Beating King to be king!

Updated: Mar 22, 2020, 07:39 IST | | Mumbai

It's 40 years tomorrow for Indian badminton's first All England triumph at London's Wembley Arena where Prakash Padukone outclassed Indonesia's Liem Swie King 15-3, 15-10 in the final. Shirish Nadkarni recalls some on and off-court incidents

Prakash Padukone with his All England Championships trophy at Santacruz airport in 1980. Pics/mid-day archives
Prakash Padukone with his All England Championships trophy at Santacruz airport in 1980. Pics/mid-day archives

Allow me to acquaint Indian badminton lovers with an achievement that gives me a tiny claim to fame—I am the only Indian in the world to have seen the country’s two premier male badminton achievers, Prakash Padukone and Pullela Gopichand, win the men’s singles title at the All England Championships, still considered the Holy Grail of the shuttle sport.

The foregoing statement can be made with utmost confidence since, although many would have seen televised versions of Gopichand’s victory over China’s Chen Hong in 2001, Prakash’s 1980 title triumph over the two-time defending champion, Liem Swie King of Indonesia, was never captured on film. The BBC, bless their little hearts, were far too passionately involved in covering a match on an adjoining court, where Brits Mike Tredgett and Nora Perry were doing battle for the mixed doubles crown.

March 23, 1980 was the day that has gone down as a red-letter day in the annals of Indian badminton. It was also the day on which I secured the piece-de-resistance of my collection of badminton memorabilia, put together in the course of my own six-decade long love affair with the sport—a simple white T-shirt with vertical striations woven into the design and a light green collar.

The garment was originally saturated with the perspiration of the champion; and I had taken it back to Bombay with me in a plastic bag, with Prakash’s blood, toil, tears and sweat intact. However, my horrified wife refused point-blank to let me preserve it in that condition; and it did see the inside of a washing machine one last time.

Watching him do it

As an enthusiastic journalist on a shoestring budget, covering the 1980 All England Championships at the massive seven-court Wembley Arena, I was on the verge of apoplexy as Prakash, having literally toyed with the speedy, hard-hitting Swie King in the first game at 15-3, moved to match-point 14-10.

pic
India badminton great Prakash Padukone in full flow

A long rally, a late flick of the wrist from the 24-year-old Indian to send the bird over his net-rushing rival’s head, and a despairing look from the comprehensively beaten Swie King—and King Prakash had conquered the badminton world.

A huge smile on his face, sweat dripping from every inch of fabric covering him, he shook hands with his sullen antagonist a split-second before being enveloped in a bear-hug by one of his greatest admirers. I was in serious danger of being ejected from the arena by the security personnel for my unauthorised rush into the playing area.

“Your wrist-band, napkin, one sock—give me anything from your used apparel to remember this victory by!” I entreated Prakash, later, in the dressing-room. Generous that he was, he peeled off his shirt and handed it over. And I rushed off to send one of the most important and satisfying reports of my journalistic career.

The Indonesian, who had been odds-on favourite to claim a hat-trick of All-England titles, later complained that he had been “mesmerised” by the Indian sorcerer—and he did not mean it in the figurative sense. He genuinely felt that some sort of voodoo had been worked on him, since there was no way a player so much slower than him, and with far less stamina, was going to beat him by that massive margin.

If he had stopped to ponder, Swie King would have realised that Prakash’s display against him had been no fluke; it had merely been the culmination of 20 days of the best badminton that the Indian played in his glittering career.

The Danish Open, Swedish Open and All-England men’s singles crowns had all been thrust into Prakash’s satchel in three consecutive weeks. Along the way to the All-England title, he had conquered, in quick succession, Britain’s Brian Wallwork, Denmark’s 1975 All-England champion Svend Pri, Indonesia’s Hadiyanto (by a 15-0, 15-10 margin in the quarter-final) and Denmark’s Morten Frost (15-6, 15-10 in the semi-final), before he brought Swie King to his knees in the final at 15-3, 15-10.

The Danish press, which understands its badminton and is as serious about it as we Indians are crazy about cricket, lauded Prakash’s achievement; and one portly journalist, Juergen Beyerholm, let me in on an exclusive story—that the Indian champ had signed a three-year contract to train and play in Copenhagen.

Writer Shirish Nadkarni with Padukone
Writer Shirish Nadkarni with Padukone

But of course, there was the richly deserved hero’s welcome that Prakash was to get, on his return to India. It was fitting that the first two people to congratulate him at Bombay’s Santacruz airport were Nandu Natekar, the man who could well have been All-England champion in his time, had he been fitter; and Prakash’s fiancée, Ujjala Karkal, a Mumbai girl.

In Prakash’s hometown Bangalore, there was near-hysteria in the streets, as a ticker-tape parade, with horse-mounted soldiers and a flower-bedecked car, was held in their most famous son’s honour. Prakash, standing in the back of the open car, held the famous All-England trophy aloft, as Chief Minister Gundu Rao looked on with pride.

Another great final

Twenty-one years later, I was in the UK on a private assignment when I learnt from the Saturday evening newspapers that Pullela Gopichand had barged into the All-England men’s singles final at Arena Birmingham after sidelining the hot favourite, Peter Gade of Denmark by a 17-14, 17-15 scoreline.

How I took a morning train to Birmingham, managed to get a ticket thanks to the good graces of an old friend, Sue Ashton, a senior official of the Badminton Association of England, and watched Gopichand trounce China’s Chen Hong by a 15-12, 15-6 scoreline, are all a bit of a blur in my memory.

But the details of that March 23, 1980 All-England success of Prakash—the huge grin of triumph on the Indian’s face, the sullen, crestfallen expression on the face of his great Indonesian rival, the securing of that precious, sweat-drenched T-shirt of the champion, the filing of the biggest story of my journalistic career—are still as crystal-clear in my mind as if they had happened yesterday!

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