Kids today are born with a Playstation in one hand and an iPhone in other. But for us, who grew up in the 90s, having a self-owned cricket set or badminton racket was the coolest thing in the world. At that time, when there were no dedicated cartoon channels on TV, video games owned by a few, computers even rarer and internet a make-believe world, parents insisted on their children getting fresh air every evening. So every kid – fat or thin, good or bad, shy or mischievous – assembled at the local park or ground or any tiny space in his/her colony and played good old-fashioned games that supplied their daily dose of exercise.
Now, cricket was popular of course, as it has been since ancient times, but cute little giggly girls who were quite scared of getting hit by the ball or who could barely lift the bat, turned towards badminton. See, badminton was easy when we played it. There was this weightless shuttlecock that you had to hit to and fro and not let it fall on your side of the ground. Of course, net was not available but “your side” and “my side” of the ground were decided by drawing a line in between and exerting your dominance on any one side. And, thus, we spent many a summer evening with our own version of badminton. There was doubles too if there wasn’t more than one shuttlecock available or less space to occupy two full-fledged games. School offered a more sophisticated option. Open ground, nets, professional coaches – but none of it beat the thrill of playing the game in our own localities (pretty much like “gully cricket”).
We have grown up hearing stories about the legendary player Prakash Padukone from our parents, later been introduced to P. Gopichand as one of the finest. However, in comparison to cricket, badminton has always taken a back-seat. On one hand, where we are aware of every major or minor cricketing tournament, the venues, its timetable, we barely have time to take notice about badminton championships.
Badminton is more of a childhood game that we played as kids, locally or in school or at picnics and outings. For the most part, our badminton rackets lie in some secluded corner of the house or over the cupboard gathering dust.
But thanks to one young woman, kids today at least “know” badminton. That young girl who has spread badminton awareness all over the country and presented herself as an ideal role model for this generation of tweens and teens – Saina Nehwal. Women players are rare in this country, be it in any sport. However, with the awareness of international tournaments and availability of good coaches and ex-players pioneering for their sports, there has come about a change in the mentality of current generation of parents. Girls like Saina Nehwal and Jwala Gutta have catapulted an “un-glamorous” sport to more rousing & commendable heights.
Unlike cousin cricket, badminton has never made a solid mark in our day-to-day lives. Saina, however, continues to exhibit tremendous grit and determination that forces us to take notice and laud her achievements. India’s recent success at Olympics 2012 is a testimony of such young players working together for betterment of long-forgotten sports in the country. Saina’s bronze at the Olympics, win at Denmark Open and the more recent finals appearance at the French Open have been added to her list of successes this year; the others being Swiss Open, Thailand Open and Indonesia Open. Consistency is what that has kept her on the top and inspired thousands of young girls across the country to take up this sport.
Such is the Saina effect that the BAI (Badminton Association of India) has planned to launch the IBL (Indian Badminton League), a million-dollar event, to encourage interest in the game. The IBL is supposed to take place between January 20 and February 11 next year with $ 1 million as prize money. The BAI is planning to bring on Prakash Padukone on the board as an advisor and rope in several other sportspersons and Bollywood stars to promote IBL. With the much-obvious success of IPL, sporting authorities in charge of other games are trying to promote their own with specific goals in mind – awareness among youngsters being the number 1 priority as well as offering several other small-time players a platform to showcase their talent and mettle.
Whether all of this will glorify the game or generate interest among Indians is a matter that remains to be seen. A few years ago the PHL, or Premier Hockey League, had generated similar enthusiasm, and was launched amidst munch fan-fare. But it failed to maintain the momentum for long and was scrapped within 3 years of its inception. India’s poor run at the Olympics this year has sealed the fate of hockey in this country and its tag as the “national game” of India remains a mere formality.
IBL might be a big hit next year. However, its true test would be whether it is able to prolong the interest of the Indian psyche for more than just one season. Talented players like Saina Nehwal carry on their shoulders the onus to glamorize badminton and confer on it the respect it deserves.
And mere commoners like us bear the responsibility to revere and acknowledge the game that we all grew up with…