Past Masters of Indian Badminton: Syed Modi, the artistic Suresh Goel clone
Modi was a pure, natural talent. He had a superb backhand, by virtue of which he could send the shuttle to any corner of the opponent’s court, no matter how late he connected the shuttle.
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.
Prepare for a bombshell. Not the fact that eight-time national badminton champion Syed Modi was brutally gunned down in July 1988 at the age of 25, or that those accused of the dastardly crime were eventually set free. The shocker, for Indian badminton aficionados, is that the winner of eight National men’s singles titles in an unbroken reel between 1980 and ’87 was not Syed Modi. That was not his real name.
“Syed is our family surname,” says elder brother Abid, who was the fourth boy in a brood of eight, comprising six brothers and two sisters. “Modi was the youngest in the family, but his real name was Mehdi. While playing a junior tournament in Mumbai, his name was wrongly enlisted as ‘Modi’, which thereafter stuck to him.”
It also explained why even his wife Ameeta (nee Kulkarni) would refer to him as 'Modi', rather than 'Syed', which everyone in badminton circles erroneously thought was his first name.
Even his greatest rival at national level, Kerala’s U Vimal Kumar was amazed when this item of information about Modi’s nomenclature was imparted to him more than three decades later since their last match in the course of a chat with this writer on 3 April 2020.
Whatever one chose to call him, there was simply no denying Modi’s badminton pedigree. “He was a classy, instinctive, naturally talented player, who showed a high degree of intelligence when playing tough matches, particularly within the country, where he simply refused to get beaten during the course of the 1980s,” says Vimal, who lost by the narrowest of narrow margins (17-18 in the third game, after leading 16-13) to Modi in the finals of the Jamshedpur Nationals in 1987.
“I noticed a particular habit of his when he was in a tight situation, and badly needed a few points. He would run his palm across the hair at the back of his head, against the direction of the hair – which would make it stand up, and give him a sort of spiky tuft. The moment that happened, I knew I was doomed, and that I would be unable to extract a further point from him,” says a rueful Vimal. “I don’t know why, but it became a sort of hoodoo for me; and I lost to him many, many times after I saw him stroke his back hair upwards during a match!”
Vimal, after losing two National finals to Modi, was finally crowned national champion for the two years immediately following Modi’s assassination, an act that deprived the Uttar Pradesh player of the opportunity of drawing level with Prakash Padukone for the distinction of winning nine National singles titles on the trot.
Mehdi or as it turned out to be, Modi, was born on last day of the year 1962 in a lower middle-class Muslim family in the town of Sardarnagar, just over five kilometers away from Chauri Chaura in Uttar Pradesh. Modi happened to be one of three members of the four-member UP state junior badminton team to have their birthday fall on 31 December 1962. Age fudging was rife in those days; and it is widely believed that Modi was actually a couple of years older than his school-sponsored birth certificate showed.
Modi was the youngest child in a brood of eight siblings. Four of the boys played badminton. There was a six-year age difference between him and Abid Syed, fourth eldest among the six brothers. Abid also went on to play for the state team for several years.
“All us boys went to the same school at Sardarnagar, about 25 km from Gorakhpur,” says Bakar Syed, the second eldest of the four brothers who played badminton. “There was a badminton hall owned by Sardar Surinder Singh Majithia, who was president of the UP Badminton Association. That is where Modi picked up the game.”
Eldest brother Pyare and Abid combined to teach the game's tenets to their prodigiously talented younger brother, Modi and hone his game to the extent that he began playing like Suresh Goel. Quite surprisingly, there was no formal coaching received by Modi from Goel, though everyone invariably compared their playing styles.
It is possible that Modi gradually imbibed the finer aspects of Goel’s style and strokes, since the two were pitted against each other quite a bit. With both being in the Railways team and playing regularly together, Modi would have derived plenty of inspiration to pick up the footwork and fluid strokeplay of the maestro. There was also some informal coaching from P K Bhandari and another illustrious Railwayman, Dipu Ghosh.
The boy was barely 10 years old when he was selected to play for the state at senior level. However, he was summarily packed off from the training camp with the remark that he was far too young to be attending a camp at that level. Nevertheless, he proceeded in 1975 to the Junior Nationals in Calcutta, where he won the Under-18 singles at the age of 13. It was a title he was to retain for the next two years.
Thereafter, at 16, he decided not to compete among the juniors, but set his sights on winning the open singles title at the Nationals, dominated at the time by Padukone, and also playing for the country in the Thomas Cup. Modi was to complete his graduation from Baba Raghavdas Degree College in Arts with History and Sociology as his electives, but it remained a degree on paper in his career.
It did not take Modi too long to achieve both his objectives. He was still a junior when he was inducted into the Thomas Cup team, but he had to taste defeat at the hands of Prakash in two Nationals before he turned the tables on his famed adversary in the 1980-81 Vijayawada Nationals, to win the title for the first time.
The facile scoreline of 15-9, 15-8 left Prakash, who had come down from his training base in Copenhagen specifically to win the title for the tenth consecutive time, shell-shocked. There was nothing fluky about the victory; and Modi went on to do the same over the course of next eight years.
A singles gold medal at the 1982 Commonwealth Games in Brisbane was one of the notable achievements of his career; he won the title match at the expense of England’s Nick Yates in three games. The same year, he bagged the men's singles bronze medal at the 1982 Asian Games in New Delhi.
While writing for The Illustrated Weekly of India, in January 1988 at the end of the Jamshedpur Nationals, India international Sanjay Sharma, who was Modi’s contemporary and team-mate, noted, “Modi epitomises grace, precision and economy of movement on the court. Never in a hurry, immaculate and precise, he moves as if on ball bearings – without a creak, and without a jerk.
“Eight national titles in a row since 1980 have proved beyond doubt that Syed is India’s No.1; in fact, he won the last National when both Padukone and Vimal participated. During these years, Modi had never lost to any Indian player, though his run of victories ended earlier this month when Vimal finally managed to beat him, albeit not in the Indian Nationals.”
Endowed with a slim waist but strong legs, thighs and calves, Modi’s upper body was thin and small in comparison to his contemporaries. His shoulder muscles appeared poorly developed, and he perennially walked round-shouldered, with a slight hunch. And he suffered from the same malady as Padukone i.e. inadequate smashing power.
But unlike Padukone, who worked hard on his game and physical fitness, Modi was a pure, natural talent. He had a superb backhand, by virtue of which he could send the shuttle to any corner of the opponent’s court, no matter how late he connected the shuttle. It was all exquisite timing, rather than power, which he was unable to generate, anyway. If one ignored Modi’s far slimmer figure, it was as if Goel was parading his talent on the court.
The perceptive Sharma dissected Modi’s game thus: “To expect negative points from Syed is like asking Shylock for an interest-free loan. His movements are balletic and almost poetry-like in motion when he is in full flow. Like Prakash, Syed’s anticipation is also extremely good. He never appears to be late for a shuttle and his stroke-connection is perfect. Syed is not much of an analyst and lets the game develop, but is quick to seize opportunities at the net which invariably give him easy openings to finish.”
Modi was equally adept at long rallies and short, quick ones. One of his main point-producing strokes was the forehand crosscourt half-smash which he would deliver after getting airborne. It was so accurate that the shuttle would graze the sidelines. Even though his rivals could see it coming, they rarely had time to react, and the shuttle would fall inches away from his opponent's fully stretched body.
There was a strong reason why, post-1983, Modi’s achievements abroad were negligible. He was content with his job as a Welfare Officer with North-eastern Railway, and had little ambition outside India. Sharma declared that, although Modi was extremely talented, he was also exceedingly lazy.
“At best, he could play one or two good matches for he was not, after 1983, fit enough to last the full course of a good tournament,” Sharma wrote. “Syed is not one for getting up early and doing the compulsory tortuous training that every self-respecting sportsman has to go through – as he has largely depended on his talent. And talent today does not take you far when everyone else is working night and day to get that extra bit of speed and strength.
“Apart from his innate laziness, another reason for Modi’s downfall is that he is today a very contented player – just happy beating the likes of Partho Ganguli, Vikram Singh, Vimal Kumar, Harjit Singh and me. And contentment in any top-class sportsman’s life is like a malignant cancer which eventually destroys him.
“Seriousness and the ability to rouse yourself and play your best under any circumstances and against any odds are prime ingredients of a pedigreed champion of world class. Padukone was definitely one. Syed, with his inborn talent, could have been better, but the chances are that, in spite of being much younger than Padukone, he has missed the bus to international acclaim.”
In his final four Nationals between 1984 and ’87, Modi came across Vimal on each occasion, either in the semi-final or final; and tamed the hard-hitter on each occasion. The final time, Modi beat Vimal was by the slender margin of 18-17 in the third game of a pulsating seesaw semi-final at Jamshedpur after both players had held match-point.
“One of the extremely poor decisions that Modi took in his career was to marry (Bombay girl) Ameeta Kulkarni in total defiance of his family members’ wishes,” recalls Abid Syed. “Nobody in the Syed household was in favour of the marriage, but Modi rode roughshod over us all, and we ended up having to accept it. It came as no surprise to us when we saw Ameeta’s feelings towards Modi cooling off, while he remained crazy about her.”
Ameeta and Modi had been thrown together when they were both part of the Indian team. It is not known exactly when they started developing strong feelings for each other but at the end of an international tournament in Lucknow, when the two won the singles titles at stake, they revealed to the world that they had been secretly married for a while. Modi accepted a Railway posting in Lucknow.
It was there that the great champion was cut down in his prime. Modi was still several months short of his 26th birthday when he was murdered on 23 July, 1988 as he came out of the K.D. Singh ‘Babu’ Stadium where he normally conducted his badminton practice. Seven bullets were pumped into him at close range by a gang of goons hired to do the job.
The scandal surrounding Modi's murder attracted worldwide attention and remains unsolved to this day, with those charged having been set free. For badminton, it was a terrible blow that such a wonderful talent had been cut down in the summer of his career, just when he had been poised to create records of his own.
After the shuttler’s death, the Railways honoured his memory by opening the Syed Modi Railway Stadium and auditorium at his native place, Gorakhpur. A badminton tournament was constituted in his memory, the Syed Modi Memorial. Lucknow played host each year to the All-India Syed Modi Badminton Championship, which metamorphosed into the 'Syed Modi International Challenge' in 2004, and into the 'Syed Modi Grand Prix' from December 2009.
The Indian badminton fraternity has thus been given reason to immortalise one of its most talented and accomplished sons. But all that the Syed family has been left with are a few moth-eaten albums and a handful of photographs and newspaper clippings that the family members have preserved to remind them of their unfortunate brother whose life was cut short in its prime.
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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