Two weeks after the Commonwealth Games and a fortnight before the Asian Games, former badminton champion Prakash Padukone says India’s performance needs to be seen in perspective.
“Let’s not get carried away,” says Padukone about India’s four medals in badminton, including two gold, at the Commonwealth Games in Delhi that concluded on 14 October.
The former All England champion says India’s best-ever medal haul at the Games was creditable—but we should not be satisfied with it. “The level of competition in the Commonwealth Games is not the same; Asian Games (starting 12 November in China) would be tougher,” he says. “This is just the beginning and the players are aware of that. It gives a lot of incentive to young players though.”
Padukone has been down the path himself. One of his first major international victories was at the 1978 Commonwealth Games; this paved the way for his All England title in 1980, which was followed by several other major titles and the No. 1 ranking. He says the 1978 win gave him a lot of confidence. “If you do well here, it means you have the talent because the competition is not easy at these Games, with countries like Malaysia, England and Singapore in the fray.”
Expert view: Prakash Padukone believes the next three years will see a lot of growth in the sport. Saanskrut Kumar/Mint
The Bangalore-based Padukone was in Delhi during the two weeks of the Commonwealth Games, watching Saina Nehwal win the gold in women’s singles, Jwala Gutta and Ashwini Ponappa top in the women’s doubles, the mixed team win a silver and P. Kashyap get a bronze medal in the men’s singles.
Padukone believes Nehwal carries India’s best chance of a medal—in any sport—at the Asian Games and the Olympics. “I hope she remains focused though that’s not a concern right now as she has not changed at all. She needs to plan her tournaments carefully, make sure she gets enough rest and remains injury-free. You have to choose which tournaments you need to peak at,” he says at the Mumbai office of Tata Capital Ltd, which sponsors The Prakash Padukone Badminton Academy (PPBA).
Nehwal, fortunately, does not face the problems he did as an upcoming player in the 1960s. Faced with a lack of facilities, training partners and awareness, Padukone had to move to Denmark for six years in the 1980s so he could train as a top international player. “Sometime back when Saina was in the 20s and 30s (in ranking), I suggested that she train abroad to improve her game. But now she does not need it any more; and where would she go? She is beating all the top players, so it’s not required any more.”
His early struggles also motivated the PPBA, which started in Bangalore in 1994 and now has centres in Pune and Mumbai too. It was meant to be a centre for excellence, so it has only 65 trainees. World No. 32 Arvind Bhat and No. 66 Anup Sridhar are some of the leading players at the academy.
Padukone says increased government spending and corporate support, which should follow the Commonwealth Games performance, should lead national and state sports federations to draw better plans to take the sport forward. “We have a lot of talent but if it does not get the right opportunity at the right time, people fade away. There could be a world champion out there, say, in archery or shooting.”
Padukone hopes Nehwal’s success will be exploited better towards the growth of badminton itself than his or Pullela Gopichand’s (winner of the All England Championship in 2001) wins were. The right systems need to be in place for this, he says. “You need 8-10 different qualities (to be a champion). It’s rare for a person to be born with all those (qualities). You need to be physically fit, mentally sound, need dedication, focus, self-belief… when there is a system, then even if someone has four to five qualities, the system makes sure the rest is provided. That’s when you start producing champions continuously like China. Otherwise, you have to wait 20 years before a (great) player is born.
“A majority of players reach a stage beyond which they don’t have the belief. Like, if they come up against the world No. 1, they think they have no chance. You shouldn’t get scared. That kind of fearlessness and focus, patience to persevere, is required. If you put a system in place with the right kind of guidance and support, like mentoring, even if you lack belief, it can be inculcated,” Padukone adds.