THEY were a bunch of no-hopers but Datuk Punch Gunalan's Thomas Cup babes, the 1976 Malaysian squad, remain one of the biggest surprises in the history of the prestigious men's team tournament.
The reason was that they lived up to Gunalan's motto: "A match is not lost until the 15th point is scored."
James Selvaraj, Phua Ah Hua, Saw Swee Leong, Moo Foot Lian, Dominic Soong and Cheah Hong Chong were the squad assembled by the BA of Malaysia (BAM) after the 1972 squad, who failed to get past the regional competition, was disbanded.
Ng Boon Bee and Gunalan had retired from the scene by then.
However, Gunalan returned with a new mission -- as a coach at just 32.
At his disposal was a group of players who hardly had any international experience and Selvaraj, at 24, was the oldest.
But Gunalan never shied away from such challenges. He assembled his players at Maba House with Moh Chin Keat acting as his assistant and as the camp commandant while Tan Looi Chong was appointed as the physical trainer in 1975.
Selvaraj, the most senior player and the national champion, said Malaysia never had the chance to even beat Singapore in the regional qualifiers but Gunalan had single handedly changed the mindset of the players and in less than a year, transformed them into a unit capable of battling any opponent.
"It was our biggest assignment. We were very young and I was the oldest at 24 and the average age of the sqaud was about 20 but Gunalan believed in us and changed our mindset," recalled Selvaraj.
"He would always remind us that a match is not lost until the 15th point is scored and he lived on this motto.
"If not for Gunalan's guidance and the confidence that he gave us, it is impossible for us to beat the star-studded Denmark side 5-4 and reach the final.
"In fact, we were not even expected to get past Singapore in the regional qualifiers but we beat them 8-1 and overcame Japan 6-3.
"We were just one match away from being eliminated by India who took a 4-1 lead but being Gunalan's boys, we never gave up and secured a 5-4 victory to win the zone final."
Next was their biggest test against Denmark, who were said to be good enough to challenge invincible Indonesia led by the legendary Rudy Hartono but what unfolded was the biggest shock in Thomas Cup history.
Nobody gave Malaysia a chance as the Danes were led by Sven Pri, who ended Hartono's reign in the All England a year earlier, and Flemming Delfs (who was to win the World and All England crowns in 1977) and the experienced Elo Hansen as well as doubles specialist Steen Skovgaard.
But in Malaysia's corner was the man who even earned the ultimate respect of Hartono with his never-say-die attitude as Gunalan had already instilled his qualities into his young team.
Malaysia won 5-4 but it was too much expecting them to beat the Indonesian squad, called the Magnificent Seven by their doubles great Christian Hadinata. Malaysia lost 9-0.
"Everyone had conceded defeat against a lineup as strong as Pri, Delfs, Hansen and Skovgaard but we shocked them, and credit should go to Gunalan who proved to be a masterstroke as a coach.
"We were a team of no-hopers but we managed to reach the Thomas Cup Final," added Selvaraj.
"It was mainly due to the influence of Gunalan who had the faith in us. The Midas touch has never stopped as he was brilliant as a team manger and a world class administrator.
"Gunalan never stopped trying and what he failed to achieve in 1976 with us, he managed to achieve the feat with the 1992 Thomas Cup team.
"He set such a high standard in every role he played in badminton. There could never be another Gunalan."
Indian former great, the 1980 All England champion Prakash Padukone also paid his tribute to a true gentleman on and off the court.
"I was shocked to hear of his demise. It is a sad day for international badminton. He had contributed a lot for the development of the game internationally and also in Malaysia both as a player and administrator," stated Prakash, who succeeded Gunalan as the Commonwealth Games champion in 1978, in an email yesterday.
"A dear friend of mine as I knew him for more than three decades. I will certainly miss him as he is a great personality and a gentleman on and off the court."