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The man who dressed up badminton

The new system triggered much heartburn among those who felt that there was no need to change something that had run well for over a hundred years, reports Dev S Sukumar.
None | By Dev S Sukumar, Birmingham
UPDATED ON MAR 09, 2008 09:48 PM IST

TWO YEARS ago, badminton's most fundamental principle, its scoring system, was changed by the Badminton World Federation (BWF) to make the sport become TV-friendly.

After over a century of being played for 15 points over three games, the sport saw the introduction of a 'rally point' system - for 21 points - with the server and the receiver allowed to score after every exchange.

The new system triggered much heartburn among those who felt that there was no need to change something that had run well for over a hundred years. There was also consternation at the actions of the BWF, with purists believing that the body, having shifted base from London to Kuala Lumpur, cared little for tradition.

It might therefore surprise the same purists that the seeds of change were sown not in Kuala Lumpur in 2006, but in London 26 years ago.

The man responsible was an independent TV producer named Brian Venner, now chairman of VTV, and in charge of producing the coverage of the All England Championships.

Venner called for a meeting of top England players of that time and asked them to suggest changes that would make the game more digestible to TV audiences. Among those present were internationals Gillian Gilks, Nora Perry, Ray Stevens, Steve Baddeley, manager Ciro Ciniglio and Tom Marrs of the Badminton Association of England.

Venner suggested the rally point system and got them to play as the cameras rolled. He then asked for opinions - unsurprisingly, few supported it. Venner also tried out various camera positions and moving it around on wheels.

The events of that day have markedly influenced badminton.

The rally point system wasn't immediately adopted, but Venner had anticipated it by a quarter century. In terms of camera technique he was more successful - with the camera exploring more action possibilities than just the view from the grandstand.

For his contribution to badminton coverage, Venner received a special award instituted by the Badminton Writers Association, at a lunch on the sidelines of the All England Championships.

Venner delivered a delightful acceptance speech, full of colourful anecdotes about legendary commentators John Arlott and Henry Longhurst. He then played a clip of the film made 25 years ago, showing the England players try the rally point system and commenting on it. Titled 'The Badminton Experiment', the film drew approving nods from the knowledgeable audience.

"We were looking at ways to increase popularity," said Venner later, to this correspondent. "The scoring system was the obvious thing to attack, especially in the women's doubles - the matches would be going on for hours. Badminton was not a sport anyone took interest in, not even the BBC. I was independent, that's why I was invited by Channel 4 to explore ways of covering the game better. We put the cameras on rolling wheels, and we tried various angles. For the first time after that, TV got interested and was willing to look at the sport."

Didn't tampering with a system that was so characteristic of the game and its traditions disturb him? "'Well, I believe you've always got to go forward. When I was in Kuala Lumpur a taxi-driver was railing against the new system. I know there are purists, but at the end of the day, you've got to see what works. From a TV point of view, it makes more sense. Of course there are still long matches - players are taking too long to serve - but at least the end is in sight."

Venner believes India offers great possibilities for badminton. "'After Gopichand won the All England in 2001, we were able to sell huge deals to India the next year. Unfortunately, he didn't do well, and the interest has waned. But if another champion emerges, you will see a boom in TV coverage. Asia's changing, and the old barriers of culture and language don't hold true anymore."

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