Dev S Sukumar. London
March 7: When the All England Open Badminton Championships begin tomorrow (Tuesday), it will be a momentous occasion not just for badminton, but all sport. For the All England turns 100 — marking a journey that is of great significance to followers of the game.
Unlike many other tournaments, the All England is not just an event, it is rather a marker of time, of evolution. The All England is so closely associated with the development of badminton that to study the tournament would be a miniature study of the game, for it has reflected most of the major changes that the game has undergone. Like Wimbledon in tennis, it has been associated with tradition and an older, purer form of sport. For traditionalists, it is of particular emotional import because it has been one constant in a world of change.
Badminton evolved from a pastime called Battedore and Shuttlecock sometime during the 1850s, preceding lawn tennis (or ‘sphairkstike’) by several years. By the 1870s the game was popular across England and its colonies in the sub-continent, especially in places like Karachi and Pune. Badminton clubs mushroomed in England, and it was only a matter of time before the first open tournament was held. This was a doubles tournament in March 1898 at Guildford, and the response was so enthusiastic that the organisers decided to conduct another one the next year. Thus, in 1899, was the All England Championships born, at the London-Scottish Drill Hall at Buckingham Gate in London, on April 4th. It took just one day for the matches to be completed.
That would be the only year the Championships were held at the Drill Hall, for it would then move to various locations in and around London, before arriving at the National Indoor Arena, Birmingham, in 1994.
Through most of its history, the All England would be the event that mattered to followers of the game. It was the unofficial world championships; and although an official version began in 1977, the All England continued to command unparalleled respect among all players.
The Indian interest in the All England dates back to 1947, when the newly-crowned national champion, Devinder Mohan, and runner-up Prakash Nath were sent; the money mobilised through private collections. This was the first post-War All England; no competition had been held from 1940 to 1946. The event was at Harringay Arena; the winter was ferocious and snow had deposited on the court through a leaky roof. To make matters worse, the wooden courts were laid on top of a skating rink and the snow had frozen. The two Indians reached the quarterfinals and — in an episode that would be recounted over generations — tossed a coin. Prakash Nath won the toss, beat his semifinal opponent, and entered the final. Unfortunately, on the morning of the final he read of Partition riots in his hometown Lahore, and was in no position to challenge Conny Jepsen of Sweden for the title.
Although other Indians — such as TN Seth, Nandu Natekar, Suresh Goel and Dinesh Khanna — contested the championships, each with varying degrees of succees, it was left to Prakash Padukone to eventually win the title for India in 1980. It is a measure of how important the All England is in Indian consciousness that his title triumph revolutionised the sport in India. Padukone often acknowledges that it is the All England, more than anything else (including his World Cup in 1981) that pitched badminton to the forefront in India.