Updated: September 6, 2021 11:51:44 am
There’s a Nawazuddin Siddiqui soundtrack playing behind the inscrutable face that Pramod Bhagat wears to any match — even the one where the SL3 class shuttler had India’s first ever para badminton medal, a gold, around his neck after a 21-14, 21-17 final.
His buddy Sukant Kadam, world No. 5 in SL4, and his roommate, started chanting Bhagat’s favourite line from the gritty film Manjhi: “Jab tak todenge nahin, tab tak chhodenge nahin.” He wouldn’t leave Daniel Bethell, till he broke the Englishman.
While SL3 refers to players with standing or lower limb or minor impairments, SL4 has players with more severe impairments.
Down 4-11 in the second game at Tokyo, with the match drifting away seemingly into a decider, Bhagat would go into what Kadam calls his Dhoni mode. “He keeps unreally calm, never reacts and enjoys these situations where he has to make up leads,” he says, of the 2009, ’15 and ’19 world champ.
Bhagat keeps it simple: “I just tell myself I’m the best. Chill.” It’s what he told himself every time he stepped onto the court — at Attabira in Odisha, where he took to badminton, thinking the outdoor court a walk in the park, despite the polio-afflicted left leg dragging his movements; when he realised what acute poverty meant, with a couple adopting him and encouraging him to play every sport; and when after three world singles titles, he found himself in a Paralympic final, wanting to cap a career with the absolute gold.
Bhagat would kickstart India’s journey in badminton’s debut at the Paralympics, with the country expecting three more medals, including gold from Noida District Magistrate Suhas LY and Krishna Nagar, Sunday.
Manish Narwal won India’s third gold medal Saturday in P4 Mixed 50m Pistol SH1 event (arm impairment to lesser extent) while Singhraj Adhana brought up a 1-2 finish in the event, with a silver. Manoj Sarkar bagged the bronze behind Bhagat in SL3.
Shooter Avani Lakhera will also aim to match Joginder Singh’s record of three medals in one Paralympics Sunday.
India is already well past its best ever Paralympics performance, with 17 medals, including 4 golds, and is 26th on the medal table.
Kadam recalls the time spent with the newly minted champion, whom he found without airs and with a dramatic sense of humour, peppering badminton analyses with movie lines. “He sleeps very few hours. He is constantly into badminton, and loves the sport, philosophising on it. “Neend raat bhar kyun nahin aati… Pehle aati thi haal-e-dil pe hansi, ab kisi baat pe nahin aati (Why can’t I sleep all night… Earlier I was able to laugh at the predicament of my heart, but now I am unable to laugh at anything)” — unable to sleep one night in Tokyo, this Mirza Ghalib couplet is what Bhagat would text his Academy mates.
On Saturday though, he would goof about at the medal ceremony, after pulling off the silent heist with an 11-point rally. “Point by point,” he would say later of his meticulous accumulation of winners, inducing errors in the opponent.
Bhagat has coached in schools, riffed inspiration from the likes of Sachin Tendulkar, after whose retirement he stopped watching cricket, and tweaked his 10 pieces of prosthetics to get the exact one to aid him after his ankle bent outward. “He is like a scientist with his left leg prosthetic. He keeps making minute changes on it. Number of shoe pairs = 4. Number of prosthetics = 10,” Kadam says.
Not an attacking player, obsessed with winning and summoning strokes cannily from his vast bouquet, Bhagat would net India’s historic medal wrong footing Bethell, who stopped back a little thinking the shuttle would travel further, but the Indian looped it close. “He is very creative in strokes. There is a deception manoeuvre he aces — primes to play a toss, but drops his racquet with a zap, connecting with shuttle at knee level to confuse his rival,” Kadam says. “But it’s his legendary calm. He is never panicky. This gold was about years of patience and sudden acceleration,” he says about the 34-year-old.
Soon after the medal, Bhagat would tell Kadam in a brief call how he imagined the scenes of his well-wishers celebrating. He was chuckling how it would be in India, though deep down he would dedicate the medal to his biological and adoptive parents who raised him. “He lost his mother at the start of the pandemic. Then Tokyo got cancelled and he was depressed. But then badminton rescued him,” Kadam says.
Bhagat likes excesses in moderation. “He will live on fruits for days, and go to McDonald’s and have three large French fries. He loves sweets, kaju katli. So to compensate for the cheat meals once in a blue moon, he eats very little otherwise,” Kadam says, of the eccentric method to his madness.
Bhagat is also known to tell juniors that stadiums don’t matter. “They are just places where you have to win. Drift, conditions are all tamed if you focus on winning,” he recalls. He won’t forget Tokyo in a hurry though.
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