By Prabhjot Singh*
After hockey and cricket, badminton is the third game in which Indian men have been crowned World champions. The gold medal triumph at Bangkok on May 15 was the culmination of a long journey that started with a first round exit in 1949. In between India made the penultimate round in 1952, 1955 and again in 1979 in this elite inter-nation team event that has meta morphed into a World Championship.
In 1949, two years after freedom, India embarked upon its first Thomas Cup journey, its team had taken 24 hours to fly from Bombay to London from where it travelled by road to Southampton.
The next phase was a cruise that took Indian team to Halifax in Nova Scotia enroute to Toronto where it was to make its debut in the inaugural edition of the elite tournament. In its first edition, it had eight European and two teams from North America besides India and Malaya (now known as Malaysia).
India lost its first round to the hosts Canada 2-7. Canada in turn lost to the USA 1-8. Ultimately, in the final Malaya beat Denmark to become the first champion of the Thomas Cup.
In 2022, when 16 qualifiers for the finals were clubbed, India and Canada got into the same pool. In the quarter-finals, India had the 1949 champions Malaysia as its opponent. Denmark, the losing finalist of the first edition, was India’s opponent in the semi-finals and Indonesia, winner of the Cup for 14 times – maximum by any nation – challenged the first time finalist India and lost.
I had my first exposure to this great badminton in 1975-76 when India played Malaysia at Ludhiana’s Lal Bahadur Shastri Indoor Hall.
For me as a cub Reporter, it was a big event. I was not only assigned by The Tribune, the oldest and largest circulated English daily of north India at that time, but also Sportsweek, the then number one Indian sports weekly, besides a couple of other newspapers and magazines.
It was, needless to reiterate, a finest opportunity to see some of the top world badminton players in action at the only match played in Punjab in the history of the Thomas Cup. One of the architects to get this match to Ludhiana was the then Honorary Secretary of Punjab Badminton Association, Mr Naurattan Singh Bhalla.
Panch Gunalan, a great Malaysian badminton player, had come with his team as its manager. India had just beaten Pakistan 5-4 to earn the right to challenge the Malaysians.
The mainstay of Indian team was young Prakash Padukone who not only masterminded India’s exciting win over Pakistan but was also instrumental in building 4-0 lead for the home team at Ludhiana by winning both his singles.
His efforts, however, fell short of getting India the much needed fifth win as he and his partner Asif Parpia lost a crucial doubles game. India lost 4-5.
Also in that Indian team was Dinesh Khanna, who had in 1965 become the only Indian to win the Asian Badminton championship. Now when India has won the Thomas Cup and two of its former stars – Prakash Padukone and Pulella Gopichand – had been winners of the All-England badminton championship, no other Indian has in last 57 years could repeat Dinesh Khanna’s feat of winning the Asian title.
Born in Fatehgarh Churian, Dinesh Khanna studied at Punjab Engineering College, Chandigarh. He was also nick-named as “returning machine”. Dinesh Khanna also had the distinction of reaching semi-finals of All-England championship. Other outstanding Punjabi players on national horizon at that time included Devinder Ahuja and Satish Bhatia.
Satish Bhatia, a flyer in Indian Air Force, was known for his spin service and was perhaps the only player to have taken a game off great Rudy Hartono of Indonesia in all-England Badminton championship.
Though not many players of Punjabi descent are on view at national or international level, badminton still remains a popular game in Punjab. Some promising youngsters, both boys and girls, are now training at various academies in Bangalore and elsewhere.
For India’s historic success at Bangkok, credit also goes to some promising and upcoming youngsters, including Lakshya Sen, who set the ball rolling with a win the opening singles against Indonesia’s Anthony Ginting.
Lakshya, who had become the fourth Indian after Parkash Nath, Prakash Padukone and Pulella Gopichand to reach all-England final early this year, could not perform well in earlier games, including semi-finals against Denmark, as he was down was food poisoning. After losing the first set to his more experienced and higher ranked opponent, Lakshya came back strongly to win the next two sets to give India a great start with a 1-0 lead. Lakshya won 8-21, 21-17, 21-16.
His success was followed by the Indian doubles pair of Satwiksairaj Rankireddy and Chirag Shetty as they overcame a stiff resistance from Mohammed Ahsan and Kevin Sanjaya Sukamuljo in a gruelling three-setter at 18-21, 23-21 and 21-19.
Finally, it was Kidambi Srikant, who clinched the issue for India by defeating Jonatan Christie at 21-15, 23-21.
India had created the history. The journey started in 1949 was complete and India thus became the sixth nation after Indonesia, Malaysia, China, Japan and Denmark to inscribe its name on the Thomas Cup trophy.
The win, as Kidambi Srikanth, who won all his six matches in the finals, was a team effort. This was demonstrated at the award winning ceremony.
The young Priyanshu Rajawat, who played only in the 5-0 win over Canada, was sent to receive the Thomas Cup trophy by all the experienced stars, including Kidambi Srikanth and HS Prannoy.
Prannoy also played a stellar role. In the quarter-finals against Malaysia and semi-finals against Denmark, he not only played the last crucial singles to take India from 2-2 to match winning 3-2 score, but also remained unbeaten. In the semis, after twisting an ankle, he continued heroically to see his team through. In fact, Prannoy had skipped the selections but was still included in the squad in spite of criticism in some quarters. But he performed to silence his critics.
Selector and former India coach Vimal Kumar called it a momentous win, which was built on how the team fought as one. “This is an achievement of pure team spirit which was never seen in the past,” Kumar explained. “We always had talented and good players but would struggle. Now we also have a formidable doubles pair in Satwik and Chirag, who pulled it off in pressure matches. Similarly, both Srikanth and Prannoy delivered when it mattered,” Kumar was quoted as saying in media.