Badminton is not as glamorous as cricket. Saina Nehwal
I called a close friend of mine a few days ago and breathless with excitement, told him that India had just won the Thomas Cup for the first time in the 73-year history of the tournament. I knew he was travelling and felt he might have missed this sensational nugget of sporting achievement. His reply was somewhat muted and laconic. ‘Ah, Thomas Cup. Would that be tennis? No can’t be, that’s Davis Cup. Whatever, we won something. Great. Refresh me, will you, about this Thomas Cup.’ I need proceed no further. Case rests. It neatly brought home to me our country’s obsession with one sport, and one sport only, to the exclusion, and dare I say detriment, of nearly all others. I say ‘nearly’ because once in a rare, black swan moment, we have experienced a few triumphs in tennis, the odd medal in athletics at the Olympic games (we went justifiably bananas over Neeraj Chopra’s javelin gold), and a couple of notable individual performances in badminton at the All-England and elsewhere. Hockey, once India’s pride and glory, an Asian celebration of stickwork wizardry, has become a physical, soulless push n’ run, hit or miss, penalty corner affair played on synthetic surfaces. Barring occasional glimpses of success in the sub-continent, the game in its present avatar has become the preserve of beefy Antipodean and European brawn.
Other than that, the nation has been engrossed in a game, witheringly castigated by Rudyard Kipling, ‘Then ye returned to your trinkets; then ye contented your souls / With the flannelled fools at the wicket or the muddied oafs at the goals.’ Kipling, of course, was deriding his own countrymen for their misplaced priorities. It is significant that Kipling’s cricketing ‘flannelled fools’ come off slightly better than the footballing ‘muddied oafs’ in his pecking order. Not by much, but still. At the time Kipling wrote those lines during the turn of the twentieth century, the Indophile poet and novelist, born in Mumbai, was not to know that several decades later, India would outdo their erstwhile masters when it came to playing and following cricket. While the English still actively support cricket, most of them are obsessed with their ‘muddied oafs.’ The modern term for them, of course, is football hooligans.
That said, let me revert to badminton and India’s astounding success in Bangkok where our boys trounced their infinitely more fancied Indonesians by three matches to nil, rendering the remaining two scheduled matches redundant. It would not be an exaggeration to say that we wiped the floor with the former multiple champions. Predictably, the mainstream Indian sports channels did not telecast this historic encounter. They must be eating their hearts out. Look at all the ad revenue they could have garnered, the ravenous sods. I paid a pittance to trace it to a private cable channel. Let me come clean here. I was actually hunting for a channel that was streaming the ATP Masters 1000 tennis in Madrid and Rome. When I logged on to it, I discovered that they were dishing out the Thomas Cup badminton extravaganza as well. A fortuitous double delight. That is how I came to follow India’s historic march to badminton glory.
Apropos of the television coverage, it would not be out of place to mention that in 1980, when Prakash Padukone delighted all of India by winning the All-England Badminton Championships, our national television channel failed to telecast the game. Mind you, those days we only had Doordarshan, whose priorities were more in the areas of India’s family planning programmes and agricultural production highlights. Some enterprising spectator at Wembley had filmed part of that historic game from one side of the court only, and I recall watching a snippet of the elegant Padukone essaying a couple of delectable drop shots. His opponent was not visible! For the record, he was Liem Swie King of Indonesia. We took our jollies from such meagre scraps of unexpected generosity that came our way. Nowadays we wallow in an excess of sporting coverage and, ironically, place less value on them. More is less and vice versa.
The moment Kidambi Srikanth smashed his way to victory against his fancied opponent, the floodgates opened wide. Every single news channel on television stopped whatever else they were telecasting to focus on the Thomas Cup victory. The channels, in a competitive frenzy, tried to get hold of whoever was readily at hand to vent their considered views on this memorable win. ‘Remember, we brought this incredible news to you first, .005 seconds before the other channels jumped on to the bandwagon,’ they screamed. I am, naturally, paraphrasing with some poetic license. I say ‘they’ because all the channels said the same thing at pretty much the same time. What is more, the badminton celebrities comprising ex-champions and administrators plus a couple of de rigueur ministers as well, were to be seen in all the news channels repeating themselves ad nauseum. Can’t blame them, really. How much originality can you inject in your statements when you are faced with an intimidatingly long queue of television crews beating a path to your door.
The daily newspaper journos, who have the advantage of time to prepare their pages for the next morning’s issue, went about their coverage of the event more sensibly and methodically. Plenty of smashing photographs and some detailed, in-depth analyses by former players, coaches and inevitably, a few bullet points from our heroes on court who made this momentous victory possible. However, into each life a little rain must fall. We had to endure encouraging comments from the likes of the Prime Minister and other concerned Union Ministers, whose knowledge of the game, as one wag famously put it, could be written on the head of a pin with a pneumatic drill; but we should not cavil. Our PM often invokes the Opposition’s ire by keeping mum on many issues. That he pens a few well-chosen words to congratulate a stirring sporting triumph should be warmly welcomed. Union and State ministers will invariably dole out some moolah by way of cash awards, which will then generate some spicy controversy over why the players were awarded and not their coach blah, blah, blah. Then there’s always the likes of Sunil Gavaskar, Sachin Tendulkar and Virat Kohli to chip in with their felicitous wishes on the subject. We can never get away from cricketers, never mind which sport happens to be the focus of attention. I have to say it surprised me not to see Amitabh Bachchan and Shah Rukh Khan adding their two-pice bit. Unless I missed it.
So, there we have it. Our boys (sporting heroes are always addressed avuncularly as ‘our boys,’ or ‘our girls’) have done the nation proud. They have served, tossed, smashed, dropped, feinted, driven and cleared their way to a first-ever Indian victory and taken their rightful place on top of the world badminton stage. Our Thomas Cup of delight is overflowing. Special mention must be made of India’s former badminton greats who, silently behind the scenes, coached and motivated our boys. Bravo Vimal Kumar, P. Gopichand and their dedicated teams. We now await a fitting response from P.V. Sindhu and company to return the compliment at the next Uber Cup. Finally, a request to all our television sports channels to look sharp next time round and not miss a trick.
Love all, play.
(This article appeared in Deccan Chronicle dated May 21, 2022).