A happening game

Sindhu’s recent gold at the World Campionships means that anything less than that at the Tokyo Olympics next year will count as a failure.

Schoolgirls in Mirzapur are thrilled with badminton player P. V. Sindhu winning the BWF World Championships gold. It takes just one enthusiast to inspire a whole group to play; age is no barrier.   -  PTI

Badminton is the second most played sport in India (after cricket). It attracts housewives and bank clerks, students and businessmen and everybody else. A cultural history of the sport in India — developed in Pune in the 19th century — will make fascinating reading. It was called ‘Poona’ before it was popularised in England by the Duke of Beaufort at his county house in Badminton, Gloucestershire.

The informal or social variety of the sport is played in many building societies, often between buildings which ensure that the wind plays no role, across gates of houses, and over a string tied across two windows opposite each other in crowded localities. It is played on beaches, on quiet roads, in fields; perhaps the instinct to hit a ‘bird’ in the air with a racquet is as natural as kicking a ball.

Sometimes the shuttlecock is the standard, 16-feather variety, at other times it is made of rubberized material. It involves the whole family, and sometimes the dog too which is pressed into service to retrieve ambitious shots that fall beyond the baseline.

Unlike tennis or chess or table tennis, which are also family-driven individual sports in India, badminton embraces everyone from the beginner to the average player, leaving the obviously gifted to undergo coaching and enter the system of age-group tournaments. Prakash Padukone’s father and older brother played the game. Gopichand’s brother not only played, he was instrumental in focusing the younger brother’s attention away from cricket. Saina Nehwal’s mother played state-level badminton while her father was a university player.

Despite Pune, it was seven decades before India began to take formal badminton seriously. Prakash Nath and Devinder Mohan were sent for the All-England in 1947. The former, who made it to the final, thanked his coach George Lewis, national champion in 1936-39. It led the British press to predict that India would soon dominate world badminton.

We now live in the golden age, with both P. V. Sindhu and Saina in the top 10, and three men, including Kidambi Srikanth (who rose to be No. 1 last year) in the top 20. Sindhu’s recent gold at the World Championships means that anything less than that at the Tokyo Olympics next year will count as a failure. Padukone won the All-England in 1980, and Gopichand in 2001. Both have played roles in getting Indian badminton to where it is today.

A cousin of the sport, ball badminton, invented in Thanjavur, lacks its pace and refinement and seems to be fading out. It was popular in the south. The woollen ball tapped back and forth endlessly and the less athletic play failed to enthuse youngsters or attract television coverage.

Shuttlecocks rule. There are more indoor courts in the country than there were in Prakash’s time or indeed Gopichand’s. Yet, the heart of Indian badminton continues to beat at hastily drawn courts outdoors and in social clubs. It takes just one enthusiast to inspire a whole group to play; age is no barrier. And Sindhu would have added to its popularity.