He belongs to a different breed

Given the fact that the 68-year-old Arif saab, as he is popularly known in the sporting circles across India, still conducts the training sessions eight years after his retirement, the Padma Shri award was perhaps an apt tribute to a truly outstanding and selfless coach. By V. V. Subrahmanyam.

His name is synonymous with badminton coaching. One fine morning, Syed Mohammad Arif got ready at 4.30 a.m. to leave for his ‘second home', the Fateh Maidan Indoor Stadium. His startled wife objected to this. Not because she did not want him to do what he simply loves the most — coaching the players. But, she was trying to remind him that he had just retired from the Sports Authority of India as the senior-most badminton coach and was no more expected to be so punctual.

But, it is a different issue that Arif continues to be at his favourite venue, at the personal request of Chetan Anand, Jwala Gutta and his understudy Goverdhan Reddy, badminton coach of Sports Authority of Andhra Pradesh. For the simple reason, they just cannot visualise a training session without him.

There were moments of frustration and agony. After all, Arif too is human. Especially when he felt snubbed at the indifferent treatment meted out to him after Gopi Chand won the All England championship. He even threatened to quit as SAI badminton coach for good. But, elders in the sport prevailed upon him to change his heart. A development which is even looked as a big boon for the learners and the professionals.

Given the fact that the 68-year-old Arif saab, as he is popularly known in the sporting circles across India, still conducts the training sessions eight years after his retirement, the Padma Shri award was perhaps an apt tribute to a truly outstanding and selfless coach.

“The best part of this great gentleman is his discipline and the effort he puts in even now. It is wonderful news and he thoroughly deserves this award,” feels Pullela Gopi Chand, who saw his raw talent moulded into champion stuff by the bearded coach and, who went on to win the 2001 All England championship.

“Definitely, it is a huge honour to get the Padma Shri award. Though normally I don't tend to give too much of importance to these awards, somehow I feel this is a very special one for obvious reasons,” said a very composed Arif. “No, I did not expect it at this stage of my career but was certainly, pleasantly surprised,” he added.

More importantly, this Dronacharya award winner, who has the rare distinction of producing more than 175 national champions in different categories, is now bubbling with youthful exuberance. Reason? “This award has once again spurred me to realise my new goal — to produce a world champion,” points out Arif. Well, at every possible opportunity, many-times National doubles champion Jwala Gutta, in the company of her new partner Ashwini Ponappa, makes it a point to spend as much time as possible under his tutelage.

“There is no better joy for me than to be with the kids out there,” Arif says, pointing to the group of trainees. A familiar sight for close to 35 years now.

“Honestly, we just cannot think of Fateh Maidan indoor stadium without Arif Sir standing out there trying to make corrections, when needed, and more importantly putting his view point so effectively with a touch of great warmth,” feel Manoj Kumar and Praveen Kumar, who were, in a way, an inspiration to the next generation of shuttlers which included Gopi Chand.

Not many may be aware that Arif was also a very good cricketer, having scored a century for his school team and even led Anwar-ul-Uloom College for four years in the inter-collegiate tournament.

Interestingly, the affable badminton coach also played for Deccan Blues, one of the more reputed clubs in those days. So good was he that India star Jayanthilal had to struggle to find a place in the Blues playing XI!

Why did he quit cricket? Arif recalls that a coach once did not give him a chance to even bat in the nets and true to his character he refuses to name him even now. “Then, I thought I would be better off in an individual sport than in a team game like cricket,” he says with a big smile.

Well, cricket's loss turned out to be badminton's gain!

But, what keeps him so motivated still about coaching? “I do agree with some of them who say it is a thankless job. But, personally I don't think there is anything in my life which gives me greater satisfaction than this. That is exactly the reason why I will keep coming as long as I am fit,” says Arif without a moment's hesitation.

No wonder, Arif saab belongs to a different breed, putting the players' interests far above anything else in his personal life. Disarming simplicity, despite adding one more feather in his illustrious career, being his forte.