Each time a Chinese shuttler goes to the backcourt and jumps up for a smash, the crowd goes ‘Shā’. It just simply means kill.
And a figurative ‘kill’ is what China does in badminton at the Asian Games. The nation had won 43 gold medals in the sport across editions, and six golds in the men’s team event.
It was up against India, which had no golds in badminton and no medals in the team’s event. The Chinese team was all ranked higher than the Indians in both singles and doubles. If India had to upset the continent’s best in its own cauldron, it had to do without its best singles player, HS Prannoy, who was injured, and by winning the first three matches for a stunning gold.
At the Binjiang Gymnasium on October 1, in front of a packed audience, India got two-thirds of the job done, but its lack of depth and China’s overwhelming quality landed it another team gold medal in the Asian Games.
Thunderous ‘Jiayou, China! (Come on, China!)‘ greeted every time the Chinese won a point, lost one or trailed behind. The Indian bench, joined by the cricket team and head coach VVS Laxman, tried to get the ‘Jheetega India’ going from the sides, but they were quickly drowned out ‘Jiayao’s by the 4000 spectators in the arena.
But there was a moment when those chants died down when India took a stunning 2-0 lead thanks to Lakshya Sen in the singles and Satwiksairaj Rankireddy and Chirag Shetty in the doubles.
Lakshya’s superb defence into attack game took the opening match into the third game where he was trailing 15-16. Then he seemed to switch gears out of nowhere to fire a series of forehand smashes to which Shi Yuqi had no answer to race into four match points before clinching the tie.
Among the five rubbers, India would have felt secure in the knowledge of Satwiksairaj and Chirag getting the win for the team and they did it with ease. World no. 2 pair Weikeng Liang and Chang Wang threw everything at them but the Indians had answers to them all and in no time, India was up 2-0.
In the opening game of the next match, Kidambi Srikanth, who has not had his best year, channeled his vintage Srikanth in pushing the All England champion Li Shifeng. A fan covered her face in disbelief as Srikanth was a point away — twice — from securing the game against the world no. 8. But Shifeng found the reserve to fight back and when Srikanth’s return went wide, Shifeng dropped his badminton and roared towards his bench. The team, which was still 0-2 down, celebrated like they had won the gold. The Chinese bench knew it and the Indian bench would have seen it coming too.
And when China smelt blood, they went for the shā!
Shifeng rode the momentum to pile on the smashes, which Srikanth had no answer to and the Indian quickly folded 9-21 to give China a lifeline and, most importantly, a point on the scoreboard.
Everyone in the venue knew what was to follow. China had its second-best doubles team, and world no. 8 pairing taking on the scratch pair of Dhruv Kapila and Sai Pratheek, followed by world no. 20 Hongyang Weng facing Mithun Manjunath, ranked 33 places below. Manjunath found out he was playing on the morning of the final after a back issue ruled Prannoy out of the final. With Prannoy, India could have stood a chance. The veteran had beaten Weng in the Malaysia Masters final in May. But it wasn’t to be.
“We missed the services of Prannoy. He is our top-ranked player. He was unwell after yesterday’s match and couldn’t recover on time. We didn’t want to play through his back injury. His presence would have actually added to the team’s strength today. Still, we think we fought well but the Chinese deserve the credit,” said the Indian team coach Pullela Gopichand.
The scorelines in the next two matches read 21-6, 21-15, 21-12, 21-4 in favour of China as it added a seventh team gold medal.
The whole Chinese team got onto the court and jubilantly rejoiced another victory. The stadium PA system blasted Wo Ai Ni Zhong Gou (I love you China) with the whole arena singing along and reveling in the nation’s domination.