Past Masters of Indian Badminton: Dinesh Khanna – game's ultimate returning machine

The returning machine was a regular in India squads from 1961 until 1976, including all the five Thomas Cup campaigns played during these 15 years. He captained the national squad and helped it enter the final rounds of the 1972 Thomas Cup.

Shirish Nadkarni April 06, 2020 10:33:51 IST
Past Masters of Indian Badminton: Dinesh Khanna – game's ultimate returning machine

Editor's Note: Owing to the coronavirus outbreak, all sporting action across the globe stand suspended or cancelled. The crisis, however, presents us with an opportunity to step back, rethink, and write on sports differently. In line with this thought, we are running a series of profiles on India's illustrious badminton stars. The articles, penned by Shirish Nadkarni, promise to take you on a nostalgia trip while touching upon the lesser-known facets from the lives of the past masters.


“I can’t believe I have lost to you yet again! I have beaten Erland Kops, I have beaten Tan Joe Hock, I have beaten Ferry Sonneville; but why can’t I beat you, damn it.” And with a characteristic show of his explosive temper, Malaysia’s fearsome hitter, Tan Yee Khan, broke his own racket across his knee, as a bemused Dinesh Khanna looked on in consternation.

The scene was from a tournament played in late-1966 between the Ipoh state team and the visiting Indian squad; and Yee Khan had just lost a match to the indefatigable Indian returning machine by a 15-14 score in the decider. What must have riled the Malaysian most was the fact that he had lost to Khanna by an identical 15-14 scoreline for the third time in that very year.

Past Masters of Indian Badminton Dinesh Khanna  games ultimate returning machine

Dinesh Khanna. Image procured by Shirish Nadkarni.

The first time had been at the prestigious All-England Championships in March of that year, when Yee Khan, after smashing his way past defending champion Erland Kops of Denmark in the first round, had come up against the Great Wall of India. After winning the first game easily at 15-4, and powering his way to a 13-8 lead in the second, the Malaysian had the mortification of seeing Khanna close the gap with his resolute defence and attritional tactics, and neutralise the lead, to make it 14-all.

In a do-or-die effort, the utterly exhausted Yee Khan avoided ‘setting’ the game to 17, and called “Straight!” – only to see Khanna wrap up the all-important 15th point. His mental resolve utterly broken, and his lungs feeling as if they were on the verge of collapse, the Malaysian did not emerge for the decider, and conceded the match to the Indian.

A few months later, at the equally prestigious Malaysian Open, in which all the world’s top players participated, Yee Khan once again came up against his nemesis, but this time, was calmer in the decider and took what appeared to be a decisive 14-8 lead. Match-point. To his utter horror, Khanna once again inched his way up to 14-all, and pipped his volatile rival at the tape, 15-14.

When that unbelievable coincidence recurred yet again in Ipoh, it was the last straw. Yee Khan had won the opening game comfortably, had let the second game go to conserve his energies for the decider; and had then stormed to a 13-3 lead. But then, his nerve went; and, in his anxiety to finish the match by the short route, he began hitting all over the place.

Once again, at 14-all, he opted for a single finishing point, and stood close to the short-service line, racket up, in a threatening position to ‘tap’ the shuttle. The Indian took a chance, and delivered a low, flat serve that Yee Khan judged, but which landed a couple of inches inside the baseline. Match to Khanna, 15-14; thunder on Yee Khan’s visage. Goodbye, racket!

It was not just Tan Yee Khan – who, aside from his singles prowess, formed a formidable, world-beating doubles combination with compatriot Ng Boon Bee – who found playing against Dinesh Khanna to be a maddening experience. The Malaysian’s angst was shared by most of the world’s top attacking players of the day.

The badminton stars of South-East Asia and the Far East, like Malaysia’s Yew Cheng Hoe, Thailand’s Sangob Rattanusorn and Japan’s Yoshino Itagaki, did not mind pitting their wits against the likes of Dipu Ghosh, Suresh Goel, Satish Bhatia, even Nandu Natekar – all stroke-makers, as likely to hit a spectacular shot as make an unforced error. But they simply hated playing against a man who got so many shuttles back, and those, too, with unerring length and accuracy.

Past Masters of Indian Badminton Dinesh Khanna  games ultimate returning machine

Dinesh Khanna with Erland Kps. Image procured by Shirish Nadkarni.

One can think of a parallel in Indian cricket. When Krishnamachari Srikkanth and Sunil Gavaskar formed one of the best opening batting combinations of that era, bowlers preferred to bowl to Srikkanth than to Gavaskar. They knew they were likely to be carted for a lot more runs, but they always harboured the hope that Srikkanth would make a false stroke and get out, whereas Gavaskar’s organised defence gave them not the ghost of a chance. Khanna was badminton’s Gavaskar.

Tireless returning machine that he was, Khanna played the game by a single simple rule – get the shuttle back to the rival’s baseline, and let his own stamina weigh in the balance. There were few players fitter than Khanna in his prime, and none of them had the kind of iron control over the shuttle than the Indian did. He could get back the most powerful smash with aplomb, and manoeuvre to have the shuttle back at the baseline.

It is to Khanna’s credit that, to date, he remains the only Indian to win the Asian championship, a feat he achieved in 1965, a few months before he bagged his first and only national singles crown. In fact, between 1965 and ’69, he had the distinction of being considered among the top ten players in the world.

There was nothing fluky about the manner in which the civil engineer, 22 years old at the time, won the Asian Badminton Confederation (ABC) championships in Lucknow from a star-studded international field. Home and crowd advantage he may have had; but, as an ardent admirer remarked, the sweat that he shed on the court was all his opponents’.

Past Masters of Indian Badminton Dinesh Khanna  games ultimate returning machine

Dinesh Khanna with Angela Bairstow, the singles winners of Asian Championships. Image procured by Shirish Nadkarni.

Unseeded and unheralded, he scythed through the men’s singles draw, crushing four seeded stars along the way, His victims included Woong Cheong Leong of Singapore (the No.8 seed), Itagaki of Japan (seeded No.3) and reigning Indian national champion Suresh Goel (seeded No.7). Khanna made the title his with a 15-3, 15-11 victory over Thailand’s redoubtable Sangob Rattanusorn in the final.

“Dinesh was far too fit for him; also quicker,” read a report of the match from The Times of India. “That he would return Sangob’s big hits was almost a certainty; sometimes, these became winners. And when the Thai tried flicks, placements and drops, he found Dinesh everywhere.

“Dinesh wrought the miracle with a ruthless mixture of the deep toss, the odd drop, the occasional smash, and above all, a terrier-like agility and solid, almost impregnable, defence. These were there in the earlier rounds too; but today, he was at his very best.”

It is worth recounting the story of that Asian championship in Khanna’s own words. In what was a star-studded field, the best player among the Indians was Natekar, who won both the team selection tournaments, despite being past his 30th year.

“I managed to scrape through as the fourth and last player behind Natekar, Goel and Dipu Ghosh,” says Khanna. “In fact, I was pretty satisfied to find a berth in the Indian team as I had undergone a major open-knee surgery the year before, for the removal of a torn cartilage; and had been forced to take a long lay-off.

“I was happy that my knee was in near-perfect condition. The doctor had asked me to use 5-kg weights on my ankles and to do knee bends and stretches. I used 20-kg weights, thinking I would get my knee up to scratch earlier. The pain in my knee persisted until a couple of days before the tournament, and I thought I would not be able to give my best.

“It was two days after I quit doing my knee exercises with the 20-kg weights that the pain totally disappeared. On hindsight, it is clear I was using weights far in excess of the requirement; and therefore, the knee pain had persisted. But a highly beneficial side-effect of having used heavier weights was that my stomach muscles became extremely strong and helped me bend forward and recover swiftly to return to the centre of the court.”

For the pattern of Dinesh’s defensive game to be effective, it was essential that the shuttles be good. The English RSL brand used in the tournament allowed him to maintain an immaculate length and control, and the shuttle would not go out of shape even with the hardest of smashes.

Past Masters of Indian Badminton Dinesh Khanna  games ultimate returning machine

Dinesh Khanna receiving the Arjuna Award. Image procured by Shirish Nadkarni.

After Khanna had accounted for the eighth seed from Hong Kong, his toughest test came in the quarter-final against Japan’s Itagaki, seeded No.3 in the competition and nicknamed 'bouncing ball' for his agility, quicksilver reflexes and tremendous staying power. With his defensive style being identical to that of Khanna, it appeared that a long-drawn match was on the cards.

Fortunately for the Indian, the Japanese player committed far too many errors in the opening game to concede it quickly. But he steadied in the second game, and almost unending rallies started from the word `go’.

“By the time the score reached 7-all, my legs had become wobbly, but I could not let it become apparent and give the psychological edge to my rival,” recalls Khanna. “In those days, no toweling was allowed and the shuttles were pre-tested, so there was absolutely no respite. It was only the thought that Itagaki was also human and had limits to this endurance that kept me going.

“At 12-all, the strain had become almost unbearable, but the thought that I would have to play a third game if I lost the second was far more daunting. It just would not allow me to give up. Perhaps the same thought was haunting the Japanese player, who cracked first and handed the game to me at 15-12. The ordeal was over.”

A Hong Kong player who had a fascination for statistics revealed later that two rallies had gone over 60 strokes; six rallies over 50 strokes, while the average for each rally was 30 strokes. Time-wise, the match lasted 40 minutes, but Dinesh claims even today that he had never experienced the same intensity, before or since. The Chief Referee was to later tell both players that, midway through the second game, he had cautioned the medical team to keep two stretchers handy.

It became a memorable day for India when Suresh Goel knocked out the top-seeded Malaysian Yew Cheng Hoe in a three-game thriller, paving the way for two Indians to be pitted against each other in the semi-final, and thus ensuring that an Indian would contest the final. However, Natekar had fallen to the dangerous and unpredictable Malaysian powerhouse, Tan Yee Khan, in the quarter-finals.

After the scintillating form he had shown against Cheng Hoe, Goel suffered a complete mental letdown and proved easy prey for Khanna in the semi-final. In his anxiety to cut short the rallies, he made errors galore, and handed the match to Khanna on a platter, catapulting him into the final against Thailand’s Sangob, a seasoned campaigner with a wealth of international experience, who accounted for the temperamental Tan Yee Khan in the semi-final.

Before the match, Maharashtra’s 17 year old Gautam Thakkar, who had bagged the Asian junior title in the morning, came up to Khanna and said cheekily, “Agar mere jaisa bachcha jeet sakta hai, to aap kyon nahin?” (“If a rookie like me can win, what’s to stop you?”). With minimal fuss, Khanna wrapped up the opening game against the wily Thai at 15-3, and built up a 12-8 lead in the second.

“Until that stage, I was almost unmindful of the big occasion and had taken everything in my stride,” Khanna remembers. “Suddenly, a feeling of disbelief dawned on me that I was only three points away from becoming Asian champion. That brought about anxiety, and my concentration wavered. Sangob came within striking distance at 11-12 before I made a final effort and took the last three points for 15-11.”

The purple patch that the Punjab shuttler had struck in Lucknow did not end there. He went on to bag the Nehru Memorial Championships in New Delhi, reducing Malaysian top seed Yew Cheng Hoe to the status of an exhausted spectator in the latter reaches of the long-drawn 9-15, 15-11, 15-11 encounter.

And while the Malaysian star looked ready to be strapped to a stretcher, Khanna’s face wore the same inscrutable expression it had at the start of the match. He looked like he could go through another three games at the same blistering pace. “Take away the boy’s racket if you want to beat him!” shouted a wag from the crowd.

Sadly, Khanna was to win only one Indian national singles title – at Jaipur in 1966, the year following his triumph at the ABC. One good reason for this was that he missed five Nationals because the dates of the competition coincided with his Civil Engineering final examinations. The man was always sure in his own mind that he needed a career apart from the sport; and skipping examinations was not going to help him achieve that aim.

It was no surprise when Khanna’s name figured in the list of Arjuna Award winners for the year 1965. And after the twin titles at Lucknow and New Delhi, much was expected of him in the 1966 All-England Championships.

Past Masters of Indian Badminton Dinesh Khanna  games ultimate returning machine

India's 1966 Thomas Cup team -- (sitting) Nandu Natekar, manager Sri Ram Chadha, TN Seth; (standing) Dipu Ghosh, CD Deoras, Dinesh Khanna, Romesn Ghosh. Image procured by Shirish Nadkarni.

Khanna, who was seeded joint-third for the competition, did not disappoint, and reached the semi-finals, before bowing out at 4-15, 9-15 to his nemesis player, Malaysia’s Tan Aik Huang. The match was far closer than the scoreline suggests; and was replete with long rallies in which deep tosses alternated with delicate net drops.
By 1969, Khanna was a regular in India’s Thomas Cup squad, when he was called upon to defend his Asian title in Manila. In an amazing quarter-final, he put out Aik Huang’s younger brother, Tan Aik Mong, at 12-15, 18-15, 18-15, as usual recovering after the loss of the first game to let his staying powers do the talking.

In the semi-final, though, he found another Malaysian, Punch Gunalan, far too hot to handle. Gunalan’s all-out attacking play and powerful smashes proved too much for Khanna to handle, especially when he was stiff and sore after his previous day’s clash.

There are so many memorable matches that Khanna has played that all discussion so far has revolved around them. But it is also worth knowing how Khanna’s love for the game came about. It was in 1947, on the private courts of a well-to-do landlord of Fatehgarh Churian, a town close to Amritsar, that a five year old boy was given a badminton racket to play with, because it was the lightest thing he could hold.

Little did Dewan Dilbagh Rai Khanna, father of the child, know the significance of the act. A deep love for the game developed in the lad’s heart; he would willingly spend long hours sitting at courtside and watching his father’s guests play on the garden court, until he was given a chance to join them.

“Not since the days of George Lewis and Kartar Singh, Devinder Mohan and Prakash Nath, has anyone spoken up so eloquently for Punjab badminton, so severely and cruelly affected by the partition of the country,” wrote noted journalist K Datta, at the time. “It is a tremendous achievement, considering the fact that a cartilage operation kept him out of the game for six months last year.”

Khanna himself offered strong reasons for his chosen style of play: “To make winning strokes all the time, you need a great deal of practice against good opponents. To get that practice, you need to have a lot of time at your disposal, which I did not have for some years while pursuing my engineering studies in Chandigarh.

“All my practice would be packed into my summer vacation of a month and a half. I learnt that if you keep the shuttle in play and cut out the mistakes, and if you are fit enough, you can dictate the tempo of the game. And you can make the occasional unexpected good stroke that will upset the opponent.”

One such stroke was the backhand smash developed by Khanna. He would hit it when least expected, along the sideline, and with his full back to his rival. He claimed to have learnt his backhand from a book written by Ken Davidson.

The returning machine was a regular in India squads from 1961 until 1976, including all the five Thomas Cup campaigns played during these 15 years. He captained the national squad and helped it enter the final rounds of the 1972 Thomas Cup.

Khanna also made his mark at the veteran level, taking the singles silver medal at the World Masters Games in 1989. Apart from that, his became a familiar face in the commentary box whenever Doordarshan telecast a badminton event in India.

A most interesting episode in the champion’s life was when he was roundly beaten by his father-in-law in swimming. Wife Veena’s father, Colonel Tuli, was an accomplished swimmer and had won laurels galore in his younger days. He had kept himself fit with regular workouts in the pool.

On one occasion, when Col. Tuli challenged Dinesh to a short race in the water at the Delhi Army Officers’ Club pool, the badminton champ readily agreed to it. The deal was that Col. Tuli would swim the backstroke and Dinesh the freestyle forward.

“To me, that seemed a fair deal, as my father-in-law was 68 years old at the time; and, as I was much younger than him, I felt I stood a very good chance,” Dinesh reminisces. “I was astounded when, half-way through my swim, I saw Col. Tuli waving at me from the finish line. I had just about completed half of the race. I never lived that one down!”

As a sports administrator, Khanna has served as chairman of the Coaching and Planning committee of the Badminton Association of India (BAI); has been a national selector at various times and has accompanied the Indian team abroad in the capacity of coach and manager.

A probe into the mind behind the inscrutable face of the champion was instituted in 2009 by a Ph.D. student of Devi Ahilya University, Vikas Dutt, who spent hours with Khanna over a couple of months, asking scores of questions and meticulously noting down the answers that provided an insight into what made the former Asian champion tick.

The fact that the 198-page doctoral thesis, entitled `A case study of the life, professional career and contributions to Indian Badminton of Arjuna Awardee Dinesh Khanna’, was termed acceptable by his guides showed that the unusual project had been worth its while, and that the world could finally learn what made Khanna badminton’s ultimate returning machine.

The writer is a former veterans' world champion (50+ age group men's doubles, Kuala Lumpur 2004), an eight-time National champion, and a 13-time Maharashtra state veterans' doubles title holder.


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