Dynamics of team events in individual sports like badminton are extremely different and the Indian team showed that they know how to rise to the occasion
The year was 2006. India’s Thomas Cup team had made it to the quarter-finals of the prestigious tournament after over 25 years and instead of preparing for the next day’s match, chief coach Vimal Kumar was trying to figure out how to change the team’s return flight ticket due to their extended stay.
Sixteen years later, Vimal Kumar had in a pre-departure interview insisted that the men could create history. By reaching the semi-finals of the prestigious tournament for the first time ever, the bunch of 10 racquet wielding warriors have already written their names in the annals of Indian badminton history.
But the journey from 2006 was anything but smooth. In the last 14 years, the men’s team made it to the last eight a couple of times but no one really considered them a medal prospect despite India boasting of over half a dozen men’s singles players in the top-50 in world ranking.
Though badminton is an individual sport, team championships like the Thomas Uber Cup need a collective effort from the entire team and just relying on three singles players to pull off a heist was never a realistic possibility.
The traditional badminton powerhouses boast of a squad that provides them the ability to win all five matches on their day and the lack of depth in that area had definitely hurt Indian chances in the past. The absence of even the top singles players due to injuries or simply taking a break, knowing that the team did not really had a chance only made matters worse.
But anyone who had followed Indian badminton over the last two decades knew that a special performance was just a heartbeat away and all it needed was a bit of luck and a lot of self-belief.
The men had spent over a decade in the towering shadow of Saina Nehwal and PV Sindhu’s achievements on the big stage and the girls had even taken India to two Uber Cup bronze medals with the help of Jwala Gutta and Ashwini Ponnappa back in 2014 and 2016.
But 2022 had a completely different complexion since the start. Srikanth and Sen started the year as World Championships silver and bronze medallists respectively, HS Prannoy finally finding the rhythm and the consistency he had been craving for years and the doubles combination of Satwiksairaj Rankireddy and Chirag Shetty bagged the India Open crown and had been consist for the past couple of years.
This meant that when the Indian team left for Thailand, they knew that they had at least four opportunities to score those three valuable points required to clinch a tie. However, they did hit a stumbling block in their first real challenge when they lost 2-3 against Chinese Taipei in the Group stage.
But the form of Srikanth and Prannoy would have given the team management hope as both of them were quite clinical in their victories and if either Sen or Satwik-Chirag could win them a point, the opponents were always going to chase the match.
Though Sen, the highest ranked Indian in the line-up, hasn’t been able to win in the team’s last three outings, one cannot ignore his contribution to this dream run. The youngster has been facing some of the world’s best players as a No. 1 player and beating them was never going to be easy. But it is also a fact that his dream run in the last eight months put him in that position and also ensured that India’s experienced campaigners got a shot at the next the best bunch.
But in a tournament of this stature, this is probably just a miniscule advantage that top players need to pounce on and Srikanth, Prannoy have done just that when it mattered. Even Chirag and Satwik did not allow the five match points that they lost over the course of two games against their Danish opponents to affect their moral despite the scrutiny.
And all that was possible because the bunch was motivated to leave a mark and were willing to go that extra mile.
Prannoy had a nasty slip in the first game of the do-or-die match in the semi-final against Denmark’s Rasmus Gemke and injured his ankle. In normal circumstances, a player may think of giving up to ensure that the injury isn’t aggravated with a long season ahead. But he decided to push himself and not bother about the consequences.
“Maybe yeah [that the win was more mental than physical]. Mentally, there was a lot of things going on today. After the slip, it was hurt a lot more than usual, I was not able to lunge properly. I was wondering what to do, thought I will try to manage somehow. In the mind it was always that: ‘I should not give up.’ Just tried whatever I could, praying that the pain doesn’t aggravate,” he said after the match.
The team camaraderie was also on display through out the quarterfinals against Malaysia and the semi-finals as the players went all-out cheering their teammates, even dousing the intensity of the din created by the Malaysian fans in the last eight stage.
Shetty put words to those feelings after the semi-final triumph when he said, “We want to win it for the team. We are giving everything we have on the court and also off it. You can see, I’ve lost my voice shouting. It was the same against Malaysia yesterday. We had to match them with our voices.”
After a well-deserved day’s rest, they will have to once again come out all guns blazing against defending champions Indonesia on Sunday and they would probably have to make much more noise against the far more vociferous Indonesian fans as the group chases a position of immortality in India’s badminton universe.
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