If ever there was a stage for India’s shuttlers to show their mettle to the world, it was in the quarter-finals of the Asia Team Badminton Championships, being played in the north-western Malaysian town of Alor Setar.
Having been blessed by favourable draws, the men, led by Kidambi Srikanth, were pitted against a second-string Chinese squad, while the women, skippered by PV Sindhu, were invited to take on a none-too-strong Indonesian side.
In the event, both the Indian teams frittered away the gilt-edged opportunity presented to them at the Sultan Abdul Halim Stadium, and bowed out of the prestigious team tournament by identical 3-1 margins. Both sides launched their bids for semi-final berths with excellent victories in the opening singles, but flattered to deceive, and could not add to their tally in the three matches that followed.
World No 4, Sindhu, who faced Fitriani Fitriani for the fourth time in their respective careers, was expected to take in stride the Indonesian lead singles player, who is currently ranked a lowly No 29 on the Badminton World Federation (BWF) computer. Not least because the Indian had beaten Fitriani every time on the three previous occasions they had crossed swords.
The rangy 22-year-old Hyderabadi did not disappoint, winning in two straight games at 21-13, 24-22, although she had a real battle on her hands at the end of the second game. Holding three match-points at 20-17, the edgy Indian suffered from her by-now-familiar end-game blues, conceded four points in a row with unforced errors, and had to save a game-point at 20-21 before settling the issue.
With such an encouraging start, the top Indian doubles pair of Ashwini Ponnappa and N Sikki Reddy had the ideal platform from which they could have put the leading Indonesian pair of Greysia Polii and Apriyani Rahayu under serious pressure. But the Indians underwent the worst possible day at the office, failing to show up in the opening game, and faring only a mite better in the second, to lose at 5-21, 16-21 in a minute shy of the half-hour mark.
Not much was expected of 20-year-old Sri Krishna Priya Kudaravalli, who was elevated to the second singles slot after Ruthvika Shivani Gadde failed a fitness test. Sporting a world ranking of 67, Kudaravalli was asked to match wits with 22-year-old Hanna Ramadini, who boasted a BWF rank of No 38 and had a previous victory over the Indian in last year’s Syed Modi International. The Indonesian won at 21-8, 21-15, to give her team a 2-1 advantage.
Sindhu, playing in the second doubles with Sanyogita Ghorpade, did everything in her power to wrest the initiative from Anggia Shitta Awanda and Ni Ketut Mahadewi Istarani, and kept pace with the Indonesians until 16-all in the second stanza, before conceding the match in a flurry of errors at 21-9, 21-18.
Perhaps the Indian skipper realised that, even if she put her heart and soul into the doubles, and managed somehow to pull it out, India had scant chance of winning the tie after fielding 18-year-old Rutaparna Panda, who predominantly plays doubles, in the third and final singles against Gregoria Mariska Tunjung. It was a bizarre decision on the Indian team management’s part to give Panda a punt at what could well have been the deciding match of the tie, had Sindhu managed to win the second doubles.
The jubilant Indonesians thus went through to Saturday’s semi-finals, where they will take on the all-round might of Japan, while China and South Korea clash in the other semi-final.
The Chinese scored a 3-1 triumph against Thailand, who were without the services of their 2013 world champion, Ratchanok Intanon. The Thais unexpectedly managed a consolation point through Pornpawee Chochuwong, who pipped left-hander He Bingjiao at 25-23 in the deciding game of a long-drawn second singles encounter.
Korea stormed past Malaysia by a 3-0 scoreline, and look set to give the Chinese a run for their money. The Chinese have a strong singles line-up, comprising Chen Yufei, Bingjiao and Gao Fangjie, while Korea’s challenge is spearheaded by Sung Ji Hyun and Lee Jang Mi. Both sides have formidable doubles twosomes in their ranks.
If India’s women had disappointed in the morning session, it was the turn of the men to be prodigal in the evening. They were playing a second-string Chinese side led by 21-year-old Shi Yuqi, last year’s All England runner-up; and one that was bereft of Lin Dan, Chen Long and the two powerful doubles combinations of Zhang Nan-Liu Cheng and Li Junhui-Liu Yuchen.
Srikanth gave India the perfect start by staging a sterling rearguard action to tame Shi in a 52-minute match at 14-21, 21-16, 21-7. That should have spurred the top Indian pair of Satwiksairaj Rankireddy and Chirag Shetty to put their best foot forward against Tan Qiang and He Jiting in the stellar doubles. But the Indians, who had beaten Indonesia’s Kevin Sanjaya Sukamuljo and Mohammad Ahsan the previous day, succumbed to the wiles of the Chinese teenagers by a 17-21, 18-21 scoreline.
That gave B Sai Praneeth a tremendous opportunity of repeating his 2017 Singapore Open triumph over Qiao Bin, and taking India to a 2-1 lead in the tie. Sadly, the former Indian national champion, after making a superb start to the match, faded away gradually, and lost at 21-9, 11-21, 17-21. The 10-17 lead that Praneeth conceded in the decider proved far too much to be reeled in.
Manu Attri and Sumeeth Reddy also started attractively against Han Chengkai and Zhou Haodong, powering to a comfortable first-game victory, and then holding a 19-17 advantage in the second. They slipped badly at this stage, letting the final four points slip through their fingers, and faded away from a 5-6 position in the decider, to lose at 21-14, 19-21, 14-21. The result gave China a winning 3-1 lead in the tie.
In the men’s semi-finals, the Chinese will take on Lee Chong Wei’s Malaysia, and will find it far from easy to replicate their quarter-final triumph over the Indians. The other semi-final will pit Indonesia against Korea, after the Indonesians notched a runaway 3-0 win over fancied Japan, and Korea stumbled only slightly before edging Thailand by a 3-1 margin.
The sole consolation from the Indian campaign in Alor Setar is that both teams are assured of berths in the Thomas and Uber Cup finals, to be held in Bangkok from 20th to 27th May.
Updated Date: Feb 10, 2018 10:43 AM