PBL 2018-19: Hyderabad Hunters, Mumbai Rockets stand out in first round of matches as poor playing conditions plague NSCI leg

An initial look at seven of the nine teams making up this year’s Premier Badminton League (PBL) has forced the conclusion that, despite the massive margins of victory and defeat in two of the three ties played in Mumbai, there is not too much separating the teams. Hyderabad Hunters and Mumbai Rockets have done the early running with runaway victories that have put them firmly on top of the leaderboard.

 PBL 2018-19: Hyderabad Hunters, Mumbai Rockets stand out in first round of matches as poor playing conditions plague NSCI leg

The pair of Mathias Christiansen and Ashwini Ponnappa powered Awadhe Warriors to victory over Pune 7 Aces. Twitter@PBLIndiaLive

Nevertheless, there is still hope for newcomers Pune 7 Aces, despite their two defeats in three days at the NSCI Dome. Pune’s defeat by a thumping 6-(-)1 margin at the hands of defending champions Hyderabad in the opening tie of the 23-day tournament looked far worse on paper than it actually was.

Debutant Lakshya Sen was deadlocked at match-point 14-all in the deciding game of his clash against Dutchman Mark Caljouw, before losing the golden point with a defensive jab that glanced wide off his racket. The teenaged former junior World No 1 could so easily have won the tie, and given the team, co-owned by Bollywood starlet Taapsee Pannu, the ideal start in this year’s league.

The men’s doubles that followed, between Pune’s Mathias Boe and Chirag Shetty and Hyderabad’s Bodin Issara and Kim Sa Rang also went the full distance, and ended in a tight 13-15 defeat for the Indo-Danish combination, which had been nominated as the trump for their side.

Going down 2-(-)1 after just two matches did not help the new team’s morale, which was dented further when 38-year-old South Korean left-hander Lee Hyun Il, who had been a key player in Hyderabad’s annexation of the title last year, pipped Frenchman Brice Leverdez 15-14, 15-12 in what was a trump match for his team.

Thus, even before the marquee match between PV Sindhu, playing for Hyderabad this year, and three-time world champion and Olympic gold medallist Carolina Marin, the tie had been sealed in favour of the Hunters. Sindhu, fresh from her exploits in the World Tour finals in Guangzhou, kept her new-found composure at the end of the thrilling three-gamer, to win at 11-15, 15-8, 15-13; and further widen the chasm between the two sides.

The factor that contributed most to Pune’s heavy defeat was the abominable playing conditions at the Dome, that made accurate strokeplay a veritable impossibility. A diabolical draft blew across court from the left side of the chair umpire towards the official’s right side, and caused the lofted shuttle to drift out repeatedly along that sideline on both sides of the court, whereas a shuttle intentionally hit wide of the opposite sideline kept coming back into the court in a disconcerting manner.

It was a feast for stonewallers and returning machines like South Korea’s Son Wan Ho, the icon player for the Awadhe Warriors; they are much more used to playing the strokes safely along the central corridor of the court. However, it was a total nightmare for stroke-players who may lack in power but rely on pinpoint accuracy for their smashes and toss clears along the sidelines.

Ergo, match statistics showed that nearly three-quarters of the games were won from the so-called “good” side, where the breeze assisted the shuttle to fly faster. Players who won the toss at the start of the match invariably picked the “bad” side first, so that, in case a match went the full distance, they would get to play the second game and the second half of the decider from the better side, from which they could keep the bird down, and use the extra wind thrust to hit their smashes harder than normal.

Poor Lakshya Sen suffered the mortification of playing the very first match of the tournament from the good side, and won it comfortably against Caljouw. But he suffered from the other side in the second game, and just could not pull out the points that mattered. In the third game, he changed ends with a handy 8-3 lead, but found his delicate drop shots from the baseline repeatedly finding the net, and his too clears drifting wide and long at the opposite baseline.

If he still managed to pull the match to a 14-all deadlock in the third game, it was because he was decidedly superior to Caljouw in virtually all aspects of the game. Unlucky to lose that opening tie to the Dutchman, Sen adjusted brilliantly in his second encounter, two days later, against Awadhe Warriors’ World no 28, Lee Dong Keun, taking the “bad” side in the first game, and blitzing through the second, for an impressive 15-11, 15-8 result against the South Korean.

Sadly, Sen could not stop the Pune 7 Aces from going down 3-4 in the tie against Awadhe, after Denmark’s Mathias Christensen played the star turn for the Lucknow team, winning both the men’s and mixed doubles with Yang Lee and Ashwini Ponnappa, respectively. The gangling Russian, Vladimir Ivanov, proved the villain in both matches, losing in the company of Mathias Boe and Line Hojmark Kjaersfeldt, the last-named essentially a singles player drafted to play the mixed doubles.

The stout display put up by Sameer Verma, in his 15-14, 15-9 victory over Pullela Gopichand Academy stable-mate HS Prannoy, that helped Mumbai Rockets notch a runaway 5-0 victory over Delhi Dashers, cannot escape mention. While Verma was not the icon player for his team (that honour going to Korean doubles specialist Lee Yong Dae), he was a vital cog in the Mumbai wheel, manning one of the two singles slots in the company of exciting young Dane, Anders Antonsen.

Fresh from his exploits in Guangzhou, where he reached the semi-finals and actually held a match-point against eventual winner Shi Yuqi of China before succumbing, Verma handled the inimical conditions well and was not unduly extended. No doubt, there was some help from Prannoy’s hesitant movements on court; the Kerala player looked slower on his feet than usual, and seemed to be nursing a leg injury.

Mention must also be made of the fine performances of two second-string Indian shuttlers, both of who have been training at the Gopichand Academy for several years. Bengal’s Rituparna Das, playing for the North-Eastern Warriors, moved in a fluid manner on court and employed a rich repertoire of deceptive strokes to hand Scotland’s World no. 29, Kirsty Gilmour, who turned out for Ahmedabad Smash Masters, a resounding 15-8, 15-9 pounding.

Shriyanshi Pardeshi, who turned 20 in May this year, performed the star turn for Mumbai Rockets against Russian Evgeniya Kosetskaya, who was fielded as the trump for Delhi Dashers. Pardeshi recovered from a nervous start and the loss of the first game against the smooth-striding Russian, ranked 32nd in the world and the runner-up to Marin in the 2018 European Championships, to post a 12-15, 15-8, 15-10 triumph. It certainly helped that she played from the “good” side at the Dome in the second game and the second half of the decider.

The PBL now moves to Hyderabad, where the hosts will take on Chennai Smashers at the Gachibowli Stadium at 7.00 pm IST on Christmas Day. The tie will give Sindhu, who had helped Chennai win the PBL title two years ago, but has been picked up by Hyderabad this year, an opportunity of playing in front of her home crowds against the Chennai icon player, South Korea’s Sung Ji Hyun, who has troubled her sorely in the past.

The Korean, ranked 11th in the world to Sindhu’s 3rd, is 6-8 in 14 career meetings against the Indian, but had won their most recent meeting, at the November 2018 Hong Kong Open, in two straight games, albeit both extended over the extra points. Sindhu, with her new-found confidence of finishing matches, would be looking forward to gaining revenge, even though the results of PBL matches do not count in the head-to-head statistics.

The scheduling format of the PBL matches has ensured that every side does not need to visit every one of the five centres at which the matches are to be played. Chennai Smashers and Bengaluru Raptors did not need to visit Mumbai, while the Pune 7 Aces will skip Hyderabad, and re-congregate at the Shree Shiv Chhatrapati Sports Complex in their home city of Pune on 29 December for their tie against Mumbai Rockets.

Updated Date: Dec 25, 2018 18:01:21 IST