The miracle that Indian badminton lovers were praying for very nearly happened at Manila’s Rizal Memorial Coliseum on Saturday evening. Rank outsiders India did everything but tame defending champions Indonesia, but finally bowed out by the odd match in five, to settle for the Badminton Asia Team Championships bronze medal.
Deadlocked at 20-all in the deciding game of the third match of the semi-final against Indonesia’s reigning world champions, Mohammad Ahsan and Hendra Setiawan, India’s greenhorn doubles pairing of Dhruv Kapila and MR Arjun teetered on the threshold of giving India a 2-1 lead against the top seeds and odds-on favourites to retain the title.
Alas, the youthful Indians, who had amazed everyone by matching the veteran Indonesian twosome shot for shot through the second and third games after a disastrous opener, and saved four match-points in the decider, wilted in the face of Ahsan and Setiawan’s vast experience. They lost the tie by a 10-21, 21-14, 21-23 scoreline, to allow the holders to take that vital 2-1 lead.
Had Kapila and Arjun somehow won that high-octane doubles match, India would, in all probability, have won the tie 3-1, and qualified for Sunday’s final, for Subhankar Dey played brilliantly in the third singles, the fourth match of the tie, to peg back Shesar Hiren Rhustavito in straight games at 21-17, 21-15; and pull India back to 2-2.
It was left to the sheer class of the World’s No 1 doubles combination of Marcus Fernaldi Gideon and Kevin Sanjaya Sukamuljo to comprehensively demolish the challenge of the scratch combination of Chirag Shetty and Lakshya Sen at 21-6, 21-13; and ensure that Indonesia edged India by a 3-2 margin, and qualified to meet Malaysia on the morrow for the gold medal.
The Malaysians had few problems settling the pretensions of a Momota-less Japan 3-0 in the other semi-final. Malaysia’s premier singles star after the retirement of Lee Chong Wei, Lee Zii Jia, had few problems in taming Kanta Tsuneyama at 21-11, 8-21, 21-11, while the fast-improving Cheam June Wei overcame a second game hiccup to knock out the third Japanese Thomas Cupper, Kenta Nishimoto, at 21-19, 3-21, 21-12.
Sandwiched between these two singles wins was the doubles triumph of Aaron Chia and Soh Wooi Yik, who torpedoed the ambitions of Takuro Hoki and Yugo Kobayashi by a facile 21-18, 21-15 verdict. There can be no doubt that Japan not only missed the services of the two-time reigning world champion Kento Momota, but could also have done with the firepower of Takeshi Kamura-Keigo Sonoda, and the guile of left-handed Yuta Watanabe-Hiroyuki Endo in the paired events.
Not many had given India a ghost of a chance against a full-strength Indonesia, boasting of two singles players in the top ten in the Badminton World Federation rankings (Anthony Sinisuka Ginting at No 5, and Jonatan Christie at No 7), and the two best men’s doubles pairs on the planet — when India did not have a single player among the top ten in either the singles or the doubles.
Moreover, India had been plagued by deteriorating form in recent months on the part of its premier men’s singles players, added to injury to their main doubles hope, Satwiksairaj Rankireddy, which forced his regular partner, Shetty, to go in for four different partners in the four matches that he played in Manila. It would have made eminent good sense to take along a spare doubles player like Krishna Prasad Garaga, who had impressed everyone in the recent Premier Badminton League.
What made monumental difference to the way India played was the fielding of the younger lot, thus far dismissed as second-stringers.
While the tried and tested strings to India’s bow seemed stale and worn out, there was a decided freshness and fight in the mien of youngsters like Sen, Subhankar Dey, Kapila and Arjun, and the desire to leave their impress on the competition.
The hunger in the eyes of this upcoming bunch was amply visible to all, and stood out in stark comparison to the listlessness and resignation with which the established stars played their matches.
It was sad to see 2019 World Championships bronze medallist, B Sai Praneeth, just go through the motions in the first game against Ginting, for a 21-6 result, before abruptly throwing in the towel even before the second game could be started. Praneeth trailed throughout the opener, and did not look even remotely competitive against the bustling, diminutive Indonesian.
Despite his team having started on the worst possible note with the premature retirement of its premier singles star, 18-year-old Sen looked like he meant business against Christie, the gold medallist at the 2018 Asian Games. After 6-all in the first game, the Indian teen was always ahead, and looked a comfortable winner until he suffered a bout of nerves when leading 19-15 in the second. The game went over the extra points, but Sen kept his cool to win at 21-18, 22-20.
But it was the performance of Kapila and Arjun in the third match of the day, the second doubles (played before the first doubles, according to the order of play) that took everyone’s breath away. Ahsan and Setiawan, two skillful, battle-hardened veterans of the circuit, notched the best possible start, streaking away to the tape in the first game at 21-10, but then they didn’t know what hit them.
Perhaps the Indians took inspiration from the fact that the charismatic Indonesians (known on the circuit as ‘Daddies’, compared to ‘Minions’ Gideon and Sukamuljo) had been beaten by another Indian pair, Rankireddy and Shetty, in the French Open final last October. They matched the speed of the ‘Daddies’, and were aided by the fact that Setiawan fluffed several serves.
The youngsters appeared to have the match by the scruff of the neck when they held a 14-11 lead in the decider, but then allowed their famed rivals to claw their way back. Faced with three match-points at 17-20, Kapila and Arjun fought tooth-and-nail, and neutralised the advantage, and saved a fourth match-point at 20-21. It was sheer lack of experience of the pressure at such a juncture that prevented the Indians from closing out the match, and giving India the kind of advantage from which they would not have looked back.
The speedy, hardworking Dey would probably have taken the court against Rhustavito with the sinking feeling that, even if he were to net India its second point in the tie, there would be no way that Shetty and Sen could score against Gideon and Sukamuljo, who boast an 8-0 head-to-head record against regular partners Rankireddy and Shetty.
Nevertheless, he emerged from the dressing-room breathing fire and brimstone, seeking revenge from Rhustavito for the 6-21, 13-21 drubbing he had received at the Indonesian’s hands at the French Open, three months back. Dey outpaced his opponent, controlling the net extremely well, and finishing off the midcourt returns with authority, tearing deep rents in his rival’s defence. A 21-17, 21-15 result in 49 minutes – which was the longest match of the tie – was a correct indicator of the 26 year old Indian’s dominance.
Alas, the dominant performance came to nothing, for Gideon and Sukamuljo played their first game at a blinding pace, aware that the result of their match would decide the tie. The first game took a mere eight minutes, while the second lasted double that time, as the ‘Minions’ won at 21-6, 21-13 in a matter of 24 minutes; and consigned the gallant Indians to the consolation bronze medal -- a result they had achieved only once before, in 2016.
There can be no doubt that the Indian team in Manila will get scant sleep tonight, ruminating over that heart-rending 21-23 loss suffered by Kapila and Arjun that, had it been reversed, would have had India facing off with Malaysia on Sunday for the coveted gold.
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Updated Date: Feb 15, 2020 20:36:43 IST