Former players unanimous in disapproval as BWF mulls change in format

The BWF wishes to change the scoring system to a best-of-five-games of 11 points each (11x5) from the existing best-of-three-games of 21 points each (21x3), but a host of former players and coaches oppose the move.

Shirish Nadkarni April 28, 2020 11:44:45 IST
Former players unanimous in disapproval as BWF mulls change in format

“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

The wisdom of the old axiom – not to disturb the tried and tested – appears to be utterly lost on the Badminton World Federation (BWF), the international controlling body of the shuttle sport, as it launches a fresh bid to try and make the game shorter and quicker – which many badminton lovers fear could render it bereft of its finer nuances.

Former players unanimous in disapproval as BWF mulls change in format

Representational image. AFP

The BWF wishes to change the scoring system to a best-of-five-games of 11 points each (11x5), on the point-per-rally format, in preference to the existing best-of-three-games of 21 points each (21x3), also on the point-per-rally format. In other words, the score moves forward on every point, with the player that wins a point getting to serve the next point.

Both these systems are different from the scoring format that prevailed from the inception of the sport until the year 2001, when matches consisted of three games of 15 points each (15x3), but with the score only moving forward if a player won the point on his or her own serve. Thus, if players were to win alternate points, there was every possibility of the score getting stuck until a player won a point on serve.

In 2002, the BWF first tinkered with the scoring rules, and introduced matches played to five games of 7 points each (7x5), with points to be only won on serve. The format was hated so much, that it lasted just one year before the BWF brought in the 21x3 point-per-rally format that also faced initial resistance, but gradually gained acceptance and popularity. It continues to this day.

The world body had indicated last year that it would bring in the revolutionary 11x5 scoring system to replace the existing 21x3 format, in an effort to shorten the game and push up TV ratings. The move to ram through the shorter scoring system failed to garner the requisite number of votes at the special meeting called by the BWF. It was to have been introduced at the All-England Championships in March 2019, but was dropped at the last minute owing to players' resistance.

However, the world body does not appear to be deterred by what it considered a temporary setback, and seems hell-bent on making it happen this year, if tournament play is resumed after the coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic is brought under control.

“I understand that the BWF wants to keep the sport relevant, but why change something that is already well-received?” said Malaysia’s former Thomas Cupper and current national coach Rashid Sidek, while speaking to the New Straits Times in Kuala Lumpur. Rashid is the fourth of five brothers, members of the illustrious Sidek family that dominated Malaysian and world badminton during the 1980s and 1990s.

“I don’t see people complaining about how long a tennis match goes on for, or even a cricket match, for that matter. Badminton is a long-standing sport like the rest, and it has its own identity. We don’t want to lose that.”

Another Malaysian legend, the recently retired Lee Chong Wei, also gave a thumbs-down to the BWF’s renewed intention of introducing the 11x5 scoring system. Being one who has experienced all four scoring systems, the 38-year-old Malaysian ace said his preference was for the original 15x3 format.

“My personal view is that if the BWF were to implement the 11-point system, the main reason would be to accommodate the broadcasters and generate more commercial revenue,” Chong Wei said. “I still think the original 15x3 point-on-serve-only system is the one to bring out the best in the game. It tested the skills, temperament and staying power of the players to the utmost.”

Closer home, several former India internationals feel that the BWF should look at other ways to popularise the sport instead of making drastic changes to the game. They are convinced that badminton will lose its identity if too many changes are introduced.

“The BWF has tried this in the past as well, and it is my view that it is definitely not desirable,” says chief coach of the Prakash Padukone Badminton Academy (PPBA), U Vimal Kumar. “It was rejected in the past, and I fail to understand why they are trying to push it through again, especially at this critical stage when there is so much uncertainty surrounding the resumption of international competition.”

Vimal feels the present scoring pattern of 21x3 point-per-rally system is going really well; and he fails to understand the rationale behind tampering with it, particularly in the singles events.

“At the moment, both singles and doubles events produce exciting badminton with the 21x3 format, and the television broadcasters are also happy with it,” he says. “It is very disappointing that just a certain group of people are trying to make this change. It is the BWF President, Poul-Erik Hoyer-Larsen (a former All-England champion) who is obsessed about it, and is possibly trying to push it through before his term as President ends.”

Vimal feels there are many ways in which the issue can be addressed. He is adamant that, if at all it is felt that the game is getting too long, then any fiddling with the scoring pattern should be done in the doubles events only – in the manner it has been done in tennis, shortening the mixed doubles game to a sudden-death point after the first deuce has been called.

“Whatever you may say, the most watched and most followed event is singles,” Vimal insists. “Even men’s doubles is fast and exciting, so you could try it with the mixed doubles if you really must. Otherwise, in a shortened game, the technique of the strokemakers will be lost. The authorities have already made the shuttle slower than it was earlier, so there are long testing rallies where one defends, the other attacks, and then they switch.

“There are so many nuances involved in the sport, and it would be a pity to lose them due to a shortened game. In the 21x3 game, everything is tested – the game is exciting, there is scope for strokeplay, all styles of play can survive in this format, the player’s stamina is also tested. All parameters are involved – your skills, the mental and physical aspects are all tested. That should not be taken away from the sport.”

Former Indian Thomas Cupper Asif Parpia, who, like Vimal, was an attacking and aggressive strokemaker in his prime during the 1970s, is in full agreement with the PPBA chief coach.

“I think we should stick to the 21x3 format because it has worked for such a long time, and it will keep working,” says Parpia. “It gives both the defensive player and the attacking player a chance. If this format is changed to 11x5, I believe that a hard-hitter would have an advantage because he would try to finish a match in three quick games of 11 points each, not giving a defensive player much of a chance.

“With respect to going back to the old format of 15x3 point-on-serve-only format, I believe that was a system that gave a player with more stamina a better chance to win. The point was worked in such a way that the player would take chances only on his own serve, and play very carefully and safe on the opponent’s serve. The 21x3 system allows a player to exhibit more flair.”

National coach and Dronacharya Award winner Pullela Gopichand is another among the breed of shuttlers who feels that the current 21x3 format has been a winner, and should be persisted with.

“I am not very sure why the BWF desires a change when 21x3 has turned out to be a good format, and the sport has grown tremendously, both in terms of popularity and prize money, over the last few years,” he says. “So I don’t see any immediate need to change it.

“However, if there is any cogent reason for a change in order to shorten the game, I really don’t see 11x5 as being a good option. I would rather go into 15x3 on the point-per-rally system, because it doesn’t alter the nature of the game too much, and it shortens it by around 25%. I can’t see that the 11x5 format actually shortens the game, but it would definitely affect the quality of the game.”

Another former international, Ameeta Kulkarni-Sinh, who represented India in the early-1980s, says, “I think it is the present system of 21x3 has brought Indian players to the top at international level. Therefore, it is to the benefit of Indian and European players that the present system should be maintained. I believe the 15x3 system with the point only on serve was just too tough for Indian players; it was good for the Chinese and Indonesians.

“In the old 15x3 format, there was scope to see more skills, but it was tough to dominate the Chinese and Indonesians, who could win in a runaway manner. The 21x3 system keeps the score moving along. It has definitely made the game finish more quickly than during the 15x3 game days. People enjoy it on TV, and it also suits the Indian physiology.”

Ameeta feels that the 15-point game required more strength and stamina – which Indians probably lacked in those days, and therefore just could not climb the ladder. “Today, more Indian players are known on the circuit,” she points out.

Surprisingly, the one Indian badminton icon to give the 11x5 system the thumbs-up is 1965 Asian champion Dinesh Khanna, renowned as the ultimate returning machine. Khanna’s phenomenal stamina and defensive abilities brought many an international player to his knees with the 15x3 point-on-serve format.

“As far as reduction from 21x3 to 11x5 is concerned, I do feel that the 21-point game had become very taxing for the players because a normal three-game match was going to 70 minutes, and even up to 90 minutes,” says Khanna. “You recall that epic World Championship final in 2017, when Japan’s Nozomi Okuhara beat our PV Sindhu in a heart-bursting 110 minutes, which, of course, was an exception.

“With the kind of competition there is in world badminton, the players are getting injured very often. It is also because of the cramped schedule. The games are becoming very tough, and the players end up playing three tournaments in successive weeks.”

Khanna feels that the format should be reduced from 21 points to 18 points, but concedes that the BWF is trying to do the same thing in a different manner – they are reducing each game to 11 points, and asking that five such games be played.

“I would have thought it would be better if they were to try this format out first – perhaps half the tournaments to be played with the new format, and half with the existing one,” says Khanna. “That would give them a better idea.

“Otherwise, I feel the players have got used to the 21-point format, and I feel they will be able to get used to the 11-point format, as well. I have spoken to some of the players who feel that more emphasis will be laid on speed and power. I think the 11x5 format is worth trying out, because it would result in the reduction of on-court time by 12-14 percent, which, I think, is the correct thing to do.

“As a matter of interest, I was discussing the scoring system with a Malaysian who is on the technical committee of the BWF. He said that when the change was made from the 15x3 format to the present 21x3 format, they held a tournament in Malaysia with the new format, and the longest game lasted just 26 minutes!

“At the time, the players blasted the 21x3 format, saying that the game was being destroyed. Today, however, you see close matches in the same format lasting well over an hour. I don’t think the 11x5 format will change the nuances of the game.”

Perhaps the BWF needs to give this matter further thought, and take the views of current and former players in a much larger sample size than it has done. The world body could invest in a large general meeting of players, coaches and technical officials, who should be called one day earlier before the start of a particular tournament, and the entire matter should be discussed threadbare.

“Whose views is the BWF taking at the moment?” asks Vimal. “Maybe it is only the views of people who are past their prime. If you take the view of Lin Dan, he might say he wants to play for another five years, and so, the game should be shortened. But would such a view represent the views of all stakeholders in badminton?”

As of now, the next AGM of the BWF is tentatively scheduled for August in Aarhus, Denmark, together with the Thomas and Uber Cup international team events. It remains to be seen if, in the wake of strict directives from the Danish government, the world body would be required to postpone the meeting until the COVID-19 pandemic is brought under control.

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