Rio Olympics women’s singles silver medallist P.V. Sindhu’s journey began with the Mir Mahboob Ali Badminton Academy at the Indian Railways Institute of Signal Engineering and Telecommunications (IRISET) stadium in Secunderabad. The quaint-looking building in some ways resembles a ship.
Sadly the ‘captain’ is no more, rarely remembered in badminton’s hour of glory. Star shuttlers — Saina Nehwal, Shruti Kurien and Gutta Jwala — from Hyderabad, the game’s headquarters in the country now, also trained with the genial gent at one time or another.
A touch artist himself in his heyday, sports to the three-time junior National singles runner-up was not ‘power play.’ Nor was coaching commerce. “A benevolent man by nature, he would help anyone, often without a thought for tomorrow,” recalled a badminton buff. “He would never turn away children who couldn’t afford his paltry fees,” he added.
A misfit in a materialistic world, he wouldn’t pursue parents for payments, a trait several saw as a weakness. That the assembly line of badminton players produced by the then undivided state started invariably with him, gave Ali a stature all his own.
A personification of patience, the wiry six-footer would launch players from scratch, beginning with the racquet grip. So would he put them through the paces with wall, corner or half-court practice?
Kids, being kids, would be playful, frequently distracted, not necessarily obedient and doing anything except follow instructions. Nor were they regular with practice. Here was someone so unlike a school master, who never drilled discipline, beat, rebuked or abused them.
“Mahboob Ali sir absolutely loved badminton, enjoyed himself playing and let others enjoy themselves too. He admitted he lacked the drive to push players simply because he himself was short on ambition. He would however urge us to develop that trait, since it was very important for growth in sports,” recalled several-time former women’s doubles champion Kurien.
A charmed life it was for the children, not so for their coach. A bureaucrat had to scold parents for excessive interference. Feuds were frequent with some alleging inadequate attention for their wards or in excess for those of others.
In the absence of big money that badminton commands today, Ali arranged piecemeal sponsorship for tournaments he would conduct, including an all-India event. “Children would get all charged up when it came to a championship,” recalled Kranthi, Jwala’s father.
A little forthright, Ali was not a favourite with the establishment. “I hold no key to any treasury,” he would say to those wanting to leave his scheme for fear of being found on the wrong side of the fence.
Ali had his share of admirers though. Eminent film director K. Vishwanath introduced him to the cast and crew of the award-winning film ‘Shankarabharanam’ as his badminton guru.
Prakash Padukone’s parents prompted the would-be world-beater, then a boy, to watch Ali, his strokes and court-craft. So would the sport’s elder statesman rise or greet the coach each time they met.
Wedded to badminton, Ali remained a bachelor to marry off his sisters. Largely unknown and unsung, he died in his widowed sister’s house, in obscurity.
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