The entire nation had gnawed down its nails by then, it seemed. Even then prime minister’s wife, Datin Seri Dr Siti Hasmah, decked in her lucky floral red baju kurung, had the wind knocked out of her sails and looked momentarily deflated in the director’s box.
Home advantage was meant to provide an unassailable edge, yet, the script suddenly turned awry. First doubles pair, brothers Razif and Jalani Sidek, crashed out unceremoniously, almost handing Indonesia the initiative with the score tied at 1-1, younger brother Rashid having taken the first point earlier in the evening.
But on that warm humid evening 25 years ago on May 16, the Malaysian badminton juggernaut was not to be undone. The roar of ravenous, rabid Malaysian fans within Stadium Negara was going to carry the national team through, to win its first Thomas Cup in a quarter of a century. Second singles player, Foo Kok Keong, with every sinew in his ageing body stretched to its limit, delivered the tide-changing second point by defeating Alan Budi Kusuma rather easily, elevating Malaysian spirits once more.
But caught right in the eye of the storm of expectation was second doubles pair Cheah Soon Kit and Soo Beng Kiang. The much-maligned twosome had beaten their would-be opponents Ricky Subagja and Rexy Mainaky three times prior in world meets, but the Thomas Cup was an entirely different prospect, especially since the trophy was within touching distance.
“We knew we had to keep steady,” Cheah revealed in a recent interview, recalling exactly what the game plan was that Saturday night. The game was on a knife edge when it dragged on to the rubber set, the 15 points that would make or break Malaysia’s chances.
“I can hardly remember the game plan now for that third set, but I remember telling myself to stay calm. When you’re calmer, you’re able to think and plan more,” the 49-year-old Cheah shared.
By that point, TV viewers had their stomachs in knots, with commentator, the late Hasbullah Awang waxing lyrical of Cheah, and spinning prose after prose, “… si gergasi, Cheah Soon Kit. … si pembunuh …” which only served to ramp up the excitement and raise our expectations of the players to hero status.
Before the glory
Well before he was an on-court dragon slayer, though, like many kids engaging in sport, Cheah followed in his father’s footsteps. The two would meet with his dad’s colleagues and their kids at the Scout House badminton court in his hometown Ipoh, Peak the younger generation stealing playing time when the adults took breaks. The kids would furiously play in those brief moments, and when he reached nine years of age, he represented his school, Cator Avenue.
His ascent into the upper echelons of the sport was swift, and by the time he was studying at Methodist school ACS Ipoh, he was already making a name for himself, the kind of reputation that found him eventually playing for Malaysia at the Thomas Cup.
According to Cheah, Malaysia had fancied its chances at that 1992 tournament, having learnt hard lessons by two consecutive defeats to China in the 1988 and 1990 instalments of the tournament. “Back then, they had three very strong singles players, like Yang Yang, Zhao Jianhua and Xiong Guobao. Those three guys could beat the whole world, so we didn’t even have a chance.”
But Yang Yang’s retirement opened a window of opportunity at a time when China was no longer the omnipresent powerhouse it was in the 1980s.
“That definitely improved our chances, so we knew there was hope. It was clear to us that we stood a chance against the Indonesians in the finals, so we just had to get past China. Morale was very high, but we couldn’t afford to be over-confident, either,” readily concurred Cheah, who recently received a History Maker Award, in conjunction with the entertainment channel’s 10th anniversary in Asia.
Facing a mighty opponent in the final was already a daunting proposition, but Cheah and Soo had it far worse. A news report had insinuated that the pair had communication issues, and every time there seemed to be a negative display of emotions by either of them, the accusatory fingers would appear again, at least leading up to the Thomas Cup.
“There was additional pressure for us to work as partners because of it, but what people couldn’t see was what was happening behind the scenes. And as far as we were concerned, we were fine and just focused on our game. Our mental training taught us to turn negative emotions into positive ones,” asserted the current national head coach for Malaysia’s men’s doubles, setting an age-old misconception straight.
Cheah recalls the 1992 squad being pretty special, with most players having either Top 10 or Top 4 world rankings at that time.
“We knew what we were worth and approached the tournament with a lot of confidence. Losing to South Korea in the earlier round was a good wake up call, because that made us focus more on the finer details,” he said.
And then, it all came down to that final serve. The score was 14-8, and Cheah engaged in the most measured, deliberated service ever, and with a half-hearted return from Ricky, Soo was on it in a flash, and smashed right down centre court.
The Malaysian contingent, including team manager and former All-England champion Datuk Punch Gunalan, raced over to the jubilant pair and hugged them hysterically. Stadium Negara erupted that night, the euphoria streaming down from the rafters, through the royal box (where then Agong Sultan Azlan Shah and Raja Permaisuri Agong Tuanku Bainun proudly applauded) and right down to the fans closest to the action.
And in every kopitiam, mamak shop and household across Malaysia, our glorious country truly became one. Sport had, as it always has, united the millionaire businessmen with the fishermen, and the politician with the kacang putih seller. This was no exclusive celebration – it was for everyone.