Captain Courageous. That is the title conferred on Kidambi Srikanth by his delirious teammates after the Guntur lad led Bengaluru Raptors to their first Premier Badminton League (PBL) trophy by a narrow 4-3 margin at the expense of Mumbai Rockets at the Sree Kanteerava Indoor Stadium in Bengaluru on Sunday.
It was the third successive year that the final was being decided by the odd point in seven. In the 2016-17 edition of the League, Chennai Smashers had edged out the unfortunate Mumbai squad by a solitary point in the fifth match of the tie, while last year, Hyderabad Hunters had pipped Bengaluru Blasters 4-3, with Korean veteran Lee Hyun Il doing the star turn by winning the fifth and deciding match of the final.
This time, with Bengaluru having undergone a “reverse metamorphosis” into the pre-historic dinosaur form, they simply would not be denied. Starting their campaign with a disheartening 3-4 loss to Ahmedabad Smash Masters, the Raptors gradually gathered momentum, elbowing out Pune 7 Aces (4-3), Delhi Dashers (2-1) and North Eastern Warriors (4-3), before dealing Mumbai Rockets a near-mortal blow (5-0), and getting their crucial final league points at the expense of Chennai Smashers (3-2).
In the semi-finals, the Bengaluru side eliminated Awadhe Warriors (4-2) on Friday, while Mumbai Rockets delivered the knockout punch to defending champions Hyderabad Hunters by an identical scoreline on Saturday. Having smashed the Rockets by a 5-0 scoreline at the round-robin pool stage, the Raptors could have been forgiven for being gung-ho about their prospects in the final reckoning.
However, the Bengaluru squad found their Mumbai opponents in a far more combative mood on Sunday than they had been at the group stage, and only survived the Rockets’ attack because of outstanding contributions from skipper Srikanth, the Vietnamese trump Vu Thi Thrang and the crack Indonesian men’s doubles combination of Mohammad Ahsan and Hendra Setiawan.
The tie started on a rousing note for the Rockets, with their trump mixed doubles dup of Korean Kim Gi Jung and Indonesian Pia Zebadiah Bernadette just about managing to hold off the challenge of England’s Marcus Ellis and Lauren Smith, playing in the League for the first time this year. The Mumbai pair raced through the first game, but were dragged to the golden point in the second, for a 15-8, 15-14 win.
It behooved to Srikanth’s lot to reduce the 0-2 margin by scoring a repeat triumph over the 21-year-old Dane, Anders Antonsen, named Emerging Player of the League. The aggressive Bengaluru skipper was fast, fierce and even more ruthless than he had been with Antonsen during their league clash, and won by a commanding 15-7, 15-10 scoreline.
Srikanth thus ended the league with a perfect 8-0 win-loss record, becoming the only male player this year to remain unbeaten, and going one better than HS Prannoy’s 7-0 record in the 2017-18 edition. As Bengaluru’s leader, he also contributed to team strategy by joining hands with coach Arvind Bhatt in the nomination of the trump. Bengaluru got their trump right in seven of the eight ties they played in the course of the three-week long tournament.
Srikanth’s task of picking the trump for the final was made all the easier because of the obvious weakness of the Mumbai women’s singles player. No doubt the Rockets would still be regretting their choice of greenhorn Shriyanshi Pardeshi, who lost all her matches barring the first one she played at the NSCI Dome against Evgeniya Kosetskaya of Delhi Dashers. A seriously depleted purse at the auctions no doubt induced Pardeshi’s inclusion at the rock-bottom price of Rs 1 lakh.
The Bengaluru team had no qualms whatsoever in plumping for Vietnamese Vu Thi Thrang, picked for the women’s singles at a cost of Rs 9 lakhs, as their trump player for the final. Vu duly delivered the two points at stake, being positive and dominating in her 15-8, 15-9 demolition of the hapless Pardeshi.
That result took the Raptors to a 3-2 lead, and to the threshold of a tie win, since the fourth match was to be played between Sai Praneeth and Mumbai’s Sameer Verma, both boasting a 6-1 record in this year’s league. Verma had sensationally lost his trump match with Praneeth during the Bengaluru-Mumbai clash at the league stage, after holding a potentially match-winning 8-1 lead in the decider.
The manner in which Praneeth started his duel with Verma, a repeat victory appeared very much on the cards. The Bengaluru player displayed exquisite control at the net, repeatedly ‘tumbling’ the shuttle and forcing his antagonist to produce midcourt clears, which were duly despatched with sharply angled smashes. With Praneeth winning the opening stanza at 15-7, the tie appeared to be heading for a premature finish.
But Verma had other ideas. He hustled and hustled, prolonging the rallies and defending stoutly, and concentrating on straining his rival’s suspect staying powers.
It got to a point where Praneeth was forced to go for increasingly sharp angles on his smashes, and he ended up repeatedly hitting the shuttle wide. Once Sameer had come from behind in the second game and muscled ahead after 12-all, he squeezed the life out of his regular sparring-partner at the Pullela Gopichand Academy, and waltzed away to a richly-merited 7-15, 15-12, 15-3 triumph.
With the tie scores level at 3-all, it came down to the final match of the evening, the men’s doubles, between two of the best teams in the world. Ahsan and Setiawan had two world titles behind them (2013 and 2015), but then, the Korean captain of Mumbai Rockets, Lee Yong Dae, had three world championship silvers and two bronze medals behind him, with two different partners, between 2007 and 2015.
What eventually cost the Mumbai Rockets the match, which was, without doubt, the best men’s doubles encounter in PBL 4, was the two-year gap in Yong Dae’s career, when he opted for retirement in 2016, and then decided to come back last year. The Korean showed flashes of the brilliance of his heyday, but was overall rusty, and made far too many errors to harbour any hopes of a win.
Ahsan and Setiawan did not let the Koreans settle into any kind of rhythm, and ended up worthy 15-13, 15-10 winners. The final point, obtained off a Yong Dae error, sparked off delirious celebrations by the home team, with a widely grinning Ahsan beckoning his teammates onto the court for a victory dance, even as their adoring supporters in the stands echoed their unbridled joy.
Pipped at the post by Hyderabad Hunters last year, the Bengaluru side succeeded in conquering the final frontier and getting hold of the PBL trophy. The Rs 3 crores first prize was just the icing on the cake.
Firstpost is now on WhatsApp. For the latest analysis, commentary and news updates, sign up for our WhatsApp services. Just go to Firstpost.com/Whatsapp and hit the Subscribe button.
Updated Date: Jan 14, 2019 11:13:30 IST