How have the mighty fallen! Chennai Smashers, defending champions of the Premier Badminton League (PBL), and Mumbai Rockets, the team they knocked out in the 2017 final, both bid adieu to this year’s competition at the league stage itself, failing to garner sufficient points to make the cut for the play-off semi-finals.
Although the four semi-finalists had been decided by the final league tie of the Chennai leg itself, it took the very last face-off of the Hyderabad leg to decide the order of the top four. Host team, Hyderabad Hunters, playing in front of their raucously vociferous fans, dealt the Bengaluru Blasters a comprehensive, if unexpected, 6-(-1) thumping, winning both the trump matches at stake in the tie.
The clean sweep of all five matches took Hyderabad to the top of the eight-team table, but did not prevent the Bengaluru team from taking the fourth spot and qualifying for the play-off semi-finals. Possibly the fact that they had made the last-four grade even if they lost all their matches in the final league tie induced Bengaluru to rest their captain and world champion, Viktor Axelsen of Denmark, and allow their second-stringers a last gallop before the business end of the tournament.
Actually, the early trends in this third edition of PBL had put Bengaluru in the running for top honours at the league stage, when the Blasters had posted comprehensive victories in their first two pool games, including a 6-(-1) whitewash of Mumbai Rockets. If they appeared to lose steam towards the end of their pool campaign, and eventually finished fourth on the table, it seemed that they were holding themselves in check, and would unleash their best at the knock-out stage.
The other two sides in the fray for the top prize are newbies Ahmedabad Smash Masters and Delhi Dashers. HS Prannoy, the most expensive player in the league, at Rs 65 lakhs, and women’s World No 1, Tai Tzu Ying of Chinese Taipei put in sterling performances (both lost only one each of their five league encounters) for the Gujarat team, to power them to the second spot on the table; while Chinese left-hander Tian Houwei was outstanding for Delhi, thrusting them into the third berth on the table.
The teams to join Chennai and Mumbai in the shuffle towards the exit door after failing to make the last-four grade, were the fancied Awadhe Warriors, led by Saina Nehwal, and the other newcomers, North Eastern Warriors, for whom skipper Ajay Jayaram, still not appearing fully fit after a lengthy sojourn on the sidelines due to injury, put up a patchy show.
Last year, Chennai had pipped Mumbai by a wafer-thin 4-3 margin, with the trumps on both sides coming good, and the tie going down to the final game of the fifth match, in which Thailand’s temperamental, but hugely talented, Tanongsak Saensomboonsuk had outlasted and outwitted Ajay Jayaram with a come-from-behind performance full of grit and flair.
It was the left-handed Tanongsak again who put in one of the stand-out performances of the tournament, pipping Prannoy at 15-14 in the third and deciding game of a magnificent, bitterly fought men’s singles encounter in the course of the Chennai-Ahmedabad tie.
The result brought to an end Prannoy’s unbeaten record of ten matches (including seven in a row last year) in the Premier Badminton League, and put the Thai southpaw with the quicksilver reflexes back in the limelight, albeit all too briefly, since, following Chennai’s exit, he will take no further part in this year’s PBL.
Prannoy’s record of ten successive triumphs will take some beating, although Pusarla Venkata Sindhu has launched a run of her own, remaining unbeaten in the five matches she played in this year’s competition. She has taken all-comers in stride this year, including the reigning world no 1, Tai Tzu Ying, whom she downed quite convincingly during the Chennai-Ahmedabad encounter.
Sadly, Sindhu will have no opportunity of furthering her record this year, as she is in the same boat as Tanongsak – out of the tournament, due to Chennai’s inability to qualify for the semi-finals. It must also be noted that Sindhu was not pitted against either compatriot Saina or Olympic gold medallist Carolina Marin, since the Lucknow side chose to drop the former for the Awadhe-Chennai clash, and because a Chennai-Hyderabad clash did not take place at all in this year’s schedule.
With both Saina and Sindhu out of the picture, Tai of Taipei will be heavily favoured to score over every other player during the remaining three matches in the league. She will be heavily favoured to beat Scotland’s Kirsty Gilmour when Ahmedabad clash with Bengaluru in the second semi-final on Saturday. Prannoy is expected to be her partner-in-crime; and, in his current irresistible form, will have his best chance of lowering the colours of world champion Axelsen, unbeaten in this year’s League.
Before that mouth-watering encounter, Friday’s first semi-final will have the Hyderabad Hunters taking on Delhi Dashers in front of their home crowds. The Hunters, powered by Spaniard Marin, Korean veteran Lee Hyun Il, B Sai Praneeth and the hard-hitting teenager, Satwiksairaj Rankireddy, will be strongly favoured to slip it across Delhi, for whom Tian Houwei has been a pillar of strength, but has not received commensurate support from Vincent Wong of Hong Kong, Sung Ji Hyun of Korea and Russians Vladimir Ivanov and Ivan Sozonov.
Badminton aficionados will look forward to a top-of-the-line final clash between Tai, who has comprehensively dominated the 2017 season, but is yet to win a world or Olympic title, and Marin, who has two world titles (2014 and 2015) to her credit, along with the 2016 Rio Olympics gold medal, but is not yet at her best this year.
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Updated Date: Jan 12, 2018 16:43:03 IST