An ode to a forgotten sport

Even at its peak, ball badminton was not a competitive sport so much as a social or cultural event. It was like going for a movie or attending the local theatre.

Ball badminton is a cousin of the sport played with a shuttlecock which is played internationally, but lacks its pace and refinement. The woollen ball tapped back and forth endlessly and the less athletic play failed to enthuse youngsters or attract television coverage.   -  The Hindu Photo Library

A sport that was hugely popular when I was growing up seems to be fading out now. Perhaps ball badminton has faded out altogether. Men in dhotis, women in saris and the unathletic hopeful played wherever they could find open spaces, and there were plenty then. Equipment was cheap, and many could play simultaneously, so it was virtually a team game.

But for the rest of us, especially schoolboys, it was a game for the old and infirm, since the whole idea was to keep the ball in play rather than earn a point by attempting anything aggressive. We thought imitating the ball badminton player trying to keep the tiny woollen ball in the air, lips pursed, nose crinkled, was hilarious.

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Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Railways are frequent winners of the national title. The 66th National championship was held recently, although for results you had to go to social media rather than the traditional sports media. Arjuna Awards have been won by ball badminton stars; the Ball Badminton Federation of India was formed in 1954 and was among the first members of the Indian Olympic Association. So there is a history in the land of its birth — it is believed to have been invented in Tanjore, and hence the southern bias.

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Ball badminton is a cousin of the sport played with a shuttlecock which is played internationally, but lacks its pace and refinement. The woollen ball tapped back and forth endlessly and the less athletic play failed to enthuse youngsters or attract television coverage. My parents who both played excellent badminton (shuttlecock) looked down upon the slower variety, and passed on that bias to me.

But even at its peak, ball badminton was not a competitive sport so much as a social or cultural event. It was like going for a movie or attending the local theatre. You met, shook hands, spoke politics and family matters, swung the racquet at the ball and returned home satisfied that you had a workout. It wasn’t the game so much as the idea of the game that was important. Now it’s been years since I have spotted the game in a residential locality or indeed in competition.

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Other sports of my schooldays have thrived. Dad and I played a lot of chess at one time, and I played table tennis with friends when neither of these sports had their big names in India yet. Manuel Aaron was International Master and in table tennis Kabad Jayant was the best-known international, but television had yet to come and popularise their sport. Viswanathan Anand was not even a gleam in his parents’ eye then. Volleyball was another popular sport, played with a passion in the south, long before Jimmy George arrived on the scene and gave it a nationwide boost.

Perhaps our lifestyles, certainly in the cities, work against the casual outdoor unorganised game played for friendship and exercise. Perhaps it is a sign that some of the informality has gone out of our lives.