Past Masters of Indian Badminton: George Lewis – the 'Guru' and first player to win ten national titles
George Lewis’ longevity and consistency were amazing. He was the first player to win ten Indian national titles, collected over a 14-year period between 1936 and 1949.
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.
There is something about the mixed doubles event that attracts venerable souls.
There was American-Czech legend, Martina Navratilova, winning a Grand Slam major title at the ripe old age of 47 – the 2006 US Open mixed doubles, in tandem with fellow-American Bob Bryan.
There was Indian Davis Cup stalwart, Leander Paes, winning the 2016 French Open mixed doubles crown with fellow-veteran, ‘Swiss Miss’ Martina Hingis, when he was a month short of his 43rd birthday.
And then, there was the Grand Old Man of Indian badminton, George Lewis, winning the Indian National mixed doubles crown for the third time in 1949, in partnership with wife Nobina – when he was barely a couple of months shy of his 39th birthday.
Lewis’ longevity and consistency were amazing. He was the first player to win ten Indian national titles, collected over a 14-year period between 1936 and 1949. There were four singles titles in a row from 1936 to 1939, but the piece-de-resistance of his collection of national titles was a triple crown in 1938 – the singles, the men’s doubles with Kartar Singh and the mixed doubles with his on-court, off-court partner, Nobina.
There were to be two more men’s doubles titles in the company of the hard-hitting Davinder Mohan in 1943 and 1945, and two more mixed crowns with Nobina in 1937 and 1949. Lewis, at the age of 37, was a key member of the Indian team that participated in the inaugural Thomas Cup in 1948 in the American Zone.
“George was dynamite in the singles even when he was well into his 40s,” says former Maharashtra state doubles champion Anil Mahesh, who used to partner Dr Arun Ginde in the open events in the late-1950s. “His control over the shuttle at the low-ceiling Bandra Gymkhana, his swiftness on court and his remarkable stamina allowed him to make a monkey out of good players half his age.”
Another Bandra Gymkhana regular, Denzil Fernandes, who turned out for Maharashtra in the men’s doubles in the company of Atul Kanwar in the 1960s, had enormous respect for Lewis, who was well into his 50s at the time. “He was almost fully bald and looked his age, but when he got onto the badminton court, his opponent would find it difficult to land the shuttle on his side of the court, such was his retrieving prowess,” Fernandes says.
Well-loved sports writer AC Pereira was equally glowing in his tribute to George Lewis and analysis of his game: “The Grand Old Man was not as graceful as Jabir Ali, who seemed to cover the entire court in two steps; but, after he first played in the Western India Championships in 1940, no player was as unanimously applauded as good old Georgie.
“His game was built on sound lines. Not only did he play a studious all-court game, but he was also a tremendous retriever, unflagging from the first to the last point of a match. So quick were his reflexes that he was able to take a drop shot always a fraction of a second earlier than all the other players. He was not a big hitter. But no one could forget how he used to tease and torment his opponents with his wrist-flip to flick the shuttle over their heads for a winner!
“Georgie has always had a cheerful temperament, in victory or defeat, which made him very popular. He was the ideal of a sportsman. After a match, he would say quite simply to his opponent, `Bad luck; you were not in form today.’ To me, the Grand Old Man has always been the high priest, the `guru’ of Indian badminton – a father-figure to young players.”
Amazingly, not a single photograph of Lewis in playing attire or in action is available. In fact, details of the man’s badminton career could only be pieced together by speaking to his daughter Arlene, his close friend and badminton buddy Farokh Antia, and some of those who had the privilege of playing with and against him during the 18 years he spent in Bombay after moving there from Lahore.
George, born on 27 March, 1911, studied Mechanical Engineering in the early-1930s at Froman’s College in Lahore University, where he became friendly with Raja Ghosh, brother of the woman who was to become his wife. He was at the time on the lookout for a partner with whom he could play mixed doubles; and Raja suggested his own sister Nobina.
The lady, a student of Lahore’s Kinnaird College, actually had to take special permission from her Principal to play with George. The two met on the badminton court for the first time and hit it off so well that they decided to become partners in real life as well, in August 1936. The disparity in their backgrounds – Nobina was a Bengali, while George was an Anglican (Protestant) from Punjab – made not an iota of difference to them.
The union was to result in three daughters – Iona, Arlene and Ramona, all born in Lahore, a few years before the country was bifurcated into two by the British in 1947.
George’s badminton career progressed swimmingly; and, in his mid-20s, he became the first player to win the Indian National singles title four times in a row from 1936 to ’39.
In early-1947, George accepted an invitation to come to Bombay to play in the annual tournaments hosted by the Cricket Club of India and Bombay Gymkhana. At the time, the northern part of the country was in grave turmoil; and the tension between the Hindu and Muslim communities steadily escalated.
“My father thought the whole family would go to Bombay, he would play in the tournaments, and then we all would return when things settled down,” reminisces second daughter Arlene. “We did return to Lahore briefly after a Parsi friend of ours from Juhu arranged tickets for us on a chartered flight going from Bombay to Karachi.
“But thereafter, things only got worse for non-Muslims in what was to become Pakistan. In the Hindu-Muslim riots, Dad lost his business of making shuttlecocks with feathers imported from China. Then, with the partition of the country into India and Pakistan being imminent, he decided to come to Bombay to settle. We left everything behind in Lahore, and caught the last train to leave Pakistan for India.”
Eminent writer Khushwant Singh’s historical book `Train to Pakistan’ details the travails of the people on board the last trains to leave Pakistan and India for what had by then respectively become “the other country”. It was a horrific experience for the five members of the Lewis family on the last train to come from Lahore to Bombay.
“While the train was passing through Pakistan, Muslims were killing all Hindus on board, and there was blood everywhere,” Arlene recalls. “If we were to be spared, we had to wear crosses identifying us as Christians. My mother, who always wore a sari, had to borrow a dress from a neighbour. I was seven years old at the time, but I still remember those terrible scenes of bloodshed on the train.”
In Bombay, George, who was by then 36 and past his halcyon days, resumed his astonishing playing career. After a nomadic initial existence in different parts of Bombay, he settled in Bandra, and became a regular at the Bandra Gymkhana, starting his day at dawn with a strenuous session with his friend Farokh Antia.
“Those early-morning playing sessions were murder for me,” says Antia. “So fond was George of his badminton that he would be at my door at 6:30 am, honking his car horn and urging me to drag myself out of bed. By the end of the first game itself, I would be panting, so fast was he on the court!”
Apart from Antia, George roped in his three daughters to play with and against him, and taught them the nuances of strokeplay.
“He would make me hit a hundred tosses, then 50 drop shots to the same point from different spots on the court; then another 50 tosses. He turned all us sisters into decent players, and we have all won state-level titles at some stage of our respective careers. We were also the only five-member family to participate in tournaments, and walk away with several of the titles at stake,” says Arlene.
The legendary Nandu Natekar, who came to Bombay from Sangli in 1949, and started playing at the PJ Hindu Gymkhana, recalls how he would be in awe of a small group of big names that dominated the Indian badminton scene at the time and played in the Thomas Cup for the country – Davinder Mohan, George Lewis, Henry Ferreira and Dattu Mugwe.
“It was in 1952 that I beat George at the WIAA. tournament with great difficulty,” recalls Natekar. “At the time, I was just 19, while he was already past his 40th year, and sported a bald head and a small paunch. But he was extremely fast on the court, and still very fit. I noticed he took virtually all shuttles with overhead strokes, without resorting to the backhand.
“George had a peculiar style of serving, holding the shuttle in the left hand until the very last split-second before the racket struck it. Players normally release the shuttle earlier and let it free-fall a few inches before the racket contacts it to propel it to the other side. But George held on to the shuttle longer than I have noticed any other player doing, regardless of whether he did the low serve or the high serve.”
Natekar observed that Lewis did not like playing the dribble at the net, but employed the wrist to constantly flick the shuttle to his rival’s baseline. “I found it very hard to beat him the first couple of times, but I subsequently worked out my strategy against him – to stay back, and not follow my drops in to the net, because he would always flick the shuttle back. Also, I noticed that he could flick from the net only with the backhand, so I started dropping the bird more to his forehand, from which he could not flick in the same deceptive manner.”
Natekar always found George nice to talk to, and a fount of encouragement. “On one occasion, he told me, `Nandu, you have a great career ahead of you; keep it up, practice hard, and don’t slack off!’ It was advice I took very seriously,” he says.
Antia remembers George as being a strict disciplinarian. “Once I was a little late for a match at the Bandra Gymkhana, and told my partner Owen Roncon to test some shuttles while I pulled off my track pants in a corner,” he says. “George saw me, and ticked me off properly for having been discourteous to my opponents by coming late, and then changing in an improper spot. When I apologised, he told me to never repeat the misdemeanour.”
During most of his 21 years in Mumbai, George was employed by a Parsi company, Grindwell Abrasives (later Grindwell Norton) as a technical sales manager. It was through his efforts that his friend Antia also secured a sales job in the company.
The two would drive to work from Bandra to Colaba in George’s `Dukker Fiat’, as the 1100 cc compact car was called in those days. Arlene would invariably accompany the two men in the car to her job in South Bombay. In the late evenings, there would be a second badminton session, if the exigencies of work permitted.
Former president of the Badminton Association of India Sushil Ruia was one of those fortunate enough to watch what was arguably George’s finest match, but which ironically ended in defeat. It was on 3rd March 1949 at the Harringay Arena in London, where the matches of the 1949 All-England Championships were being played.
“Normally, the All-England was played in the third week of March, but it had been advanced by a fortnight that year to accommodate teams from the US, Malaya, Denmark and India that had reached England to participate in the inaugural Thomas Cup team competition,” Ruia reminisced.
“The match I am referring to was played between Malaya’s No1 Ooi Teik Hock and George Lewis who, at a few days shy of 38 years of age, was even then India’s No.2 player. It was played against the backdrop of India’s badminton stock plummeting to a new low, following its 2-7 defeat by Canada in Toronto in the first round of the Thomas Cup in November 1948.
“Just prior to the Teik Hock-Lewis match, the India No 1, Davinder Mohan, had lost at 4-15, 17-14, 4-15 to Malaya’s then No 2 player, Wong Peng Soon, in a match which the newspapers there described as `a gruelling match of prolonged rallies, with both men adept at retrieving seemingly impossible shots.’ The match was closer than the scores indicated, and Mohan had as much of the play as his opponent, but the points just did not seem to go his way.
“George had, earlier in the day, beaten Malayan Thomas Cup player Lim Kee Fong in a strenuous two-game match. Teik Hock took the opening game at 15-3 even before George could get into the match. George then steadied himself, played his clever game, made the Malayan run all over the court, and won the second comfortably at 15-9.
“In the third game too, George kept on calling the tune and established a potentially match-winning lead of 14-6. At this stage, there was a prolonged rally, and ultimately Teik Hock hit a return that landed at least two inches outside the right sideline on George’s side.
“All of us thought the match was over and both George and Teik Hock started moving towards the net to shake hands. However, the umpire had not announced the end of the match; and before doing so, he looked at the linesman for confirmation that the shuttle had landed outside the court.
“As it happened, the linesperson was an old woman doing some knitting while watching the line. Evidently, she had not actually seen the shuttle landing well outside the court, but saw it only when it rebounded off the floor and landed back inside the court. She called it right, and the umpire had no alternative but to award the rally to Teik Hock, and order resumption of the game at 6-14.
“There was an uproar all around and a storm of protest, but it had no effect, and the umpire signalled the players to continue. Alas, that one wrong line call upset George so much that he became a bundle of nerves and was unable to regain his rhythm. He allowed Teik Hock to catch up with him at 14-all. Ultimately, the Malayan won the game at 17-15.”
Immediately after the match was over, everybody rushed towards the Indian camp, offering sympathy. The late Ken Davidson, then non-playing captain and manager of the US Thomas Cup team, said loudly enough for everyone to hear, “Sushil, it’s a damned shame. George had won the match. I will give you fifty witnesses to prove that the shuttle had landed well outside, and it was George’s point.”
It was interesting to see the perspective with which the newspapers the next day treated the match. The British papers headlined it “Won match lost”, while the Malayan reporters covering the tournament had sent back stories that were emblazoned “Lost match won”!
“Whatever chance India had of redeeming its badminton reputation was lost as George was expected to reach the All-England final if he were to defeat Teik Hock, his opponent in the semi-final being Carl Loveday of the US, whom George had beaten twice during the Indian team’s tour of the US prior to the All-England,” remarked Ruia, who incidentally passed away a few years ago.
“Ultimately, however, Dr Dave Freeman of the US proved himself to be the real world champion as he brushed aside Wong Peng Soon in the semi-final at 15-2, 15-4; and Ooi Teik Hock in the final at 15-1, 15-6, thus handing out a severe blow to Malayan prestige. But India had lost a heaven-sent opportunity of putting a man in the All-England final for the second year in a row, following Prakash Nath’s 1948 title encounter against Denmark’s Conny Jepsen.”
After Lewis migrated to Canada in 1968 to join his three daughters who had gone to that country years earlier and attained Canadian citizenship, he made few trips to India. In his closing years, he appeared embarrassed by his shiny pate, and adopted a wig. He was also prey to some bitterness that, after he left Bombay, nobody acknowledged his stature in the game or even bothered to stay in touch with him.
On the one occasion that Antia made the effort to drop by, Lewis told him, “You are the only person from the Indian badminton community who remembers me. So many people come to see Niagara Falls, from where my house in Toronto is only a hop, step and jump. But nobody comes to visit me or ask after my well-being.”
George Lewis’ contribution to the sport finally received posthumous recognition, when the independent private body Badminton-45 presented a citation and a token cash amount of Rs 50,000 to Arlene, who represented her father at the function at the Bombay Gymkhana, held on 5 February 2011 to mark the 25th anniversary of the formation of the association. The date was barely seven weeks before the ‘Guru of Indian Badminton’, had he been alive, would have completed his century!
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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