Much before Gopi Chand arrived on scene, it was S M Arif who trained local players to world recognition

Abhijit Sen Gupta
Abhijit Sen Gupta

In the last decade or so, Hyderabad has emerged as one of the leading centres of the sport of badminton in India. Several players from Hyderabad have gone on to win national and international honours. Saina Nehwal and P.V. Sindhu have won medals at the Olympic Games. They have made Hyderabad famous throughout the badminton world.

But we should not forget the man who made it all possible. He is the soft spoken and courteous S.M. Arif who struggled against all odds and helped to develop the sport in Hyderabad from the late 1970s. As a student, he was good at cricket, football, table tennis as well as badminton.

“I was the opening batsman for my club and I played against the fearsome Habib Khan who was then considered the fastest bowler in south India. He represented Hyderabad, Railways and Services in first class cricket. But later I gave up the other sports and focussed on badminton,” said Arif while talking to about his journey in sports.

“Later I obtained a diploma in coaching from NIS Patiala and became a coach. When I got a job as an NIS coach, I was sent to carry out a coaching assignment in Jammu and Kashmir. The facilities were minimal but I had the fire to achieve something. So I persuaded the state government to construct a suitable hall for badminton. After a successful six year stint there, I returned to Hyderabad in 1978,” said Arif.

“When I came here I found that here too I would have to struggle. I had about 75 children under my care but only three shuttles in the morning and three in the evening to train such a huge number of players. Nowadays we cannot imagine such a thing. Now there are so many sponsors and equipment is readily available. But back then it was a nightmare. Anyway, I did the best I could,” explained Arif.

“My trainees Manoj Kumar and Pravin Kumar were the first from Hyderabad and Andhra Pradesh to win international titles while playing abroad. All of us had to face huge obstacles in terms of finance and facilities. But we struggled and we overcame these problems many times,” said Arif.

Manoj Kumar And Praveen Kumar

“Apart from coaching in AP, I was also doing the same job for the Indian team. I was made me the Chief National coach in 1997. In the 1998 Commonwealth Games our players won two silver and two bronze medals and there was a noticeable surge in Indian badminton from there,” said Arif.

“But badminton had a good following in Hyderabad and there were good players even before I took charge. The Asian Badminton Confederation championship was held in Hyderabad in 1976 in which the world’s best shuttlers from China, Japan, Indonesia and India took part before huge crowds. People appreciated the fine skills of badminton legends such as Liem Swie King and Prakash Padukone. The tournament was organised by the erstwhile AP Badminton Association at the Lal Bahadur indoor stadium,” said Arif.

“One year, during the Krishna Khaitan memorial badminton ranking tournament for juniors, seven out of eight quarter finalists were my trainees. Later, at the 2002 National Games, our state gave an outstanding record breaking performance,” explained the coach.

One of Arif’s most successful trainees is Manoj Kumar who also faced and overcame many impediments on the way to the pinnacle of badminton glory. “It was Arif sir 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,” said Manoj.

“That camp had a huge impact. I won the sub junior title at Kota in Rajasthan and won the doubles title, also with Pravin. In the juniors category we met with success. Aniruddh and Sunil won the doubles title. Those victories opened the floodgates. It gave us confidence to win more titles later. In 1987 I reached the final of an international tournament in Russia. It was all due to Arif sir,” said Manoj.

“In 1990 I was ranked number one in singles and doubles. Madhumita Bisht and I won a tournament in Toulouse in France. Pravin and I were the runners up in the men’s doubles. I was the first player from AP to represent India in the prestigious All England championship. I was also eligible to play in the French Open championship and the Swedish Open. But I was told that the government of India will only provide air fare. All boarding and lodging expenses would have to be met by me. That was how it was back in those days,” lamented Manoj.

“There were plenty of talented players but no sponsorship. Even international quality equipment was difficult to obtain. Once when I went to participate in the Malaysian Open and Thailand Open tournaments, I brought back badminton rackets for several Indian players including Gopichand,” said Manoj.

“Unfortunately in 1991 there was a setback in my career. I suffered a ligament injury which put me out of action for a long time. But I fought my way back and won some titles after recoving from my injury. Later I coached the Indian junior team at the Junior World Cup. I took the Indian teams on tour to Europe including one to Denmark where a high standard for the game is set. But all said and done, I would give full credit to Arif sir because he was the person who started the badminton revolution in Hyderabad. We all owe him a lot,” concluded Manoj.

Abhijit Sen Gupta is a seasoned journalist who writes on Sports and various other subjects.

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