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Remembering four great figures of Indian badminton

Nandu Natekar

A recent question on our Facebook page – to name the five greatest Indian players – elicited a fair response, with most suggesting the names of Prakash Padukone, Saina Nehwal and Gopichand. One particular comment, however, was different from the rest. It named only four: Nandu Natekar, Prakash Nath, Devinder Mohan and Meena Shah. The comment had come from Chandrakant Deoras, former Indian international and one of India’s finest doubles players.

To a vast majority of fans today, Indian badminton perhaps extends only as far back as Padukone in 1980. There is little awareness of any player prior to that; indeed, there is little acknowledgement that anything significant could have occurred in the days before Padukone’s momentous achievement of winning the All England in 1980.

This writer believes that players across generations cannot be compared, and that any ‘all-time’ list will be unfair. It is possible that players of the past might have achieved much more had they had the resources that current players have. Without getting into an inconclusive debate about who India’s ‘greatest-ever’ players are, we will for the moment dwell on the few names that Deoras suggested.

Nandu Natekar: Often called the most extraordinary stroke-maker of his generation, along with the Danish great Finn Kobbero. There are fans who to this day recall Natekar as the ‘god’ of badminton for his sublime strokes and badminton artistry, those who would travel vast distances just to watch him play. Perhaps only one other player could be talked of in the same breath when it came to artistry in badminton – the brilliant touch artist Suresh Goel.

Natekar was a promising tennis player but chose badminton after a few well-wishers prevailed upon his father, and Indian badminton will be eternally grateful that he chose the shuttle over the tennis ball. Natekar was famed for his control and exquisite shots; indeed, there would be huge queues to watch him play. He was nearly unbeatable at his home court CCI – where he even beat the six-time All England champion Erland Kops. He won the King’s Cup in Thailand and reached the quarterfinals of the All England in his only appearance there.

Meena Shah: Was a portly player but a sublime mover as well. People often wondered how someone with as much girth as her could play badminton, but once they saw her on court, they were amazed at her fluidity of movement and repertoire of strokes. Meena led the Indian team in 1960 against Denmark, and was leading her opponent Toni Holst-Christensen by a game when she twisted her left knee. Despite the great pain, she somehow completed the match, which went Denmark’s way. In 1962, she would lead the Indian team to a win over Hong Kong. The knee would trouble her on several occasions. Those who knew her well recall her tremendous fighting quality and grace of movement on court.

Prakash Nath: Will be remembered in history as the first Indian in an All England final. But there is a story beyond that – of what an incredible athlete he was; that when he arched back for his strokes, his racket would sometimes touch the floor behind him. The All England of 1947 would define his legacy: he and Devinder Mohan had reached there after an arduous journey, and they found they were in the same quarter. After beating defending champion Tage Madsen in the first round, Nath had to take on his team mate Devinder. Deciding not to tire each other out, they tossed a coin, which Prakash Nath won. He went on to beat fourth seed Noel Radford of England and entered the final.

Nath felt confident about beating the other finalist Conny Jepsen of Sweden. However, on the morning of the final, he happened to pick up a newspaper which screamed of rioting in his hometown of the Punjab – his whole neighbourhood was in flames due to the Partition riots. Completely disoriented, he went through the motions in his final, and upon reaching India, realized he didn’t have a home any more. He was to never pick up a badminton racket again.

Devinder Mohan:  Was considered one of the most powerful hitters of his time. George Lewis, the ‘father of Indian badminton’ had famously said that Devinder had his hands at the net and feet at the baseline – indicating what a quick mover he was. His contests against Prakash Nath for the Indian title were long and tense matches, but the two remained close friends. In the 1948 Thomas Cup clash against a strong Canadian team, Mohan won his first match against Dickie Birch to give India the lead, but the Indians eventually fell in the best-of-nine match contest. By the next Thomas C up in 1952, Mohan led the Indians to a 9-0 rout of Thailand, and in the inter-zone tie against Denmark, won three of his four matches, helping the Indians to a huge upset against the favourites.

Mohan again was at his devastating best against the United States in the Thomas Cup semifinals, winning the first match against Dick Mitchell from match point down, and a doubles victory gave the Indians a marginal lead. However, the Americans fought back from the deficit with a 5-4 win over India and went on to play Malaya in the final.

These are but four names who have lit up badminton. It will take a volume to tell the stories of the others. For the moment, we should acknowledge that – if Indian badminton is in the news today, there have been several titans in the past who have contributed to ensure it has come a long way.

(Pic from the book ‘Courting Success’, a tribute to the icons of Indian badminton, by Shirish Nadkarni)

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