Dronacharya and Padma Shri awardee Syed Mohammed Arif is celebrating his 78th birthday today. The story of his career is one of a long and successful saga of service to the nation. He is the man who made Hyderabad and India famous throughout the badminton world. If Indian players have reached the top international levels today, it is because long ago, Arif sahab had the vision and determination to develop the sport from the grassroots level.
No doubt Arif had the assistance of other coaches to whom he always gives credit, but he is the one who has served for a very long time and brought up players like P. Gopichand (who is now the national coach himself), Saina Nehwal, Jwala Gutta and others. On his birthday, greetings and good wishes poured in for him from all these players and fans from all over India and abroad who remembered fondly the commitment and zeal of their beloved coach.
Personalities from other sports too joined in to greet the famous veteran including former Indian football captain and coach Shabbir Ali who is a Dhyan Chand award winner.
It was not all smooth sailing for Arif. Like any other coach he too had to face and overcome many hurdles including official apathy. Moreover, not all players are disciplined and systematic. Some may be extremely talented but may also be temperamental. A good coach must know how to bring out the best from each member of a team. He must know when to be tough and when to be lenient. Years of experience gave Arif the knowledge and wisdom to become an excellent coach.
One of his students, the former national number one ranked player Manoj Kumar who was the first player from the then united Andhra Pradesh to represent India in the prestigious All England championship, said that Arif was a soft spoken man who never lost his cool. But that did not mean that he was not strict. He could enforce discipline in his own way.
“I remember that on one occasion when he had asked me to report for training at the Lal Bahadur Indoor Stadium at 5.55 a.m. I reached the venue before that time but I thought I would have a quick cup of tea before starting my practice. So I went to the Jannat cafe (which was located outside the indoor stadium) and had tea before going inside. Therefore, I may have been a couple of minutes late. Perhaps it became 5.57 a.m. or 5.58 a.m. When I went to Arif sahab and said ‘Good Morning Sir’, he ignored me and did not acknowledge my greeting. A few minutes later, quietly and calmly, he told me that I will not be allowed to practice that day. The next day I should report at 5.55 a.m. sharp. Not even one minute late,” recalled Manoj.
“That incident taught me two things. Firstly, time was extremely important to Arif sahab and he wanted his trainees to follow his instructions precisely. Secondly it taught me that I could not afford to take him lightly. Without raising his voice or creating a scene, he made me realise what obedience and discipline mean. After that incident I was never late for a single training session,” said Manoj.
“Moreover, what he told his trainees, he followed himself. If he was late for any assignment, even by a minute, he would mark himself absent or on leave. He would continue to work throughout the day but in the official register, he would be marked as being on leave. He sacrificed his leave days like that if he was even one minute late for work,” added Manoj.
“It was his attitude and his principles that made us his big fans. He treated himself just as strictly as he treated us. And all this he did without losing his cool. I have never met any other coach like Arif sir. It was he who opened our minds. He made us think big and showed us how to accomplish significant success. In 1984 Arif sir took a one year long coaching camp for me, Pravin Kumar, Sunil Jyothi and Aniruddh Rao which changed our careers thereafter,” said Manoj.
This writer has known Arif sahab for more than 40 years. When I greeted him on his birthday and asked him if he had any word of advice for his trainees, he would say: “Birthdays come and go, people come and go, but what remains for tomorrow is the work that you have done today. So in your work you must be nothing less than perfect.”
These are wonderful words of guidance from a coach of immense stature. Let us wish Arif sahab a long life and may he bless us with his wisdom and advice for many years to come.