PETALING JAYA: Master Wong, atomic Eddy, deceptive Aik Huang, King James, the great Punch and controversial Misbun.
These are some the men’s singles players who have added colour and character to Malaysian badminton, bringing with them a legion of followers to the game.
In comparison, the current batch have little to shout about – they have neither the charisma nor the trophies to show.
In recent times, players who have done well include Rashid Sidek, Foo Kok Keong, Ong Ewe Hock, Wong Choong Hann and Lee Chong Wei. But they were aspirants, not inspirational.
The late Wong Peng Soon – a master of stroke play – took centrestage in the 1940s and 1950s. Till today, he remains the only men’s singles player to have won the Malaysian Open eight times.
The pint-sized Eddy and Aik Huang were masters of deception in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Between them, they won 11 All-England titles.
There were others too – Ooi Teck Hock, Billy Ng, James Selvaraj, Punch Gunalan, Saw Swee Leong and Misbun Sidek – all special in their own ways.
The rivalry was so great between Peng Soon and Teck Hock that they refused to play each other during centralised training for a Thomas Cup edition.
And who can forget Misbun’s antics – with his Mohican hairstyle and colourful shoes and socks.
Eddy agreed that there are not too many “characters” in the world of badminton now.
“To be fair, this is probably because of the different system that’s applied now. In my time, there was no centralised training throughout the year. Every player followed different masters and went about their own way. That’s probably why they were more expressive those days,” said Eddy.
“The current set-up invloves a regimented training process, which is good. But it suppresses the creativity of players. Some are so used to the system that they do not want to try anything new.”
Eddy said he was supportive of Misbun – when the latter was at his heights of rebellion.
“Some of his antics were not liked by the national body. I felt that players should be given the freedom to express themselves. Some players need that as a psychological boost. In fact, my master (Peng Soon) wore funny coloured shoes.
Former player-cum-coach James knows all about that. He was called the “white” man.
“I wore all white – shirt, pants, shoes and socks and naturally, I got that name,” said James.
“Swee Leong had long hair and used to let his shirt out. It was a statement. And there was Misbun with his one black and one white socks. It made the world of badminton very interesting with colourful people. But of course, there were results, too.”
He said that of the current crop, only the top two – Lin Dan of China and Taufik Hidayat of Indonesia – had created some excitement in recent times.
Due to the lack of strong characters, James said he had to go along with commercialisation of the sport.
“I guess the international body had to do something to create excitement in the sport again. Now, they want the attires to look funky and colourful for both men and women players. Rules are being changed to accommodate television.
“I do coaching too. A young player wore a watch. I was puzzled and asked him why he need to keep time while playing. He told me that top Malaysian player (Lee Chong Wei) wears them. I still do not know why players need to wear a watch but, at least, this youngster has a role model.”
While there is a lack of “colourful” stars in the Malaysian stable, Misbun said it was a world phenomenon.
“Now, you no longer see one player dominating the scene in the world. Lin Dan is strong in Open tournaments while Taufik strikes at the major tournaments. Probably, these two are the most celebrated players,” said Misbun.
Misbun agreed that strong characters – on and off the court – make great champions and he hoped that more focus would be given on grooming and strengthening the Malaysian back-up players.
“The Malaysian Open is celebrating its 50th anniversary next week. We are on the right track – we have men’s singles players in the top (Chong Wei is ranked second in the world) and our team is among the best four in the world,” he said.
“But we need glamorous players to keep the interest going. A players’ time at the top is becoming shorter and shorter. A player must make the best use of it or else it will not be easy to remember them,” he said.