Fort Kochi has a lot of things to look out for. It has a beckoning feel about it, of things old and fascinating, others new and delightful. There are also too many things that are lost in Fort Kochi and waiting to be rediscovered. That's where I found myself after many years of trying to figure out if ball badminton is played anywhere any longer.
By sheer luck, the morning paper had mentioned in the Engagements column that the Kerala State Ball Badminton tournament was being held there. No name of venue was given, nor any reportage. It was the newspaper's way of saying, "Don't bother, it is a dying game anyway."
Not many people have seen this game called ball badminton. It originated in Tanjore in Tamil Nadu more than a century back and was patronised by the local kings. It remained a South Indian game, and thrived from the 1960s onwards before youngsters lost interest in it, though it was an inexpensive game and could be played in any maidan.
All that was needed was its peculiarly quaint woollen ball, the same size as a table tennis ball, and racquets similar to those used in badminton. Unlike the shuttle, the fluffy yellow woollen ball lasted for long, but the game lost its attraction after India took to shuttle badminton in a big way.
The five-a-side game has an underhand serve which the server executes alternately from the left and right sides of the court -- as in tennis. The winning team has to score 35 points to win, in a scoring pattern similar to badminton with best-of-three sets.
The woollen ball flies off the racquet with just a meagre touch, so the only possible shot is the slice or the touch. Experts, of course, played the sliced smash, but watching the game is a bit boring since aggression is absent and there is a limit to touch artistry that can be admired. The woollen ball has a tendency to go haywire so it needs to be treated with care and any attempt to smash it around will cause a bit of trouble.
Without the sunlight of publicity, money and, most importantly, television, ball badminton slowly faded from popular imagination. Nowhere in the country can you see the game being played now; up to the 1980s, it was a feature in maidans and clubs. In Trivandrum (now Thiruvananthapuram) where I watched the game for many years, it was played in the National Club, just behind the state secretariat, apart from colleges in the city. Its decline began about 25 years back when TV was becoming big and other games stole its thunder.
When I finally reached the maidan hosting the ball badminton state championship, what I saw surprised me. At least six matches were on simultaneously. Being a state championship, it was an inter-district affair. Occasional shouts of dismay could be heard from the courts. Too many yellow fluffy balls were flying around. I found my way to a huge stage where the office bearers were seated.
N. Harikumar is secretary of the Kerala Ball Badminton Association (KBBA), and is in charge of physical education in a college in Kottayam. He is the man who holds aloft a game struggling to survive. He has no qualms in admitting that the game has hit the skids.
"The game has lost its relevance. No one comes to college having played the game. Badminton is more physical and youngsters prefer that. Also, there is no TV that shows the game," he said. The teams in the tournament were formed with young boys and girls hurriedly put together, made to practice a couple of weeks. They all come in the hope of getting a certificate in a sport still recognised by the Kerala Sports Council.
Harikumar introduced me to other officials who are involved in keeping the game alive. P.D. Verghese, who is the district secretary, has been involved with the game for 24 years. "The game is totally ignored by the media," he said ruefully. Only one company in Chennai makes the woollen balls and the racquets. No other country is known to play the game any longer.
They summoned Nissar, who was once a "Star of India" -- a medal awarded by the KBBA to the best players of the game every year. "It is a game that is difficult to learn," he says. He points to the difficulty in controlling the ball, the deft touches required. It is not easy to learn the spin serve, for instance, most players say. It needs patience to learn to control the ball. But all games are difficult to master and it sometimes takes a lifetime.
Among the the biggest stars Kerala or the game in India has seen was John Venchislavos, who ruled the game from 1969 to 1989. His brother, T.J. Joseph, tells me how much love he and his brother had for the game and how much time they spent playing it. In fact, in and around the place I was sitting talking about the decline of ball badminton was where the game took root in Kerala.
The success of the game and its growth from the 1960s onwards can be traced to the family of John and Joseph based in Panampally Nagar in Ernakulam. Almost all members of the family played the game at the national level and the family won the Star of India title 24 times, according to Sanal Thomas, who has written a history of sports in Kerala. In their time, John and Joseph were the best players of the game.
Kerala's rise in ball badminton, parallel to that of Tamil Nadu, was mainly due to the the support of Sait Nagjee, who conducted a tournament in Kozhikode from the 1930s onwards. Because of this tournament, the game garnered popularity in the Malabar region in north Kerala, where a slew of smaller ball badminton tournaments were held.
When did the eclipse of the game start? Definitely during the 1980s, when two other games -- cricket and badminton -- took over the imagination of young India. Both due to world championship titles. In that circumstance, ball badminton, which was fully Indian, had no scope or hope. No one saw a future in the game.
In that Fort Kochi maidan, it did not seem that ball badminton was dead. About a hundred school and college students representing the districts were busy with their matches. There was no audience -- even in a sports crazy city where soccer and cricket are the the opium of the masses. No one was bothered. There were no reporters. Only me, greatly excited seeing ball badminton after so many years. And the young man selling fresh water melon juice at the gates. Below the stage, the players had started lining up for chicken curry and rice doled out from big cauldrons.
Harikumar says that the game still has hope. Some colleges have started playing it and the Kerala Sports Council has notified a couple of schools near Thiruvananthapuram as centres for ball badminton. While there are no tournaments, the state championships are held every year. And so too the nationals -- which was held this year in Gurugram, in faraway Haryana. Not surprisingly, no newspaper reported the event.
Ball badminton has become a ghost of a game. Existing in that twilight zone of death and rebirth, unsure of the future, just murmuring the legends and lore of the past.
(Binoo John is a senior journalist. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)