Past Masters of Indian Badminton: The Ghosh brothers — one of India’s deadliest doubles duos
The doubles record of the Ghosh brothers is exemplary. They were indisputably the best Indian doubles combination during the 1960s, reaching the National final on each and every occasion between 1963 and 1970, and winning the crown five times together.
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.
In spite of his phenomenal success as an outstanding doubles player, one of the very best in the history of badminton in India, it has always been a lament with Romen Ghosh that he was branded a doubles specialist; and that his singles prowess was not given the recognition it deserved. The Badminton Association of India (BAI) found his services as one half of the doubles combination with elder brother Dipu far too valuable in the Thomas Cup to risk putting him down for a singles slot.
“In 1970, I was officially ranked India No 1 in singles after beating my brother Dipu, Suresh Goel, Satish Bhatia and Dinesh Khanna,” Romen says. “And yet, the BAI never fielded me in the singles in international team ties. No doubt, I enjoyed doubles and proved my mettle at it, but I found it unfair that I was never considered for a singles berth.”
Perhaps the results of the Indian Nationals during that turbulent 1960s decade, when a host of quality shuttlers vied for the titles at stake, provide an indication of why the BAI showed this bias against Romen, a former Eastern India junior singles champion, national junior runner-up (to Dinesh Khanna in 1958) and also winner of the National veterans’ men’s singles title in 1988 after he had crossed the 45-year age mark.
Between the brothers, the slim, slight, ferret-like Dipu had a far superior National singles record, reaching the final on six occasions, but winning the crown just once – in 1969. On the other occasions that he reached the final, he found his outstretched hand to the trophy struck down by Nandu Natekar, Goel or Khanna.
Romen never made it to the national singles final, although he would lurk as a dangerous floater in the draw and invariably make the quarter-final or semi-final stage, with an upset or two along the way. He did win the triple crown (a sweep of the singles, doubles and mixed titles in the same tournament) in the Central India Championships on several occasions, accounting for virtually all of his top contemporaries. But somehow, he could not replicate that performance in the Nationals.
However, the doubles record of the two brothers is exemplary. They were indisputably the best Indian doubles combination during the 1960s, reaching the National final on each and every occasion between 1963 and 1970, and winning the crown five times together.
In addition, the Ghosh brothers won the National men’s doubles title once each with different partners – Romen with fellow-Railwayman Chandrakant Deoras in 1968 when Dipu was hospitalised after a scooter accident; and Dipu with Suresh Goel in 1971, at the expense of Satish Bhatia and Romen, after the latter had quit the Railways and hence could not partner his brother.
Perhaps the Ghosh boys were destined to rule the roost in Indian badminton. Dipu and Romen were the eldest and third, respectively, in a coterie of five brothers, the sons of Railways officer Sushil Kumar and his wife Kamala. All five ended up becoming West Bengal state champions.
Romen’s birth took place in Bareilly, where his father was stationed at the time. Dipu and Gora, second among the boys, followed the example of their parents, and took to playing badminton. They were winner and runner-up respectively in the 1956 Junior Nationals. Shortly thereafter, Gora joined the Indian Air Force and faded away from the badminton scene.
Romen initially lived in his brothers’ shadow, but fought his way into the sunlight in 1958 when he won the junior singles title in the Eastern India Championship in a tournament where the men’s singles crown was captured by Denmark’s seven-time All-England champion Erland Kops.
In those days, Kops would come from his home country almost every year to participate in tournaments in India. He was to win the triple crown in the 1959 Nationals, shortly after which foreigners were banned from participating in the event. “So impressed was Kops with my game and style that he presented me with one of his rackets,” says Romen, with justifiable pride.
Dipu and Romen would practice together regularly, both singles and doubles; and this became a set routine when Dipu persuaded his younger brother to join him in the Indian Railways in 1961. “Dipu was always a better singles player than me, though I did beat him a couple of times in representative tournaments,” Romen says.
“I was one of the few players to have a superior career record against Goel. If we played against each other ten times, I would beat him six to seven times. We were together in Diesel Locomotive Works (DLW) and practised together. He was a die-hard stroke-player, whereas I relied on speed and power. Once you learnt his strokes, his venom was drawn.
“I used to watch him narrowly, and managed to learn his game through and through, whereas there was little he could learn from me! He was also short in the stamina stakes. Since we were in the same department, there was professional rivalry, and a question of promotion.”
Dipu would boast that there was no player in the world who could match him in netplay. He was very swift to pounce on anything even marginally above the tape, and had variety in his net strokes – he could dribble sharp, cut the shuttle crosscourt across the net and flick the bird back because he reached the net a split-second ahead of others.
When the two brothers started playing together regularly, Dipu would be the playmaker, creating the rallies with intricate manoeuvres at the net; also pressing the shuttle down on his opponents’ bodies and inducing them to lift the bird, while Romen employed his power-packed smash from the back.
“There were rallies in which I have hit 30-40 smashes. This would happen if you needed to win a point against Danish pairs like Svend Pri and Per Walsoe, who came to India in 1969 to play a few tournaments, and were strong defenders,” says Romen. That was the time the durable RSL shuttle was introduced in India; until then, Indian shuttles had stood little chance in the face of Romen’s ferocious power, and would buckle and lose shape after just three to four smashes.
The Danes, Pri and Walsoe, had been runners-up at the All-England; and Dipu and Romen beat them in two successive tournaments in Delhi and Lucknow.
In the 1969 Thomas Cup campaign, the Ghosh brothers had the distinction of taking a doubles match away from the supremely powerful Indonesian team, which had in its ranks the All-England champion pair of Christian Hadinata-Ade Chandra and Mintarja-Indratno.
The fact that the Ghosh brothers were made for each other in the doubles department was brought home to the BAI the hard way when its ploy of breaking up their combination, and pairing Romen with Natekar in the 1965 Asian Championships, came badly unstuck. The two could not combine, and were ousted at the quarter-final stage. Thereafter, the BAI stopped interfering in the brothers’ desire to pair up regularly.
In 1968, Dipu was the victim of a horrendous accident when a truck cannoned into his scooter from the rear as he was on his way to the Garden Reach court for badminton practice. Dipu was dragged some distance, and his right thigh was badly mangled. Bleeding profusely, he was rushed to the nearest Railway hospital, some 8 km away. He was in the hospital for seven months, and the doctors had categorically ruled out a return to badminton.
But the hardy Bengali came back with a vengeance, and, in fact, achieved that one goal which he had been unable to, until that point – winning the 1969 National singles crown in his home town of Calcutta. His victim in the final was Suresh Goel, after he had laid low in the semi-final the doughty returning machine, Dinesh Khanna. These were results he was simply not expected to achieve in the wake of the scooter accident the year before.
That was the only time Dipu was able to inscribe his name on the Vikas Topiwala Challenge Cup, symbol of supremacy in the National men’s singles. He had earlier reached the National final on five occasions, but always found Goel, Natekar or Khanna barring his path to the trophy.
“With the kind of speed he had, particularly at the net, Dipu should have been a regular thorn in my flesh,” says Natekar. “Surprisingly, I always managed to beat him, often by keeping him away from the net. In fact, in the 1965 Nationals, which were my swansong, as far as singles was concerned, I was really elated when Dipu beat Dinesh Khanna in the semi-final. I always had trouble with Dinesh, but managed to have the measure of Dipu in the title clash.”
Romen feels that Dipu’s lack of success against Natekar was due to a combination of factors – the absence of a killer smash in Dipu’s armoury, combined with Natekar’s greater repertoire of strokes, consistency and control over the shuttle from the backcourt.
In the Thomas Cup tie held at Jaipur in 1969, India were beaten by a 7-2 scoreline by badminton powerhouse Indonesia, which had the world’s top three singles players, the then reigning All-England singles champion Rudy Hartono, Darmadi and Muljadi in their ranks.
Hartono handed out a love-game to Khanna, but the doughty retriever came back strongly to win a singles against Muljadi. And Dipu and Romen pulled out a doubles point against Mintarja and Indratno.
“That was one of the best matches of my career,” says Romen. “It was heartening that we could win two matches against one of the strongest Thomas Cup teams in history. It was a more respectable scoreline than the 9-0 hammering that Denmark received in the final at the hands of the rampaging Indonesians.”
Among other memorable victories for the Ghosh brothers were two against Danish All-England runners-up Svend Pri and Per Walsoe when they came to India (as recounted earlier); one against Punch Gunalan and Ng Boon Bee of Malaysia on the latter’s home ground; and one against the hard-hitting Malaysians, Tan Yee Khan and Boon Bee, winners of the All-England doubles title in 1966.
While Dipu quit playing competitive badminton relatively early in 1973 and moved into coaching, Romen continued playing open events and the Indian Nationals as a representative of Orissa state until 1982 when he was closing in on his 40th year.
Romen quit the Railways in 1970, while Dipu continued with the public sector undertaking throughout his career in India; and only took voluntary retirement in 1990. “Dipu would get special leave and dispensation from the Railways to undertake his coaching stints abroad after he quit the competitive scene in 1973,” Romen says.
Dipu was Iran’s national coach during the 1974 Asian Games held in Tehran. He was to also coach the Indian team before the 1982 Asiad in New Delhi, but left in a huff after he was unceremoniously supplanted by TPS Puri mid-way through the camp. For the last quarter of a century, he has been stationed in Akranes (near Reykjavik), coaching the Iceland national team.
Romen, during this period has guided the fortunes of state teams like West Bengal, Assam, Bihar, Orissa and even Punjab; and, at the start of the new millennium, became a certified coach of the Sports Authority of India (SAI). Since late-2009, he has been active in helping his younger brother Robin run a specialist school in Pune.
Slim and wiry until 2007, Romen was involved in a three-year battle with prostate cancer, and ended up putting on a fair amount of weight which he tried desperately to shed by taking long walks on the campus of his brother’s school. The former international is today closing in on his 78th birthday.
“Perhaps if I could get over the mental block induced by my illness, and return to badminton, I would get back to my ideal weight in a jiffy,” he smiles, a little ruefully. “I can’t think of any other game that would restore anyone to fitness so quickly!”
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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