When Saina Nehwal takes the court to play her first match of the World Championships, she’ll say a silent prayer – not for victory but for a 69-year-old gentleman Mir Mahboob Ali, the man who introduced her to the game of badminton.
Mahboob Ali, whose demise in Hyderabad last week went unnoticed by the media at large just like his coaching career, had schooled Saina in the basics of the game much before the likes of Pullela Gopichand took over and guided her to the top of world badminton.
In fact, Mahboob Ali not only helped Saina along, but he also played a huge part in the careers of Jwala Gutta, Shruti Kurien and PV Sindhu, too. The fact that they are all among the best in the country shows that he certainly had an eye for talent. But perhaps before last week, I am not sure, all the four had ever thought about the link.
In an era where coaches line up to tom-tom their association with players once they become celebrities, Mahboob Ali hardly ever spoke about the time when he held the hands of these star performers and taught them their first lessons in badminton.
The list of coaches who claim to have trained Saina must be longer than her international titles. But many in the Hyderabad badminton circle were unaware that the Commonwealth Gold medalist had learnt her basics from Mahboob Ali, till her mother one day made it a point to name the veteran coach during a chat with reporters.
“She (Saina) used to train for an hour privately under Nizam Club’s Mahboob Ali sir alongside her training at Lal Bahadur Shastri stadium,” Saina’s mother Usha Rani had said.
In fact, not just Saina, every top player in Hyderabad spent some time training under Mahboob Ali during their formative years due to his exceptional ability to work on the technique of kids and the patience he showed while coaching them.
The former employee of the Accountant General Office, Mahboob Ali used to shuttle between Nizam Club and the Railway courts in Secunderabad on his cycle for years before his students and parents gifted him a two-wheeler.
However, Mahboob Ali hardly got the recognition he deserved for his contribution to Hyderabad badminton since he never bothered to “sell himself” and always preferred a life away from limelight among the kids who wanted to learn the basics of badminton.
Mahboob Ali’s demise also reminded me of a few coaches who selflessly devoted valuable years of their life to build the careers of their students and then eased into obscurity after their wards moved on to join the bigger academies. Sadly, most of these coaches never bothered pleasing the administrators and hence, hardly ever got their dues.
The most prominent among them is Anil Pradhan, whose contribution to Indian badminton can be gauged by the simple fact that he gave us a shuttler who dominated the women’s national circuit for nine years – Aparna Popat.
Pradhan coached the 9-time national champion since she was eight and used to even mop the courts before the youngster came for training and at times, could understand her mood swings earlier than her parents.
But after Aparna moved to Bangalore for better training facilities, Pradhan simply packed his bags and went to Pune as he could not get along with the powers centres in Mumbai.
In Pune, a man named Vasant Gore did a similar job like Mahboob Ali for years. A former bank employee, Gore wanted to make a career in hockey and started playing badminton only in his teens.
But as a coach, he was always very particular that his trainees adopted the right techniques. Two of them – Manjusha Pawangadkar (now Kanwar) and Aditi Mutatkar – went on to win the national singles titles. Hemant Hardikar – currently one of the best grass-roots level coaches in Pune – is continuing his legacy at the feeder centre of the Prakash Padukone academy.
These men may not be well-known figures, but they are in every sense architects of India’s badminton revolution. They work tirelessly without ever asking for reward. For them, nothing is more joyous than watching someone take up the sport of badminton. That is all they ask for – not for fame or money but just the simple joy of showing someone what the sport is all about… which is why we need more Mahboob Alis, Gores and Pradhans to churn out champions, and not people like Suresh Kalmadi.