When will India discover a new sporting religion?

By T S Sudhir
When Saina Nehwal crashed to a shock defeat in the first round of the Indian Series Open in Delhi on April 27, a championship everyone had expected her to win, her father Dr Harvir Singh Nehwal told me that evening, “Mark my words, she will bounce back strongly in the Malaysian Open. This girl just hates losing.”

Dr Harvir Singh’s `bachcha’ did not let her Papa down. She reached the finals of the Malaysian Open, getting the better of world champion Wang Lin enroute, in the quarter-finals. But Sunday, May 8 was not to be her day as she lost to world number three Xin Wang of China. This was Saina’s first defeat in 18 appearances in the finals.

That Sunday evening at 4 pm, a hopeful Dr Harvir Singh decided to watch the match at the Pullela Gopichand academy along with some friends from the media. As they surfed the sports channels, they discovered to their surprise that not a single channel was airing the match live.

Ditto the newspapers. In an IPL-suffocated media, only lip-service was paid to India’s world number 4’s exploits in Malaysia. Double column space in the newspapers, even when she beat the world champ. TV channels couldn’t completely ignore the mandatory news. Thankyou.

I am not deaf to the cliche of cricket being religion in India but Indians also need to get a reality check. Because out there in the towns and cities, the success of a Saina Nehwal is quietly spawning a quiet revolution.

Take Andhra Pradesh for instance. The state today has 17600 registered badminton players, the highest in the country, and these are players who play for the districts, state and the country. Important to note, there aren’t 17600 cricketers in Andhra Pradesh. And 294 indoor stadia in the state are helping players court success.

One of them is the badminton academy in Nandyal, promoted by local MP S P Y Reddy. The coach here is Venkat, Pullela Gopichand’s contemporary and friend. This academy has seen many a historic battle. Saina won the AP state title here in 2004 and the sub-junior national title the following year. Gopi has been a pillar of support and his photograph adorns the entrance to the academy.

Venkat shows me 8-year-old Vijay who is among the young talent showing promise at his academy. As Vijay warms up, his father Nagendra is keeping an eye on him. Nagendra is a RTC bus conductor on the Nandyal-Tadipatri route.

“I was a ball badminton player. I wanted Vijay to do well in badminton,” says Nagendra. “Our family was settled in Anantapur district. We shifted to Nandyal so that Vijay can do well in badminton.”

Another young boy greets me with a Namaste. His name is Dipesh and he has come that morning from Nepal, with his father, to improve his skills in badminton. 

I am surprised. “Why from Nepal to Nandyal?”  I ask.

Dipesh’s dad Harak Singh Dhani, who works in Nepal Telecom, replies. “Dipesh is Nepal’s under-17 badminton champion. But if he has to do better, he needs quality coaching. There are no academies in Nepal while badminton is now big in India. We had heard about this academy run by Venkat Sir. After four months in Nandyal, he will shift him to an academy in Hyderabad.”

The Pullela Gopichand academy, nominated by the Badminton Asia Federation as the Asia Training Centre, could be Dipesh’s destination if he improves his skills sufficiently by September. Since he retired as a player, Gopi has been focussed on proving that `Made in India’ can beat goods `Made in China’.

While the media focusses on one Saina, there are many more waiting in the pipeline, being chiselled and polished at this academy. Among them Sikki Reddy and P V Sindhu, touted as Sainas in the making.

However, the factory where the gems are first spotted amidst the crowd of talent that aspires to take flight is the Lal Bahadur stadium, located in the heart of Hyderabad. It was here that Gopi learnt to hold the racquet from the late Hamid Hussain in the mid-80s. As did  Saina in May 1999.

It was this indoor stadium that Gopi would head to, every day, twice a day, for close to 8 hours. Venkat talks about how if Gopi did not do well at a particular tournament abroad, he would insist on being taken straight from the old Hyderabad airport at Begumpet directly to the Lal Bahadur stadium, where he would work on the mistakes he committed.

Goverdhan, the Sports Authority coach at the stadium takes pride that for more than 15 years now, children from here have dominated the national championships in every category, from under-10, under-13, under-16 to under-19. He rues that there could have already been many more Sainas if only the young, promising talent had got the right support, guidance, opportunity and push to make it to the next level.

As I sit down before the telly in the evening to see the Warriors, Knight Riders and Chargers battling the Challengers, Tuskers and the Royals, I wonder how many years it will be before India discovers a new religion. The challenge is for the fragile shuttlecock to survive the Gaylestorms of the IPL and find space and airtime in a remote that doesn’t quite know how to move on from Dhoni’s devils. 


About t s sudhir & uma sudhir

Uma Sudhir and T S Sudhir are senior journalists, based in Hyderabad. Both work for NDTV. Uma is a Tamilian, who was educated in
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