Bollywood movies are scared to schedule a release during the months when Indian Premier League (IPL) is played. The apprehension is well founded in the minds of producers and distributors that the glitz and glamour of IPL, along with the lure of thrills and excitement of T20 cricket, are capable of keeping most of the cinemagoers hooked to their televisions completely during this period. Hence they prefer to wait patiently till the matches are over before pushing new productions to the theatres. The underlying wisdom is that only momentous events can shift the attention of general public away from cricket when IPL holds centre stage.


The spontaneous eruption of joyous celebration across the nation on hearing the news of India clinching the Thomas Cup indicated that this was a indeed a historic occasion. That the event could attract so many headlines and eyeballs during the IPL season makes this worthy of being hailed as a momentous one. The fact that we were never the favourites and had to overcome severe odds and challenges added to the brilliance of this win. The tweet of Prime Minister Narendra Modi that the entire nation was elated at this victory summed up the mood of the country. It was only in the fitness of things that the members of the side were honoured by Prime Minister himself at his residence on their return from Bangkok, where the finals of this championship was played.


An overwhelming reason for the charm of this win lay in the fact that it was not expected. Prior to the start of the championship, India were ranked No. 5 below Indonesia, Japan, Denmark and the Chinese Taipei. In the group matches, where India were placed in Group C, we could only finish second, having lost to the Chinese Taipei. However, the side recovered from this setback and defeated Malaysia in the last eight stage and Denmark in the semifinals, both with identical margin of 3-2. It appeared that the side had reserved its best performance for the final where they blanked favourites Indonesia 3-0 to lift the trophy in style. 

Kidambi Srikanth
Kidambi Srikanth produces a smash against Jonatan Christie in the final. File photo: AFP/Manan Vatsyayana


It was not just that the country was ranked No. 5; none of our players figured in the top 5 in current world rankings as well. Lakshya Sen is presently the highest ranked player amongst Indians at No. 9 while Kidambi Srikkanth and HS Prannoy figure at the 11th and 23rd spots respectively. This stands in sharp contrast with Denmark, whose Viktor Axelson is ranked No.1 and Anders Antonsen is placed No. 3, while Indonesia had their top ranked players - Anthony Ginting and Christie - at No, 5 and 8 respectively. But this did not deter the Indian camp who repeatedly outwitted players placed above them. Kidambi Srikkanth was the star performer in this regard defeating Anders Antonson and Jonatan Christie, while Lakshya made short work of Ginting. Similarly, the doubles pair of Satwiksairaj Rankireddy and Chirag Shetty figure only at No. 8 in international rankings but they did not lose even a single match during the final stages of the championship. It was the ability of these players to rise to their full potential on the big stage, which is the hallmark of true champions, that paved the way for this magnificent victory. 


Though the success of Saina Nehwal and P V Sindhu has contributed to increased media focus on the women’s game during the recent years, a quick look at the history of men’s badminton will reveal that India possesses a rich tradition in this game, which caught the attentions of sports loving public right from the 1950s when the legendary Nandu Natekar held centre stage. Natekar strode the Indian badminton stage like a colossus during the 1950s and early 60s, winning almost all tournaments held in the country. He reached the quarterfinals of All England championships in 1954 and became the first Indian to win a championship abroad, when he clinched the Selangor International tournament at Kuala Lumpur in 1956. He was honoured with the Arjuna Award in 1961, when it was instituted for the first time. 


Prakash Padukone made history by winning both senior and junior national titles in 1972. He did not taste defeat for the next decade in India and went on to win championships across the world, starting with the gold medal in the Commonwealth Games at Edmonton in 1978. He won the prestigious All England Championships in 1980, becoming the first Indian player to do so. His victories in the Danish and Swedish Open during the same year took him to the pole position in world rankings. He developed a close friendship with Morten Frost Hansen of Denmark and moved to that country during the 1980s to practice and sharpen his skills there. 


Prakash Padukone
Prakash Padukone had led India to the Thomas Cup semifinals in the 1979 edition. File photo: IANS

Padukone’s exploits formed the inspiration for Pullela Gopichand, who followed his mentor’s footsteps to win the All England Championships in 2001. Gopichand won the national championships for five times in a row from 1996 and clinched the bronze medal in Commonwealth Games at Kuala Lumpur in 1998. His other major achievements include title wins at the Toulouse Open in France and Scottish Open, both in 1999, and a bronze medal in Asian Championships in 2000.


One outstanding feature of these champions was that they chose to contribute to the game by setting up coaching academies after their active playing days. Though Natekar founded a centre for Sports and Fitness at Pune after his retirement, it was Padukone who brought about a substantive change in badminton training methods in the country. Prakash Padukone Badminton Academy, which he established in Bangalore in 1994 along with Vimal Kumar, another national champion, introduced new fitness and training methods which helped to improve the strength and stamina of players, an area where Indians had lagged behind in the past. The exposure to these aspects of the game that Padukone had gained during his stint in Europe helped him realise their importance and this was reflected in the processes employed in his academy. The efforts of Padukone and Vimal translated quickly into results as could be seen in the success of Gopichand, a product of this academy, in the international circuit.    


Gopichand himself set up his academy at Hyderabad in 2008. He was forced to mortgage his house to get the funds required to start this project. However, he was later helped by a loan of Rs 5 crore from an industrialist on condition that this institution produced Olympic medal winners. Gopichand was able to keep his part of the bargain by training Saina, who won bronze medal in the London Olympics in 2012. Saina was followed by Sindhu, another product of this academy who clinched a silver medal in the 2016 Rio Olympics and bronze at Tokyo five years later. Gopichand also served a stint as the coach of the national side.


At this juncture one should remember two badminton stalwarts of the yore who met with untimely deaths in tragic circumstances. Suresh Goel won the national title five times during the 1960s, besides reaching the finals of US Open in 1967. He was training in the track attached to Benares Hindu University in 1978 when he suffered sudden death on account of a massive heart attack. He was only 35 years old when this misfortune occurred. Syed Modi was a champion performer during the 1980s wining the national title eight times in a row from 1980. He also won the gold medal at the 1982 Commonwealth games at Brisbane and bronze medal in 1982 Asiad. He was on course for being hailed as the next badminton great from India after Padukone when he was shot dead in Lucknow in 1988. He was only 26 and at the peak of his career when his life was cruelly cut short by the assassin’s bullets. That this murder took place when he was leaving the stadium in the evening after his daily practice sessions made it even more heartbreaking for the followers of this sport.


On this occasion when we rejoice over the glory brought to the nation by the team that lifted the Thomas Cup, let us also raise a toast to these brilliant players of the past who contributed substantially to the development of this sport in the country.


(The author is a former international cricket umpire and a senior bureaucrat)

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