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Indian badminton must seize the moment after historic Thomas Cup triumph

Incredible feat: The Indian shuttlers took the badminton world by storm by topping the Thomas Cup podium.

Incredible feat: The Indian shuttlers took the badminton world by storm by topping the Thomas Cup podium. | Photo Credit: Getty Images

In the last 15 years, India’s male shuttlers have played second fiddle to the tone set by former World No. 1 Saina Nehwal, 2019 World champion P.V. Sindhu and the popular duo of G. Jwala and Ashwini Ponnappa. Even as a team, these ladies held the bragging rights after claiming bronze medals in the 2014 and 2016 editions of the Uber Cup.

In fact, in the Thomas Cup, India had nothing to be proud of. After all, until the past week, India had not reached the semifinals since 1979.

Even in the Sudirman Cup — the international mixed-team championship — India’s best challenges ended in the quarterfinals of the 2011 and 2017 editions. Not a single semifinal appearance in 16 appearances since 1991 speaks for itself.

Dramatic week

Rising to the occasion: Lakshya delivered when it mattered most - the final.

Rising to the occasion: Lakshya delivered when it mattered most - the final. | Photo Credit: Getty Images

In short, the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel appeared far and dim. But it took just one dramatic week of badminton to bring the prowess of the Indian men under the spotlight.

Significantly, India, in a campaign that culminated with an almost unreal 3-0 conquest of defending champion and 14-time winner Indonesia, also slammed the door on former holders Malaysia and Denmark.

For the record, India followed Chinese Taipei into the quarterfinals after beating group-mates Canada and Germany. The defeat to Chinese Taipei was a dampener but India stunned formidable Malaysia in the last eight. A hard-fought 3-2 victory meant a face-off with Denmark, a team that had three men ranked 1, 3 and 13 in the world. Denmark was clearly the ranking favourite but India’s ‘winning template’ worked once again.

What was India’s winning template?

In sync: Satwik and Chirag swung matches India’s way with their delightful performances.

In sync: Satwik and Chirag swung matches India’s way with their delightful performances. | Photo Credit: Getty Images

The team looked to ride on the strengths of three singles players and the combination of Satwiksairaj Rankireddy and Chirag Shetty. It was realistic in its expectations of the two other pairs, 38th-ranked M.R. Arjun-Dhruv Kapila and 46th-ranked Vishnuvardhan Goud-Krishna Prasad.

In all its victories, India always secured at least one of the first two matches — singles and doubles — before K. Srikanth came good. If the opposition clinched the second doubles to make it 2-2, the team cheered H.S. Prannoy to victory, mostly against far-lower-rated rivals.

Absolute thriller

Showing the way: Srikanth was India’s guiding force during the remarkable campaign.

Showing the way: Srikanth was India’s guiding force during the remarkable campaign. | Photo Credit: Getty Images

Against Denmark, Lakshya ran into World No. 1 and Olympic champion Viktor Axelsen for a third successive loss of the week. Commendably, Satwik-Shetty rallied to down Denmark’s makeshift combination in an absolute thriller to draw level. Srikanth upstaged World No. 3 Anders Antonsen in three games. Vishnuvardhan-Prasad lost tamely but Prannoy pulled off a stunning victory over World No. 13 Rasmus Gemke after dropping the first game.

Indonesia was an obvious favourite, having beaten all its Asian rivals — Singapore (4-1), Thailand (4-1), Korea (3-2), a depleted China (3-0) and Japan (3-2), in that order.

But India shocked Indonesia by the biggest margin, with Lakshya’s stunner against World No. 5 and Tokyo Olympics bronze medallist Anthony Sinisuka Ginting setting the pace.

That also meant that Satwik and Shetty, for the first time in the knockouts, were not fighting to level the tie-score. The script of losing the opening game and winning the next two followed as the doubles pair saved four match-points to triumph.

Srikanth, also an underdog, raised the bar to stop World No. 8 Jonathan Christie by snatching the second game. The two game-points Christie squandered made it a hard-to-swallow defeat for Indonesia.

Standout feature

The finisher: Whenever the contest hung in the balance, India turned to Prannoy.

The finisher: Whenever the contest hung in the balance, India turned to Prannoy. | Photo Credit: Getty Images

One standout feature of India’s historic title-winning campaign was the emergence of the Satwik-Shetty pair. In singles, India always had one or two good players, but the lack of a potent pair was felt in team events. This time, Satwik-Shetty filled the long-standing void.

This out-of-the-blue triumph was bound to paint an exalted portrait of Indian badminton. Indeed, it did. It rightly raised the expectations of an Asian Games medal. Not surprisingly, a section of the media was quick to describe India as a ‘badminton superpower’.

In happier times, it is easy to lose sight of harsh realities. Indeed, this epoch-making triumph needs to be celebrated and inspiration drawn from it. Reward those behind the results and hail our heroes. At the same time, it is wise to remember that one swallow does not make a summer.

If the past is a good pointer to the future, then let us remind ourselves that in the past 15 years, the Indian government, according to its data, has spent an average of around a crore per month — or more than ₹3 lakh a day — on Indian badminton; shooting and hockey are the only other disciplines to receive comparable levels of investment.

But this has produced only a few world-class shuttlers.

Except for Saina and Sindhu, there hasn’t been another world-beater in women’s singles. Former World No. 1 Srikanth and 2010 World junior semifinalists B. Sai Praneeth and Prannoy continue to be among the top four Indian men. In short, barring the 20-year-old Lakshya, no junior has lived up to potential in the past 12 years.

In doubles, save for Jwala-Ashwini and Satwik-Shetty, no combination has made an impression. The less said the better about mixed doubles, where Jwala and V. Diju had their moments more than a decade ago.

Learning from the past, it’s time to cut out the frills and groom some serious talent in right earnest. For now, Unnati Hooda, 14, looks very promising. Having turned from singles to doubles, Treesa Jolly and Gayatri Gopichand, too, can become a crack combination. Priyanshu Rajawat, Kiran George and Mithun Manjunath in men’s singles, and the pairs of Arjun-Dhruv and Vishnuvardhan-Prasad need to be nurtured well to sustain India’s newly acquired status.

It is time to get real.


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Printable version | May 21, 2022 5:37:29 pm | https://www.thehindu.com/sport/other-sports/indian-badminton-must-seize-the-moment-after-historic-thomas-cup-triumph/article65440951.ece