PBL 2018-19: Hyderabad Hunters, Mumbai Rockets move further away from chasing pack despite losing trump apiece
By the end of the third leg of PBL, which has already covered Mumbai, Hyderabad and Pune, five of the nine teams in the fray had played four ties each
In spite of the massive upheavals in the results of matches played on the first dozen days of the fourth edition of the 23-day Premier Badminton League (PBL-4), the two teams that contested last year’s finals – winners Hyderabad Hunters and runners-up Mumbai Rockets – continued to occupy pole positions on the table.
By the end of the third leg of the league, which has already covered Mumbai, Hyderabad and Pune, five of the nine teams in the fray had played four ties each. Awadhe Warriors and Delhi Dashers had played three each, while Bengaluru Raptors and Chennai Smashers had played just two each. Therefore, providing a proper sitrep (situational report) on the standings has been a far from simple task.
Defending champions Hyderabad, who have played four of the six ties they are scheduled to contest in this year’s league, have almost definitely made the semi-finals, with 17 points in the kitty from 20 matches – 12 regular victories, four losses, three trump wins and one trump loss (two points are awarded for every trump win, while one point is deducted from the tally if the nominated trump loses).
Mumbai have 14 points from their four ties thus far. Like Hyderabad, they have played 20 matches, but won nine, lost seven, had three trump wins and one trump loss. Mumbai’s ace in the hole has been 24-year-old Sameer Verma, who has duly delivered a men’s singles point in each of the four ties he has been asked to play, while Denmark’s Anders Antonsen has won three of his four singles matches.
Ahmedabad Smash Masters, who were unbeaten after playing three ties over the first two legs of the league in Mumbai and Hyderabad, were finally subjected to a sensational (-1)-6 pounding at the hands of Chennai Smashers, and ended the Pune leg with 11 points from their four ties. It was a shock result since Chennai had not fared at all well against Hyderabad, crumbling to a 0-5 defeat.
As for the other six teams, Awadhe Warriors have 10 points from three matches; debutants Pune 7 Aces have 9 from four ties; North Eastern Warriors have 8 from four; Bengaluru Raptors have 7 from two; Chennai Smashers have 6 from two ties; and Delhi Dashers are languishing in the cellar, with a solitary point from three ties.
At around the half-way stage of this year’s competition, there are only two teams that have got through their ties so far without a losing a trump match – Awadhe Warriors from their three ties, and Bengaluru Raptors from the two they have played. The importance of ensuring a victory for one’s trump can be gauged from the fact that Delhi, who have had their trump broken thrice, are at the bottom of the table, while North Eastern, the only other team to have lost the trump thrice, are in sixth place.
The two unbeaten men’s singles players who have done their teams proud are Sameer Verma of Mumbai Rockets and Dutchman Mark Caljouw, who was picked up by Hyderabad Hunters at the auction for a bargain at Rs 7 lakhs. Bengaluru’s Kidambi Srikanth has been seen in action only twice so far, but has delivered on both occasions, being decidedly lucky to win at 15-14 in the third game of his clash against Pune’s Ajay Jayaram.
One can, of course, understand and appreciate the confidence with which Verma has been playing, since he was a losing semi-finalist at the year-ending World Tour grand finals in Guangzhou, in mid-December. The efficient Verma has been winning all his matches with a degree of comfort, beating the likes of HS Prannoy, Tian Houwei and Harsheel Dani in straight games, though he took a bit longer to tame Awadhe’s exciting Korean import, Lee Dong Keun, in three thrilling games.
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But the revelation of the tournament has been 23-year-old Caljouw, who has lit up the courts in the three centres so far with his aggressive all-action style and swift movements on the court. He was fortunate to beat teenaged Pune 7 Aces’ Lakshya Sen on the golden point in the decider in the very first match of the competition in Mumbai, and also beat Houwei at 15-14 in the second game, but won his other two encounters with a degree of comfort.
South Korean veteran Lee Hyun Il (38), who had helped Hyderabad Hunters cross the line against Mumbai Rockets in last year’s final, has also been a tower of strength for the same team, winning three of his four matches thus far, and only losing to fellow-countryman Son Wan Ho, eight years his junior.
Lee’s clash of the left-handers on New Year’s Day against the ebullient Thai, Tanongsak Saensomboonsuk of North Eastern Warriors, showcased his steady, economical, no-frills style against the no-holds-barred, all-action game of the Thai. It was essential for him to win his match, since his team had nominated him as their trump, and would have suffered dearly if he had been beaten.
Former world champion Viktor Axelsen, who has been captaining the Ahmedabad Smash Masters team, has been a sore disappointment in this PBL, with two defeats from three matches. The towering Dane is back from a couple of injuries, and is not anywhere near his fluid best on the court. Nor is Prannoy, who moves rather gingerly on his troublesome right knee, and Delhi’s Indonesian import, Tommy Sugiarto, who hardly looks the part of a top-ten player, though he did beat Axelsen.
The much-awaited clash on New Year’s Day between PV Sindhu of Hyderabad and Saina Nehwal of North Eastern Warriors, playing her first match in the league after sitting out the earlier three rounds, was a big disappointment. Saina looked like Saina only in the first game, after she staged a rearguard action to wrest it from Sindhu’s grasp. But she began hobbling early in the second game, as a result of a long-standing shin problem, and was a passenger for the rest of the match.
Among the women, Spaniard Carolina Marin, the three-time world champion and 2016 Olympic gold medallist, has recovered her form in no uncertain manner after losing her opening match against Sindhu in the Pune-Hyderabad clash. Other impressive players in the league have been South Korean Sung Ji Hyun, icon player of Chennai Smashers, and Beiwen Zhang of Awadhe Warriors, who have both beaten Sindhu, and are only slated to clash against each other in Bengaluru on 7 January.
Over the next five days, starting Wednesday, the action will take place at The Arena by TransStadia in Ahmedabad. The host team is scheduled to play two matches in front of their home crowds – against Awadhe Warriors on 4 January, and Hyderabad Hunters on 6 January. Axelsen, Sourabh Verma and Scottish lass, Kirsty Gilmour, will get a chance to help their side make a dash for the play-off semi-finals, scheduled in Bengaluru on 11 and 12 January.
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The tournament will start with main draw from 11 January and no spectators will be allowed at the venue, owing to the COVID-19 pandemic
Top seed Sindhu, a former world champion, took 36 minutes to get the better of 21-year-old Chaliha 21-7 21-18 and set up a last-four clash with Thailand's Supanida Katethong, seeded sixth.