It is the sixteenth day of the tenth month of 1978. The venue is Iqbal Park, Faisalabad. It is the first test between the two sides in 6454 days. The period saw the countries fight two wars. A dictator dethroned and another enthroned, a quasi-dictatorship enforced and then deposed on both sides of the border. The home country lost 15% of territory and 55% of population. That things were a lot different is an understatement. A skinny kid, 82 days before his 20th birthday, has the ball. The boy, who was chided by Indian cricket authorities citing "There are no fast bowlers in India" and refused food, runs in to bowl his first ball in test cricket. Facing him is the debonair Majid Khan and the youngest of the Mohammed brothers, Sadiq. Pakistan had played Australia & West Indies away in the preceding two years. They drew 1-1 against Lillee, Walker & Gilmour and lost an exceptionally tough series against Roberts, Garner and Croft 2-1. A battle-hardened side, very acclimatized to pace bowling.

Sadiq faces a couple of balls from the boy who would soon become more famous as the Haryana Express. He had come to bat in a cap. He assumed what anyone typically assumed about Indian folk: What can a kid who eats dal and chawal bhaji do? What can he do that Lillee, Roberts & Garner could not? Wrong assumption. Sadiq turns to the dressing room and signals for a helmet. Indian cricket would not be the same again. A team that used those express pace bowlers, Gavaskar and Solkar to take the shine off the ball so that the spin quartet can go to work was changed for the better. Safe to say that India would not have the pace bowling pool of Zaheer, Irfan, RP Singh, Nehra etc in the early to mid 00s and the current crop of Ishant, Umesh, Bhuvi, Shami et al without the success of Kapil Dev Ram Lal Nikhanj. His numbers (compared to Imran, Hadlee & Botham) are merely good but he showed India can do short pitched stuff. He showed we can also produce sultans of swing. He showed a country so used to spin that even a new ball can be used to produce wickets. 

A Haryanvi dude showed India can also play chin music and take the battle to West Indies. Likewise a Haryanvi dudette showed India can go toe to toe with the Chinese speedsters who had dominated the shuttle world for the best part of three decades. Saina Nehwal is a national treasure and deserves more appreciation just for making badminton a viable sport in a cricket mad nation. As a 16 year old she won silver in the junior world championship losing to her future rival (and nemesis) Wang Yihan. She did one better two years later becoming the first Indian shuttler to become a junior world champion. As an 18 year old, she became the first Indian shuttler to reach the quarterfinals at the Beijing Olympics. She went one better at London Olympics giving India her first ever medal in Badminton. Days after turning 25, she became the first ever and so far the only Indian woman shuttler to be ranked world number 1. 

First Individual Medal in Badminton

No 1 Ranked Badminton Players in Saina's Era

Titles (W-F) Olympics (W-F) BWF WC (W-F) BWF SS Finals (W-F) SS Premier (W-F) SS (W-F) W-L
Wang Yihan 28-40 0-1 1-0 1-1 6-6 11-2 368-91
Li Xuerui 21-35 1-0 0-2 2-0 9-3 3-7 287-59
Saina Nehwal 20-27 0-0 (Bronze) 0-1 0-1 3-3 7-1 361-152
Wang Shixian 15-26 0-0 0-0 1-1 3-3 8-6 284-87
Tai-Tzu Ying 13-20 0-0 0-0 2-3 3-5 5-3 259-122
Carolina Marin 10-17 1-0 2-2 0-0 2-3 3-3 281-87
BWF WC: BWF World Championships
BWF SS Finals: BWF Superseries Year-End Finals
SS Premier: Superseries Premier
SS: Superseries

From the table it is clearly evident that Saina Nehwal has been one of the best players in the world for the best part of 10 years. Like Captain Kirk, she has gone where no (Indian) woman had gone before. The only big Superseries Premier title missing from her kitty is the All-England championships. She has won Denmark, Indonesia and China. From 1986-2015, Saina was one of only two non-Chinese women to have won the China open. Sindhu has since joined this exclusive club. Her list of firsts as an Indian shuttler deserves a Wikipedia page of its own.

  • First Indian badminton player to win an Olympic medal
  • First Indian badminton player to win Junior World Championships
  • First Indian badminton player to win Silver at the World Championships
  • First Indian badminton player to win Silver at the Year-End Championships
  • First Indian women's badminton player to win a Superseries title
  • First Indian women's badminton player to be ranked no 1
This is not to say she is without flaws. Her inability to close-out, especially in the big games against top opponents is slightly sub par but it is not like she is blessed with much natural ability. For example, she lacks the effortless power of her fellow citizen Sindhu and the natural racquet skills of Wang Yihan or Li Xuerui but her dedication and effort made her an opponent no one liked to face. This despite being undersized (5'5") compared to her peers, Wang Yihan (5'10"), Li Xuerui (5'9"), Carolina Marin (5'8"), Sindhu (5'11"). Also, with the lack of advanced coaching her Oriental counterparts get, she held her own against rivals with many advantages. Compared to her "acronymical" tennis compatriot, Saina has almost single-handedly put Indian badminton on the map in a sport usually dominated by Sino-Scandinavians. But she hasn't received even a fraction of the accolades Sania Mirza gets from the Indian populace.

Robert Johnson was a blues guitarist who apparently sold his soul to the devil to achieve success. His guitar playing might sound pedestrian today to the average listener but he was one of the pioneers of blues music. He was a huge influence on Eric Claption, who is indubitably a fantastic guitar player. If Robert Johnson hadn't played the blues, Slowhand mightn't have even picked a guitar. Likewise without Saina, we may not have had Sindhu!

The recent rise and rise of Sindhu has almost made us forget how good Saina was. It seems more and more likely that Sindhu will end her career as the greater player but it is also undeniable that Saina paved the way and made it much easier for her by making the world respect and even fear Indian shuttle players. As her career winds down, let us hope she can sign off on a high. Here's to Saina Nehwal, who overcame many odds to make the world take notice of Indian badminton, a true inspiration in a sport that did not have much of it.


  1. Great tribute to Saina, one of the greatest sportspersons Indian has produced. Well written. She's in the class of my cillege days hero, Prakash Padukone. In fact Saina has done one better by inspiring many youngsters like P.Kashyap, Sindhi, Kidambi Srikanth and many more. India is now a force to reckon with in world badminton, challenging the Chinese supremacy.


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