Past Masters of Indian Badminton: Prakash Nath — the first Indian shuttler to play an All-England final
It is sad to think that circumstances forced Prakash Nath to give up badminton at the young age of 27, else there is no knowing what more he might have achieved with his tremendous talent.
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.
Here's a trick question: Which year did India’s Prakash first reach the All-England badminton final?
Many of you may opt for 1980, the year that Prakash Padukone barged into the All-England final at the Wembley Arena, to take on the two-time defending champion from Indonesia, Liem Swie King. While Prakash's feat remains a great chapter in Indian badminton's history, yet that is not the correct answer.
A good thirty-three years before Prakash Padukone set the Wembley Arena alight on 23 March 1980 with his magnificent victory over Swie King, another Prakash had made the finals of the All-England Championships, considered the world’s premier tournament before the official world championships were launched in 1977.
Prakash Nath, then 23, made his way into the 1947 All-England 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 the coin, instead. Prakash called right, Mohan was “tossed” out; and Prakash went on to win his semi-final.
The background to this strange way of determining a winner must be told. The 1947 edition of the All-England Championships was the first to be played after the cessation of World War II. In the absence of any records that could indicate current form, seedings were allotted in an arbitrary manner, based on performance in the pre-World War II (1939-1945) years.
India fielded 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 both to London to get experience.
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. His father Alok, a hockey player, encouraged the lad to play all these games, but his mother liked to play badminton with him.
The 1920-born Nath first held a racket at the age of eight; and decided within a couple of years that badminton would be his chosen sport. Agility was his forte; and when he bent his back backwards to hit an overhead 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 (with his brother Ashok Nath) 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 with Ashok for a second time in 1946. In the interim, he won the mixed doubles twice in 1944 and '45, with Sunder Deodhar.
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 the boys’ doubles with his elder brother, Pradeep.
Another coincidence is that Nath won the 1946 Indian Nationals at the expense of Devinder Mohan, while Padukone’s victim in the men’s final of the 1971-72 Nationals was another Devinder — Ahuja. The records show that 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 of his nine times.
While Nath was a classy strokemaker, his arch-rival Mohan was a powerful hitter, and the rivalry between the two had been close. In the five years between 1942 and 1946, the national title had gone to either Nath or Mohan; no one else.
“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 Davinder and I had been selected to represent India at the All-England,” recalled Nath. “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 National final.”
Unfortunately, with there being no indication of how good they really were, the All-England authorities lumped them together in the same quarter of the draw. Normally, two highly rated compatriots are always separated by the centre line of the draw.
The Indians reached the UK on a bitterly cold March morning, after spending several days travelling from Lahore to London. The two Indians were so confident of their abilities that they expected to face each other for the title, but to their utter shock, they found they had been drawn in the same quarter. Only one of them had a chance of making the final.
They protested vehemently to the tournament committee, but Chief Referee Herbert Scheele, refused to budge from his stand; and simply told them to get on with it.
Nath had the toughest conceivable opening match – against defending champion Tage Madsen of Denmark – at the Harringay Arena. A record crowd of 25,000 turned up to watch the contest, since Madsen was a popular past winner of the event in the pre-War years.
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, younger legs carried the day. Nath won the closely contested second game at 15-12; and simply ran away with the decider at 15-3.
The opening rounds out of the way smoothly, both Indians progressed without any trouble 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 tossed for it.
“We were conversant with each other’s game inside-out; each knew the other’s strokes, strengths and weaknesses, and we had always had lengthy matches,” Nath said. “Our aim was to win the trophy. Devinder bore no ill-feeling towards me after I won the toss and played the semi-final. We remained friends throughout our lives.”
The British press went overboard with the story of the toss; and one particular newspaper even hinted that it was a valuable gold coin that they had used for the toss. Nath insists it was nothing of the kind, just a 50-pence piece (though it is a moot point whether these were minted in those days), but it certainly added spice to the legend. He was lucky to call correctly; and received a warm embrace from his unlucky friend.
“I beat an Englishman named Redford in the semi-finals on 2 March, and felt pretty good about my chances in the final against Denmark’s Conny Jepsen,” remembered Nath, when I interviewed him in 2006. “But when I saw The Times on the morning of 3 March, 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.”
The return from England marked the start of a living nightmare. When the Partition of India took place on 15, August 1947, Northern India was a churning cauldron of violence. When Nath got back to Lahore, it was a ghost town, and his house had been ransacked. 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,” said 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.
After settling in Delhi, Nath built up a thriving business of electronic machine tools, which he handed over to his son in 2005, and went in for a semi-retired life. He remained reclusive, but readily indulged in his passion of reading, watching sports on television, and playing golf in his declining years until his peaceful passing away in 2009.
“He honestly never touched his racket again,” his wife told me when I met her in 2011 for my book on ‘Icons of Indian Badminton’. “More than half a century after we settled in Delhi, one of his nephews returned to the house, and noticed a few young men playing badminton in the yard outside the house with his rackets of 1947.”
It is sad to think that circumstances forced Prakash Nath to give up badminton at the young age of 27, 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 name-sake, 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.
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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