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Abhijeet Kulkarni

Abhijeet Kulkarni worked as a sports journalist for over a decade and is currently associated with LAKSHYA, a non-governmental organisation which identifies and nurtures sports talent at the grass-root level.

Doubles chaos: Why Jwala, Ponnappa remain outsiders in Indian badminton

In the last two days, the only talking point in the media and the badminton circle has been the "betrayal" of Commonwealth Games gold medallists Jwala Gutta and Ashwini Ponnappa by the Indian Badminton League (IBL) organisers.

The world championship bronze medallists were humiliated by cutting down their base price to half a few hours before the Players' auction.

Despite the many conspiracy theories, I have no doubt that the organisers explanation is true. They said that it was done under the influence of the market forces since none of the franchisees were willing to buy the doubles stars at their base price of $50,000 after it was made clear that women's doubles event won't feature in the league.

According to the organisers, the decision to remove women's doubles from the roster was taken because the standard is not very good in India and the country's mens singles players needed to be given a chance.
While the debate for and against the decision can go on for hours, one thing is crystal clear - we blatantly discriminate between singles and doubles in India.

File photo of Jwala Gutta. Reuters

File photo of Jwala Gutta. Reuters

Take the example of the players' auction itself.

Despite the merciless culling of the women's doubles, the teams would have to play one men's doubles and mixed doubles in their quest to win the lucrative $1mn prize money league. But even a tertiary glance at the list of players picked would tell you that the only focus of the teams was on singles.

While most of these franchises were willing to break the bank to sign the top singles players, it seems very few gave too much thought to their doubles combinations.

Take the example of mixed doubles: Despite accepting the fact that there is dearth of talent in India, not a single foreign player was picked in the auction.

And mind you there were players like former world champion Kamilla Rytter Juhl and multiple Super series winner Cristina Pedderson who could have been bought at a lesser price than Lucknow paid for Pradnya Gadre ($46000). Even England’s Jenny Wallwork ($5000) would have been a better option that some of the Indian mixed doubles players.

But since the foreign players were put up for auction before the Indian singles stars, no teams bothered to bid for them and then had to pay a lot more for Indian players in the fear that they would lose out on even these ones. Picking one of these foreigners could have guaranteed at least one match because apart from world number one Lee Chong Wei, no one can guarantee one point to their respective teams in any match.

In fact, looking at the six squads, Krrish Delhi Smashers should be happy to bag Jwala after their failed attempt to bid for Chong Wei. Given the fact that only an Indian women’s player would be fielded for mixed doubles, the combination of Jwala and Diju would be the runaway favourites in all matches.

The Smashers also seem to be the only team to have given a thought to their doubles bids and went all out to sign both Kien Keat Koo and Boon Heong Tan, the world number two combination from Malaysia. It can’t be a mere coincidence that the coach of the team is Malaysian star Rashid Sidek, who knows the importance of doubles in team competitions.

Pune also have picked multiple time national champion Sanave and Rupesh, who have been playing together for almost a decade.

All other teams have doubles specialists who play with different partners on international circuit and none of them are going to get time to gel together as they would come just a day or two before the start of the IBL on August 14.

Those who follow badminton will tell you that doubles is technically a very different ball game and unlike tennis, singles players can’t really shoulder that responsibility in the team championships though the organisers have allowed one player to play two matches in the IBL.

The best example of the Indian coaches trying to field the best singles players in doubles and failing miserably was when the junior national coach Sanjeev Sachdeva fielded Saina Nehwal and Guru Sai Dutt in a team championship mixed doubles match at the world juniors and they were hammered by their opponents.

Indian doubles stars have been complaining for years about the step-motherly treatment being given to them be it in tournament exposure or rewarding their achievements. While singles stars P Kashyap, Saina Nehwal and P V Sindhu have time and again been financially rewarded for their international performance, the likes of Jwala, Ashwini and Diju had to wage a war of words before getting any monetary benefits.

The Badminton Association of India president Dr Akhilesh Das Gupta has promised to change things around by doing more than lip service to doubles. We will wait for that day to arrive.

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