On Sunday May 15, a cricket-obsessed nation found itself in awe of its commuters. Lakshya Sen lay on the court in relief after a lost match to defeat 2020 Olympics bronze medalist Anthony Sinisuka Ginting. Chirag Shetty took off his shirt to celebrate his and partner Satwiksairaj Rankireddy’s win as they saved four match points against doubles luminaries Mohammad Ahsan and Kevin Sanjaya Sukamuljo. The otherwise calm Kidambi Srikanth screamed and dropped his racquet after beating Jonathan Christie. Overcoming 14-time champions Indonesia, India won the Thomas Cup, the world men’s badminton team championship. Think of it like the Indian cricket team that beat Australia in the World Cup final. Or as national badminton team head coach Pullela Gopichand puts it, like the team led by Kapil Dev beating the mighty West Indies in the 1983 World Cup final.
“It’s an inflection point for Indian badminton,” says Gopichand. “The last few years have been very fruitful, but especially on an individual level. We have depth in singles and a solid pair of doubles capable of beating the best in the world. In addition, the whole unit worked as a team. It’s what made ours a great team that can compete against the best of the other great badminton nations.
Over the course of a week at the Impact Arena in Bangkok, Team India played fearlessly and brilliantly to defeat five-time champions Malaysia and title contenders Denmark. There was no shortage of verve on the pitch and in the stands, where coaches and support staff gathered to rally behind the players. India, the underdogs did not crumble under the pressure, but thrived there. For example, HS Prannoy won the decisive fifth game not once but twice, allowing India to advance to the semi-finals and then the final.
HS Prannoy in the semi-finals
Smells like team spirit
Prannoy had sown the seeds of this victory two weeks ago by creating a WhatsApp group called ‘It’s coming home’, with emojis of a cup, an angry face and the TUC (Thomas & Uber Cup). His first message read: “Buoyssss how is Josh? The answer, of course, was “High sirrrrrrrr”. The nine members of the group were quite young, including singles player Priyanshu Rajawat, 20; and doubles players Vishnuvardhan Goud Panjala, 21; Dhruv Kapila, 22; Krishna Prasad Garaga, 22; and Mr. R. Arjun, 25. Prannoy and Srikanth, both 29, became the pack’s de facto leaders. “I appreciated their leadership qualities. They really looked after the young players,” says Vimal Kumar, Thomas Cup team manager and coach at Prakash Padukone Badminton Academy in Bengaluru.
Given that players compete in one-on-one events for most of the year, Prannoy felt the chat group would help create the camaraderie that would be key to winning the trophy that had eluded India for 73 years. . “We didn’t have a good history in the team events and we wanted to change it,” Prannoy said. “It is high time that the rest of the world feared us. We wanted others to know that we are not just here to play, but to win.
The messages had the desired effect. “The links between the players are the key to success. Victory is the result of a team effort and self-belief,” said 21-year-old Rankireddy. The Thomas & Uber Cup, like the Asian Games and the Sudirman Cup, the international badminton mixed team competition, does not offer any cash prizes. Srikanth, the captain of the team which won all six matches, was particularly proud of the fact that “the victory is for the country”. “After we won, everyone said ‘India won the Thomas Cup’ and not a single player. It’s a very special feeling,” he told a press conference. After the win The Indian contingent celebrated the win at a restaurant and returned to their hotel rooms to dance as was routine after every win in the Round of 16, Shetty said.
The Indian team pose with their medals and the coveted cup at the Impact Arena in Bangkok
It’s raining Men
Over the past decade, the men’s team has been largely overshadowed by two female wonders: Saina Nehwal and PV Sindhu. Nehwal won his first Olympic medal in the sport in India, while Sindhu added two more, as well as becoming the only Indian to win world championships. The women’s team had already won two bronze medals in the Uber Cup (in 2014 and 2016), thanks to the pair of doubles of Jwala Gutta and Ashwini Ponappa. Among the men, Srikanth had an outstanding performance in 2017, winning four tournaments and even climbing to world No. 1 before suffering a three-year slump that culminated in his failure to qualify for the Tokyo Olympics in 2020. The last six months have seen a renaissance in men’s badminton with Sen’s rise to the senior circuit. The 20-year-old had a dream run, picking up bronze at the 2021 World Championships, winning the men’s singles title at the 2022 Indian Open and finishing second at the All England Open Badminton Championships. This coincided with Srikanth returning to winning ways after finishing second at the 2021 World Championships. Prannoy was a runner-up at the 2022 Swiss Open.
India currently has 14 players in the men’s singles top 100. And now he finally has a pair of top-notch doubles in Shetty and Rankireddy, ranked eighth in the world. They are not alone. Dhruv Kapila and Arjun along with Krishna Prasad and Vishnuvardhan are the next generation of doubles pairs to watch. This means that the onus is not on the singles specialists as it has always been in the competition. Vimal Kumar attributes the growth to the Indian Badminton League as it gives players the opportunity to mingle with some of the best in the world. “One thing I noticed was whether it was the Danes or the English and the Malays, they were all asking me, ‘Are you going to have the league this year?’ So what we started, we need to invest a little more money and manage it properly,” says Kumar.
This abundance of talent is a huge asset and helped the men’s team win the silver trophy. “Few countries can boast of this,” Gopichand said. “It is a well-timed gathering of the players. I hope it will happen more often in the future. Himanta Biswa Sarma, President of Badminton Association of India (BAI), is confident that the victory will inspire the youngsters to getting into the sport.” Indian female players have already created milestones but this overall performance by the boys will inspire the next generation of female players and also boost the popularity of the sport in India. Each of these shuttlecocks and their journey will create a legacy for the game,” he says.
The road ahead
In an interview with Rajdeep Sardesai for India Today TV, Gopichand and badminton legend Prakash Padukone explained how the number of entries for junior-level events has skyrocketed over the past few years. “There is a huge pool of talent available. How you prepare them is of utmost importance,” Gopichand told India Today. “We have to make sure we take good care of it. The base and intermediate levels must be properly maintained. For this, we need a robust coaching system and prospect planning to enable talented players to reach their full potential.
Padukone, whose academy in Bengaluru has trained Sen since he was 10, said BAI must seize the moment and push the game forward by establishing more academies across the country as it is not possible for everyone to join the first two academies in Bengaluru and Hyderabad. . Badminton can be an expensive proposition, especially for middle-class parents who yearn for their child to be the next Sindhu or Gopichand. “It will cost them around 30,000 to 35,000 rupees a month just to train and play properly. For many, it is difficult to keep that kind of money aside. Despite this, many are in the game,” explains Kumar.Costs rise once players start participating in tournaments, especially international ones.Kumar praises government for supporting players during pandemic with Khelo India scholarships and covering high salaries of foreign coaches who are now open for a work stay in India.
Already in action mode, BAI has identified coaching academies in Panchkula, Haryana and Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh, to meet the needs of players in North India; Nagpur, Maharashtra, for those in central India; and Guwahati, Assam, for those in the northeast. The UP center is already operational and the one in Guwahati will open in September. Thirty coaches will be appointed to identify and support young talent. Additionally, BAI has approached the Badminton World Federation to seek an opportunity to host two Challengers tournaments. “Our goal will be to give as many talented young players as possible the opportunity to play international tournaments in India itself,” says Sarma.
Back to home
While most of the new icons stayed on to compete in the Thailand Open, Sen, who had been battling food poisoning when he arrived in Bangkok, returned to India late on May 16. His mother Nirmala Sen and older brother Chirag, also a badminton player, were at Bengaluru airport to greet him, father-coach DK Sen and Kumar with two boxes of milk peda and bouquets. The next day, Sen went to the chief minister’s office for a congratulatory ceremony. “So many players are playing, but India has no viewers,” lamented Chirag Sen. That changed with the Thomas Cup, which made everyone take note of the Reliance-owned Sports18 channel or turn to Voot who broadcast the finals for free.
“It’s the start,” Prannoy said. “We need to build on that and start creating more champions so that over the next 10 years you see two to three more Thomas Cups coming to India.” Before May 15, it would have seemed like a pipe dream. No more.