All England Championships 2019: Remembering the other Prakash who shone at Harringay Arena in 1947
At the first post-World War II All England Championships in 1947, Prakash Nath, then 23 years of age, fought his way into the final after the kind of drama that made headlines in even the staid and stodgy London newspapers
Prakash Nath and compatriot Devinder Mohan, who were to play each other in a quarter-final, decided not to play, and spun a coin, instead.
India had two entries in the tournament – the 1946 national champion Prakash Nath and his toughest rival and good friend, Devinder Mohan
The British press went overboard with the story; and one particular newspaper hinted that it was an Indian gold coin that they had used for the toss.
The word 'Prakash' in the vernacular denotes light or brightness; and Indian badminton has been particularly fortunate to have actually had two men of that name scaling the peak of the sport at the international level.
Few people today know that, thirty-three years before Prakash Padukone set the Wembley Arena alight in March 1980 with his magnificent victory over Indonesian speed and power merchant, Liem Swie King, another Prakash had reached the men’s singles final of the All-England Championships, considered the world’s premier badminton tournament before the official World Championships were launched.
At the first post-World War II All England Championships in 1947, Prakash Nath, then 23 years of age, fought his way into the final after the kind of drama that made headlines in even the staid and stodgy London newspapers. He and compatriot Devinder Mohan, who were to play each other in a quarter-final, decided not to play, and spun a coin, instead. Prakash called right, Mohan was “tossed” out; and Prakash went on to the semi-final, which he won with aplomb, to make the title round.
The background to this strange way of determining a winner needs to be set down in golden letters in the annals of Indian badminton. The 1947 Championships were the first to be played after the cessation of World War II; and, in the absence of any records that could indicate the form of the moment, seedings were allotted in an arbitrary manner, based on performance in the pre-War years.
India had two entries in the tournament – the 1946 national champion Prakash Nath and his toughest rival and good friend, Devinder Mohan. Since they were far too good for the others in the fray in India, the Indian Badminton Federation decided in 1947 that it would send them to London to get the experience of play at the topmost level.
Nath came from a wealthy Lahore-based family, which was fortunate to own property that had a badminton court, a tennis court and a small ground for playing hockey and cricket attached to it. Prakash’s father, Alok Nath, a hockey player, encouraged his son to play all these sports, but his mother was particularly fond of playing badminton with him.
Prakash, who first held a racket at the age of eight, had decided within a couple of years that badminton would be his chosen sport. Agility was his forte; and so flexible was he that, when he bent his back backwards to hit a shot, the racket was reputed to touch the back of his heel. He was also a master of deception, with a rich repertoire of strokes, especially at the net.
The junior doubles title at the 1936 Punjab State Championships, when he was a mere 12 years old, gave him a taste for trophies; and from that year until 1940, he won at least one event every year in the State Championships.
By the time he was 16, he was so good that he bagged the men’s singles and doubles in the 1942 Nationals. Nath was to be a finalist in at least two national events every year between 1943 and ’45, before taking the coveted singles and doubles tandem again in 1946.
It is a strange coincidence that, nearly three decades later, Prakash Padukone was also just 16 when he won three titles at the 1971-72 Madras Nationals – the men’s singles, the junior boys’ singles and boys’ doubles in tandem with his elder brother, Pradeep.
Another coincidence is that Prakash Nath won the 1946 Indian Nationals at the expense of Devinder Mohan, while Prakash’s victim in the men’s final of the 1971-72 Nationals was another Devinder – Ahuja! Padukone pipped the Amritsar-based jeweller’s son 18-17 in the third and deciding game of their epic final to win the national title for the first time.
“Shortly after I won the national singles at Jabalpur in 1946, I got a telegram from my elder brother, asking me to rush to Lahore, since Devinder and I had been selected to represent India at the All-England,” Nath reminisced. “It was a huge and pleasant surprise, but I was dubious as to how I would fare because I had dislocated my knee shortly after the final.”
Unfortunately, with there being no indication of how good they really were, the All-England authorities put them in the same quarter of the draw. Both Indians were furious, upon landing in London, to see that only one of them had a chance of making the final.
Prakash had the toughest conceivable opening match – against defending champion Tage Madsen of Denmark – at the spacious Harringay Arena. A record crowd of 25,000 turned up to watch the contest, since Madsen was a popular past winner of the event.
The more experienced man took the first game at 15-7, as the limping Indian took time to warm up. But, as the match progressed, and the rallies got longer and fiercer, young legs carried the day. Nath won the closely contested second game at 15-12; and simply ran away with the decider at 15-3.
Both Indians progressed smoothly until they came up against each other in the quarter-finals. Both realised that they knew each other’s game so well that they would end up playing a long, exhausting match, and would probably be too stiff for whoever came up against the winner in the semi-final. So they decided to toss for it.
The British press went overboard with the story; and one particular newspaper hinted that it was an Indian gold coin that they had used for the toss. Nath insists it was nothing of the kind; just a 50-paise coin that one of them had carried from Bombay to London, but it certainly added spice to the legend. He was lucky to call correctly; and received a warm, albeit rueful, embrace from his unlucky friend and compatriot.
“I beat an Englishman named Redford in the semi-finals on March 2, and felt pretty good about my chances in the final against Denmark’s Conny Jepsen,” Nath said, nearly 64 years later, when I interviewed him for my book ‘Courting Success – Icons of Indian badminton’ in 2011. “But when I saw `The Times’ on the morning of March 3, it all blew up in my face. All I could see was a screaming headline `Lahore in flames!’
“I read that riots had broken out in the city and the entire area around my house – Nesbitt Road, Abbot Road and Gwaal Mandi – had been set on fire. I did not know whether my family was alive or dead. I don’t even remember how I went to the court to play my match. I can’t remember anything of the match – it was all like a bad dream in which I just went through the motions.”
There were many who felt that, had the aggressive, hard-hitting Mohan won the toss with his fellow-countryman, he would have stood an outstanding chance of beating Jepsen in the All England final. But fate deemed otherwise.
For Prakash Nath, the return from England marked the start of a living nightmare. When the Partition of India took place on August 15, 1947, Northern India was a churning cauldron of violence. Rampaging mobs roamed the streets, murdering people at will, and without provocation.
“If the answer to a simple question like `Where were you born?’ was a town that had gone to Pakistan, the results were unpredictable,” recalled Nath. “Since I was born in Lahore, I could have been a prime target. Many people in the area knew it.
“As it is, I almost lost my life on several occasions during those dreadful days, and they gave me nightmares for years thereafter. Badminton went far away from my mind; my priority became survival. I vowed not to touch a badminton racket again until my thriving family business had been rejuvenated.” And he stood firm to his vow.
For years after his solitary foray to the All England, Nath helmed a thriving business of electronic machine tools in Mumbai, but led a reclusive, semi-retired life, indulging his passion of reading, watching sports on television, and playing golf – far from the badminton courts which he had graced with so much excellence in the pre-1947 days.
It is sad to think that circumstances forced Nath to give up badminton at the young age of 23, else there is no knowing what more he might have achieved with his tremendous talent.
Certainly, he would have had a career every bit as long and illustrious as his latter-day namesake, but for the cruel twist that history took, sundering a nation into two, and igniting base passions among people who had lived together in harmony for centuries.
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