2022 Commonwealth Games | Down the memory lane with Dinesh Khanna
Born in Fatehgarh Churian, Punjab, ace shuttler Dinesh Khanna emerged as a top men's singles player during the '60s and '70s, when the Malaysians and Indonesians ruled the roost. In a career spanning over 15 years, he won gold and bronze at the Asian Championship and a bronze at CWG 1966.
Every sport in India has a distinct history, and badminton is no different. Back in the '60s, when wrestling, hockey, and maybe cricket caught all the attention, this racket sport was making its humble beginnings. While it is not a big deal to see the Indian players as the best in the world now, that was not the case around 60 years earlier, when we just had a handful of international players.
But former player Dinesh Khanna could be the one, who changed it all around for Indian badminton. In a time when getting a medal at the Commonwealth Games was not that easy, Khanna, with his bronze in the men's singles at the 1966 Kingston edition, put the country on the badminton map. The veteran, 79, travels back all these years, to give a sense of how he achieved what might have looked like an improbable task then.
The road to the CWG medal was long but Khanna managed to relive all the moments with his crystal-clear memory. It all started in 1963 for him when during an inter-state competition, he suffered a knee injury, and the chances of him recovering enough to play again were only 50%. His knee was operated on, in early 1964, and a splint was used to keep his leg straight for weeks. But the injury did not let his form dip, as he won the Nehru Memorial tournament and the 1965 Asian Championship too, which no other Indian has won to date. In fact, he also appeared in two selection events to prove his fitness and made the semis of both events.
The buildup to CWG
"I reached the semifinals of both these selection tournaments and of course, I was quite happy in the sense that my knee was at least functioning properly. I got selected as the fourth player for India, at the Asian Championship in '65 which was held at Lucknow. Prior to that, I won the Nehru Memorial which just followed the Asian Championship, and all the players who played in the Asian Championships participated in that tournament," Khanna told SportsCafe in an exclusive chat. "Both these tournament wins were just important to show that they were no flash-in-the-pan wins," he continued.
"At the Asian Championship, I beat Yew Cheng Hoe of Malaysia, who went on to win the silver at 1966 CWG. The same year, I played All England and reached the semifinals. So, all in all, this was my performance or achievement leading to the Commonwealth Games." Now these performances prior to the CWG meant that he was an obvious choice for the event, and in fact had also received a seeding, as Khanna recalls.
"I was seeded, I don’t remember, must be 3rd or 4th or could have been 2nd also. So there was obviously a lot of excitement, to be part of the CWG for the first time. I mean, badminton was debuting at the Games, and naturally, every player was looking forward to it. Initially, it was decided that four players and one official will participate in badminton. Meanwhile, due to budget constraints, we had to cut short the size of the team to three. Finally, no official was sent but Nandu Natekar went as a player as well as a manager/official. Suresh Goel, Nandu Natekar, and I made the final team.
At the Kingston CWG Village
Khanna also narrated how the badminton players loved sporting the India tracksuits for the very first time in their careers. Before that, badminton was not part of such global events. So for him and other shuttlers, from shorts to tracksuits, it was a visible change. "You know, this was the first time we were interacting with the other sports which we had never done. And I must also say in a lighter way, that was the first time we had used tracksuits. Before that badminton players never used them; we used to be in our shorts and wear our normal pants before going onto the court. That was something unusual for us, definitely."
How the Tournament Unfolded
Malaysia's Tan Aik Huang was one of the best players in the world at that time, and Khanna was drawn in the same half as him. He was in sublime form coming into the tournament and had won the All England too, before this. But nonetheless, Khanna did manage to make the semis, where he lost to him in straight games. In the bronze medal play-off, he faced off against Bob McCoig of Scotland to take home the bronze.
"When I won the medal, the bronze medal, India’s flag went up. And that was a proud moment for me. And when you feel that you are instrumental in bringing glory to the nation, it’s a great feeling undoubtedly. I mean, although it was a bronze medal but obviously the flag goes up for all medal winners. So it was an absolutely fantastic feeling.
"Our own contingent was very happy, not only badminton players but the athletes from other sports as well. Shot-putter and Mahabharta fame 'Bheem' Praveen Kumar was there and was visibly ecstatic. Then some wrestlers were there, some of them who’d won gold medals. I recall wrestler Bhim Singh was there to motivate me when I lost in the semis. So it was a great feeling that the contingent was there to cheer you and back you up and all that."
But obviously, those were different times, and celebrations were different too. Unlike today, where the entire nation rejoices, it was just a handful of people who knew what he had achieved. And Khanna's way of enjoying after the medal was to hit the beach with his pals and have Indian food.
"There was no partying actually. We were there even after the tournament was over because the other disciplines were still going on. Instead, there was an Indian family from Maharashtra who took us for some sightseeing, some tours, and outings on beaches. Then the Indian community there organized an event. A lot of Indians who were settled in Jamaica met us and offered us much-needed Indian food."
Straight from the Heart
While the CWG medal by Khanna has a special place in history, it is praise by Tan Aik Huang a few years back, that he holds closest to his heart. Huang had spoken about his CWG win to BBC a few years back, which also has the Indians' mention. And Khanna, of course, has the clipping from the interview saved in his phone, which reads, 'My semi-final match against Dinesh Khanna of India was not easy, even though I ended up winning in straight sets'.