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

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

It’s about time because the first place to regularly play badminton was India, specifically in the Madras and Bombay presidencies. In fact, the game was originally called “Poona”, after the city where the first official rules were made in the 1870s. But just like the Kohinoor Diamond and Elgin Marbles, the naming rights were brought back to Britain and an appropriate Angrez title chosen, Badminton, after the Duke of Beaufort’s Gloucestershire estate.

However, Indian badminton talent 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, both of whom made it to the quarter-finals of the 1947 All England Championship. Nath and Devinder were considered two of the best players in the world prospect. The Brits, of course, made sure that only one of them would advance by arranging a quarter-final match between them.

The two friends decided to flip a coin to advance, reasoning that a tough quarterfinal between two evenly matched opponents would tire the winner before the semifinals. As luck would have it, Prakash won the draw and fought her way through the semifinals to a title fight against Denmark’s Conny Jepsen. On the morning of the final, Prakash Nath glanced at the London newspapers and saw his city of Lahore ablaze on the front page. Riots had broken out and a shaken Nath could barely fight back, going down against Jepsen in straight sets.

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

In India, however, the game took a back seat to hockey and cricket. Aside from an appearance by Nandu Natekar in the last eight All England, most Indians only saw the sport on screen with Jeetendra and Leena Chandravarkar starring in the song “Dhal gaya din” from the 1970 film Humjoli. No wonder the song makes most Indian badminton players cringe.

It took a boy from Mysore to make the next big attack. Prakash Padukone played his first junior state championship at age 7 and won it at age 9. Seven years later he won junior and senior national titles in the same year, followed by a distinguished international career including an All England title in 1980. He even managed to almost single-handedly carry the Indian side to the 1980 Thomas Cup semi-finals.

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

What both Prakash and Gopichand did almost immediately after their playing days was attempting to build world-class academies. Prakash started his career 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 has found success with the likes of Saina Nehwal, Kidambi Srikanth, HS Prannoy and PV Sindhu while Lakshya Sen is a protégé of Vimal Kumar of Padukone Academy.

What was most encouraging about that Thomas Cup triumph was that it was a team effort and not the triumph of a single escapee. Srikanth, Prannoy, doubles pair Chirag Shetty and Satwiksairaj Rankireddy and Lakshya all won crucial games to ensure India victory.

Can Indian badminton advance this? Almost certainly – unless the federal or state government manages to screw this up. There are a large number of young players coming through and more and more parents are sending their children to the academies, inspired by recent results.

In fact, the National Capital Region alone has added over 200 indoor badminton facilities in the last five years. Tennis’s loss is badminton’s gain, and the tremendous increase in good physical therapy facilities and innate talent is likely to ensure a concerted bull run for badminton in the near future. Jeetendra anyone?

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