Hunt and Archer stalk their prey

Andy Martin sees the hard men of British badminton set the feathers flying at the National Championships
When I mentioned to my mate Bruce, a keen football fan, that I was going to the National Badminton Championships in Norwich, he said: "It's just the kind of place that would put on a pansy poofter's game like badminton." In one scything sentence he maligned both the populace of an entire city and the millions of people around the world who follow the sport.

I'd like to see Bruce say that to Simon Archer and Chris Hunt. Archer and Hunt, who won the men's doubles title for the second year running, are two heavy, hairy, hunky, hungry guys. They are the hard men of British badminton.

Both are over 6ft and weigh in at 13st 8lb apiece, and Chris Hunt, rated by his court-side fan club as "player of the year", looks as if he could go a few rounds with Eric Cantona.

If they had had black hoods over their heads and an axe in their hands, they couldn't have executed the opposition, Neil Cottrill and John Quinn, more ruthlessly. They destroyed an awful lot of shuttlecocks, too: there were more feathers on the court by the end of the match than in an average hen-house. No one hits the shuttle harder.

You have to be tough in this game. As David Betts, a physiotherapist, told me, of all the racket sports, badminton - with its deep lunges and explosive overheads - "takes the biggest toll on bodies". Hunt and Archer were massaging their limbs with bags of ice.

Hunt, 26, and Archer, 21, are every bit as lethal as their names suggest. But their real prey is not the national but the world No 1 spot and the Atlanta Olympics. They are veterans of the gruelling world professional circuit, which has given them only four weekends off since June. As Archer said: "Over the last year, I have spent more time with him than I have with my girlfriend."

After winning the European Championship and taking the silver medal at the Commonwealth Games, they are third on the Grand Prix ladder and seventh in the Olympic rankings. But they are already anticipating three or four years right on top.

They are very un-English in their brazen self-confidence, and almost arrogant. They expect to win. And they hate losing. But they retain an ironic, mutually abusive, sense of humour.

When I asked Hunt about his past reputation as the McEnroe of badminton, Archer cut in: "Yes, he's mad." Hunt retorted: "And he's psycho." They make a good double act.

At Norwich, Hunt and Archer took away the princely sum of £440 for three days' extremely hard work. But top British players on the tour can make around £60,000 a year in tournament winnings and endorsements. The game has made the Indonesian Susi Susanti, the women's world champion, a millionairess. But in Indonesia, badminton is a collective obsession and winning is a matter of national pride.

Similarly, when Malaysia won the team world championship, not only did individual players net $250,000, a plot of land and a government pension, but a holiday was declared in celebration.

"We'd get a `well done' and a national association pin," Archer said. In Malaysia, potential champions are selected and trained six hours a day as young as 12. "There is massive burn-out," Archer acknowledges. For every 300 kids, 200 are broken but 100 still make it.

Hunt even gets fan mail from Malaysia. Inevitably, players like Hunt and Archer go east not just in search of fortune but to find a greater depth of quality opposition.

During the last Olympics, badminton was, worldwide, the mostly widely viewed individual sport on television. The Sky TV coverage at Norwich was tapping into the huge potential global audience, not just in China and India but in Europe, too. Even in Britain the profile of the sport is changing.There is talk of the National Lottery kicking in more money, and, tangibly, Archer and Hunt are sponsored by Prinz and Carlton respectively and receive funding from the British Olympic Association.

But, for the time being, there is a sense that, in badminton at least, the east is east and the west is west. "Over there," Hunt said, "the top players shake hands with kings and queens." "Over here," Archer shot back, "we wouldn't even get on A Question of Sport."