What football is to Brazil or cricket to the West Indies, badminton has been to Indonesia. Indian cricket and English football are too insular and narcissistic as comparisons, but badminton at the Asian Games in Jakarta is as intense a crowd-experience as it can get in this sport. Indonesians are not content with success—that’s left to the Chinese.
It was an Eid treat on a mid-week holiday for some fans when their team went up against China in the team finals. Indonesians though, demand that their shuttlers make magic when the bird flies and it’s why they’ll flock to the Istora as the individual title race starts Thursday.
If they don’t and are seen exiting in first or second rounds, they get labelled as Mentokers – that delicious barb which literally means hitting a wall or being stuck. The more fancied the player, the more caustic the bullying tends to get in shuttle stadiums that can feel intimate and throbbing with fans’ tough love.
Then there’s the song and dance— whether Indonesia is playing or not. It is often said that 10 immigrant Indonesian voices —in any corner of the world, be it Copenhagen or Kuala Lumpur, Delhi or Doha —can drown out a thousand raucous rival fans. Yoo ayo, ayo Indonesia. Ku ingin, kita harus menang. (Come on, come on Indonesia. I want it, we have to win.)
It’s haka weds haiku, set to hip-shaking hymns. It’s never just the words, though. It’s always the aural effect of the Indonesians pouring their heart into getting their shuttlers to recreate Harry Houdini with their racquets. “Garuda on my chest, Garuda is my pride. I am sure today we will definitely win..” goes another ditty invoking the country’s mythical symbol, Garuda – the eagle.
“The song is about how the fans really want the team to win the game,” says Widya, the media coordinator for the Indonesian badminton federation. “There’s no title of this song, no one knows who wrote the song or when it started. Football fans in Indonesia also have similar songs. But let’s say in badminton stadiums, it’s just a little more insistent,” she laughs.
Between the biting advice and a sing-song savagery of these “insistent” songs, Indonesian badminton is a rollicking act. Chinese fans, though equally demanding, tend to be genteel. Malaysians have remained Lee Chong Wei-tragics, and always polite. Indonesians though express love for their shuttlers with high-decibel hearts.
It stems from the reality that Indonesia haven’t tasted much success in any other sport, while badminton they dominated like a boss. Barcelona 1992 was when the country revelled in two gold medals at the Olympics. But, the barmy adoration can be traced back to the 1960s when they followed first Denmark and then Malaysia as world-beaters. Badminton defined their nationalism, like hockey did for India.
The sport might have reached them through Chinese traders, but it was in the Thomas Cup finals right up to the 1980s that Indonesian fans acquired this ability to get behind the team like a tailwind for their 13 titles.
Ferry Sonneville was one of the first to see two shades of the fan’s love in Indonesia: they worshipped him when he led them to three Thomas Cup titles, but in 1967 he got booed as the crowds went berserk after he went down to the Malaysians and the tie was cut short for this unruly behaviour.
Tan Joe Hoek was the other player to help establish this Indonesian badminton dynasty, as he remained nationalistic in the face of several citizenship hurdles, and along with the touch-player Ferry brought the country’s shuttle to the fore.
Ferry’s exit coincided with Rudy Hartono’s emergence. Hartono was Indonesia’s greatest legend—adored to bits as he swept titles and played like a dream, even as doubles players with their innumerable combinations took the sport to dizzying levels, turning it into high art.
Players like Permadi and Muljadi (Prakash Padukone’s contemporaries) ensured that fans got used to singles artistry that effortlessly transcribed into achievement. Liem Swi King’s bazooka smash was not unknown to Indians who followed Padukone, but it was in this country that India’s first All England champion woke up to the idea that fitness and hard work had to supplement skill to grab those wins.
Indonesia was Padukone’s first foreign stint even before Denmark, and it was here that a burning ambition was chiselled by the excellence he saw around him.
The pedigree since the 40s and 50s brewed technical excellence but the joie de vivre amongst Indonesians came from being in love with a sport that saw them treat their racquets like wands. It’s something that the Chinese, despite their staggering success, haven’t always been associated with – also because of their dull but effective fitness-based, physical mantra.
The Chinese had realised that all things being equal, speed and fitness could take them across, and while the Indonesians were no mugs at fitness, their game never looked like it was borne of a military drill.
Even before Alan Budikusuma won gold at Barcelona, Indonesian badminton brimmed with variety and innovation. Icuk Sugiarto who won the Asiad gold medal in 1982 in doubles, was in fact a singles world champ who could endlessly rally and tatter out an opponent. Hariyanto Arbi, who beat P Gopichand at the 1997 India Open, was the opposite: he could relentlessly attack. Toufik Hidayat was pure skill.
Arbi in fact won with a two-step ploy: smash-tap. Playing from the forecourt, he would hit the shuttle very high so it would drop very close to the net on the other side at an unplayable awkward angle and height – and then Arbi would pounce for a tap. Don’t be surprised if this shot seeps into Sindhu’s or Srikanth’s games via Gopichand.
It was the doubles mavericks, though, who have retained both the success and the spectacular glee that defines Indonesian badminton.
Ricky Subagja and Rexy Mainaky were darlings of the crowds as they extended Indonesia’s dominance in the world. But they spelt ‘Fun’ in Bold, Underlined. They were the first to change racquets mid-rally should the strings snap, in between hitting the shuttle and receiving it back – snatching the racquets casually from the side, as audience went into hysterical guffaws.
In fact, Indonesian practice sessions are a theatre of ridiculous talent. Their doubles players seem to believe that tournaments are won not by screwed-eyes concentration and tyranny of geometry, but by gentle inflections in the wrists and elbows and shoulders while playing the fool all the time. They’ll jump in one direction and hit in another, or look left and hit right.
They’ll play a real chess-like rally – all cerebral and complex – and then again slump to the floor in unison as if it’s some joke. They’ll jump in one direction and hit in another, or look left and hit right.
Indonesia indulged Hidayat, the boy with the chocolate hero looks, but is well aware that despite his Athens gold medal, the comet’s tail will always resemble a James Dean tale of fabulous frustration. Indonesia’s enduring love for their 1992 star Susi Susanti can hardly ever be replaced—she floated like a gazelle and was maddeningly elegant, they say. Gregoria, who’s a bit in the Ratchanok Intanon mould, is someone the locals are holding their breath for.
It doesn’t stop Indonesian Minister of Information Rudiaranta from telling the Express that his country tremendously enjoyed Sindhu’s scintillating rise over the last two years. “Your tall girl – she plays very well, doesn’t she? Maybe she’ll win here.” Saina Nehwal already has three titles here besides the World Championship silver, while Prannoy and Srikanth wiped out the entire field between them for last year’s title.
India’s implicit reliance on Indonesian expertise in coaching – with the short stint with Toufik’s coach Mulyo Handoyo – had an immense impact, though shuttle fans here don’t get caught up in medal-talk while insisting that Srikanth with his eclectic game is true class and deserves patience.
The 25-year-old is in fact extremely popular here – Shah Rukh Khan and Kidambi Srikanth are the biggest ice-breakers in these parts for any Indian. Start a conversation on Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, an epic dubbed hit here, or how Srikanth has struggled to pick a big title yet and a flurry of emotion can rain down on you.
They gush about his game here despite his loss in the team event and struggle to find English translations for the frustration they feel at his inexplicable implosions. Now if only he could win a medal here – he’ll be forgiven even if a few Indonesian “Mentokers” end up taking the fall.