Past Masters of Indian Badminton: Suresh Goel, India’s most creative strokemaker of all time
In our series Past Masters of Indian Badminton, we take a look a the great Suresh Goel who mesmerised the fans in 1960s with his delectable stokes and finesse
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 starting 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.
To look at him, you would seriously wonder whether he was a badminton player at all. Bulky, portly, ponderous, languid — these were adjectives that would best describe Suresh Goel, whom many in the badminton firmament jocularly described as one akin to the local milkman or the neighbourhood vegetable vendor.
And yet, when his contemporary, three-time former national champion Damayanti Subedar-Tambay, was asked to compare the relative merits of Nandu Natekar and Suresh Goel, her response was, “Nandu was a magnificent player with great shuttle control and a vast repertoire of strokes. But if you ask me to name the most creative stroke-maker I have ever seen, it would have to be Goel!”
Writing about Goel — who shockingly passed away in April 1978 when two months shy of his 35th birthday — the noted American sports writer Jim Wiggleworth once noted, “Deception is his greatest asset. He can drop, clear or smash with exactly the same action. His game has bold shots that keep the opponent off-balance, and that great wrist gives him a tremendous backhand. Had he been physically fit, he would have taken anyone in the world in his stride.”
Indeed, Goel combined delectable strokes with sufficient power to be able to rattle the best of players, attacking or defensive. Natekar had finesse, but lacked that kind of firepower. Guru (as the man from Allahabad was fondly called) did not lack for firepower. He did possess one of the best backhands in the business, but God help you if he converted the backhand into an overhead shot! You simply could not tell what he was going to do.
So tricky was Goel that he could play five different strokes with virtually the same action — the straight drop to the net, kissing the sideline; the cross drop to the other flank; the straight toss that went flat and fast to the opposite baseline, the crosscourt toss (one of the most difficult strokes with the overhead), and a stinging down-the-line smash. You had a chance of getting back a stroke from his backhand, but his overhead often left players stranded, dithering as to which side they should go!
Goel’s deception was at its very best when he played players who could cover the court with comfort. Like Partho Ganguli. Goel almost always won the first game of a match against the speedy Ganguli, sending his rival scurrying repeatedly in the wrong direction with a late, last-second change of stroke.
The second game of their match would be the determinant factor as to who would win the tussle. As Goel tired, Ganguli would begin turning the screws, trying his best to prolong the rallies to keep his redoubtable opponent from getting his breath back. It would be a ding-dong battle; and whoever won the second game would win the match — since Goel would mostly be a spent force in the decider.
That did not, however, happen in one particular match that this amazing talent played at the Western Railway Institute court at Bombay Central in 1977 against the speedy dynamo Uday Pawar, who had returned to Bombay, fresh from an appearance in the National singles final against Prakash Padukone, who was to go on to win the national singles crown nine times in a row, from 1971 to 1979.
At the time, Goel was well into his 30s, whereas the stocky Pawar was barely out of his teens, and in prime form. The portly `bhaiya’ produced an array of delectable strokes and strong defence against his rival’s power-play to win the first game. However, he ran out of breath in the second as Pawar prolonged the rallies and concentrated on tiring his much older opponent out.
Everyone expected the Bombay player to run away with the third game as his older rival had appeared very near the end of his tether. But what happened in the decider left everyone present in the hall thunder-struck. The decider ended at 15-0! Yes, Goel handed out a love-game to Pawar, amazingly stepping up the pace and using his smashes liberally to keep the rallies short.
On five occasions, Pawar dribbled the shuttle sharp at the net, and stood with racket up, ready and waiting for his opponent’s response. One would have expected the lumbering elder to desperately send the shuttle soaring back to the baseline, since it appeared suicidal to try and employ the counter-dribble.
But that is exactly what the master of deception did! Five times, he got to the net a split-second before the shuttle was set to hit the floor, and waved his magic wand in a short arc inches from the floor. The bird rose gently, climbed the net, hugged the tape and rolled over on his opponent’s side. Pawar, standing right there, could do absolutely nothing against this stroke.
Once could have been considered lucky; twice would have been coincidence; thrice would have been monumental luck. But five times? I was sitting as a linesman for that particular match; and ended up shaking my head in sheer wonder at the man’s exquisite control and racket skills.
Goel possessed skills that were not seen in the majority of players. So well did he understand the behaviour of the shuttle that he could literally make it talk. In my six-decade long experience of watching and studying badminton, I have not seen a player who handled the left-handed spin service of Wing-Commander Satish Bhatia, the way Goel did.
Bhatia had reduced the multiple-time All-England champion Rudy Hartono to near-tears with that spin serve at a tournament in Jabalpur, and led 14-1 at one stage, as the Indonesian legend simply could not understand the behaviour of the shuttle, and could not control the returns. But Goel would take the bird very low, barely a couple of inches from the ground, and give it a counter-spin that would induce it to just clear the net and fall dead on the other side. It was a breath-taking trick, and Bhatia, who lives a retired life in Chandigarh, is still bemused at the manner of Goel’s legerdemain.
Most players found it hard to replicate the control that Goel exercised at the net. There was one particular player (who shall be nameless) who managed the unmanageable — to irritate Guru during the course of a match, refusing changes of shuttle and behaving in a somewhat unsporting manner.
In normal course, equanimity was Goel’s second name; I have almost never seen him getting riled at either his rival or the chair umpire or the linesmen. But on that particular day, this player managed to get under the Uttar Pradesh man’s skin.
Knowing from experience that his opponent fancied his skills at the net, Goel told him in his slow drawl, with a smile on his face calculated to needle the man, “Ab hum bataa dete hain, hum net pe hi khelenge; to bhi tumhe chidiya nazar nahi aayegi!” (“I am telling you here and now that I will only play at the net; and yet, you will not be able to sight the shuttle!”).
And he fulfilled his boast with aplomb. Time and again, Goel’s opponent dribbled sharp at the net, like Pawar had done in that memorable Western Railway Institute match; and time and again, Goel employed the counter-dribble or the across-the-net crosscourt flick to leave his opponent frustrated. So close to the net were the returns that, on the single occasion that Goel’s rival tried to tap the shuttle, he committed a foul by clipping the tape with his racket.
Riled though he may have been with that particular player, Goel was generally amiability personified. Despite his considerable badminton achievements, he remained humble and self-effacing.
Born on 20th June 1943 in Mirzapur, Suresh Chandra Goel (to give him his full name) belonged to the Agarwal community. He first held a racket at the tender age of seven; and, despite not having a formal coach, began wielding it in a short time like a magician’s wand. School and inter-school titles fell to him like ninepins, as he swept past boys several years older than him.
Goel’s first junior National singles title came at Hyderabad in 1957 at the age of 14. He went on to retain the crown the following year at Gauhati — after which he decided that it was beneath his dignity to compete at the junior level. Another fine UP player, Trilok Nath Seth, was to become his mentor and guide at around this time.
Two years later, a 17-year-old Goel heralded his phenomenal talent by beating seven-time All-England champion Erland Kops of Denmark in the Central India Major tournament at Jabalpur on October 19, 1960.
Kops, it must be mentioned, had won the triple crown at the 1959-60 Indian Nationals barely nine months earlier, but could not read the junior’s strokes in that Jabalpur clash. That performance, among others, earned Goel a call-up to the national Thomas Cup squad, of which he was to be a permanent member over five campaigns in 1960, ’63, ’69, ’73 and ’75.
Stamping his class in the state by winning the Uttar Pradesh senior singles title while still a junior — for four years between 1959 and ’62 — he also sallied forth to Malaya in ’62 to help the Indian juniors’ team bag the team championship trophy of the Malaya School Sports Council. He was to win the Inter-University championship for Allahabad University that year.
After clearing his Intermediate examination in Arts from the UP Board of Higher Secondary & Inter Education the same year, Goel decided to forsake any further studies and, in May 1963, joined the Diesel Locomotive Works of the Indian Railways, where he was to remain all his life. While he had been slim and athletic looking as a teenager, he began putting on a substantial amount of weight into his 20’s, though it never really told on his on-court performances.
Goel was to bag five National open singles titles between 1962-63 (when he was only 19 years of age) and 1970-71. The fifth and final one of these was the last singles crown that any player other than Prakash Padukone and Syed Modi was to win for the next 17 years until Modi was murdered in July 1988.
Moving into the paired event when he found his singles powers slowly waning, Goel was to bag two National doubles titles in his illustrious career — at Madras in 1971-72 with Dipu Ghosh, and in 1975-76 with Leroy D’Sa. He formed a lethal mixed doubles combination with Railways team-mate Maureen Mathias-D’Souza, taking the National crown thrice in a reel from 1974-75 to 1976-77.
Goel could so easily have been the first Asian champion in 1965. Having won three consecutive National singles titles between 1962-63 and ’64-65, and usurped Nandu Natekar as the country’s top singles player, he was one of the forerunners for the stellar title at the first Asian Badminton Confederation Championships in Lucknow in 1965.
He was seeded No.7 in a star-studded field, but cocked a snook at the seeding committee by knocking out the top seeded Malaysian player Yew Cheng Hoe in a three-game thriller that many who witnessed it consider to be one of the finest ever matches seen in this country.
That pitted him against fellow-countryman Khanna in the semi-final. “Suresh had beaten me on several occasions earlier, but probably the physical and emotional strain of beating Cheng Hoe made him rather flat in his match against me,” says Khanna.
Knowing the returning machine’s ploy of prolonging the rallies in an effort to tire him out, Goel went on an all-out offensive and tried to hit smashes from even improper positions — which proved disastrous. He committed numerous mistakes, and Khanna waltzed through the match in straight games to make the final and create history.
It was fitting that, within a few months of being honoured with the Arjuna Award, the then 25-year-old Goel won the fourth of his five National singles titles in the 1967-68 Nationals at Madras in February 1968. His victim in the final was his Railways team-mate, Dipu Ghosh; and he wrapped up the match with minimal fuss in less than half an hour.
S. Thyagarajan, who covered the event for the sports weekly `Sport & Pastime’ (the predecessor of `Sportstar’ from the same `The Hindu’ stable), wrote about the oft-crowned champion’s playing style, “What strikes one about Goel is the grace and ease with which he moves across the court.
“Endowed with a wide range of strokes, Goel is a picture of elegance while he executes the backhand crosscourt strokes. Added to this, he has a fine, unflappable temperament; and on the court, he is neither fidgety nor phlegmatic. This he proved when he met the ebullient left-hander Satish Bhatia in the semi-final.
“The dashing Air Force officer came to the court after having lowered the colours of the skilful Romen Ghosh in a pulsating tussle, but Goel went about his task in a business-like fashion. With his artful placings, he kept the usually hard-hitting Bhatia on a subdued note right through. Bhatia’s overhead smashes never disturbed his tranquility.”
By the mid-1970s, however, Goel was being increasingly troubled by his steadily expanding girth which prevented him from moving as well on the court as he would have liked. “Dad was troubled by the fact that he was slowing down on the court; and he did not like to think that his singles career was behind him,” recalls his son Ravi. “He then began something he had avoided all his life — physical training.”
While doing spot skipping at the K. D. Singh ‘Babu’ Stadium in Lucknow on 13th April 1978, the 34 year old Suresh Goel collapsed, and could not be revived. It was diagnosed at the hospital that he had died instantly from a cardiac arrest. How ironic it was that this large-hearted player should find that very organ failing him in his hour of greatest need!
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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