Just over a year back, India achieved one of the most significant milestones in their badminton team championship history, when they bagged the Commonwealth Games gold medal at the expense of a strong, all-round Malaysian squad.
That epochal win, on Australia's Gold Coast, was all the more satisfying because the crucial victory in the five-match team final, played on the lines of the forthcoming Sudirman Cup mixed team competition, was notched by captain Kidambi Srikanth, who downed the legendary Lee Chong Wei in two straight games, to contribute the vital point in India's narrow 3-2 triumph.
In hindsight, one could appreciate the importance of Srikanth's contribution to the team effort, since the then 35-year-old Lee went on to reverse the result in the individual singles final in no uncertain manner. The veteran Malaysian's three-game triumph was remarkable for the commanding manner in which he romped to victory in the decider.
The form of India's top shuttlers on the eve of 2019 Sudirman Cup is at a poorer level than it was at the Commonwealth Games even as the quality of competition in Nanning is much higher than it was in Australia. Not one of them has been playing at a consistent level.
Nevertheless, Srikanth, who currently sits on the ninth spot in the Badminton World Federation (BWF) rankings, and is scheduled to lead the team again, sounded quite upbeat when he was invited to talk about India's prospects this time.
"I have seen the Chinese, Indonesians and Malaysians celebrating team wins in a big way and I do believe the time is ripe for India to leverage its all-round strength and make a statement in Nanning," he said.
When outsiders Denmark won the Thomas Cup in Kunshan (China) in 2016 and Japan pocketed the Uber Cup in Bangkok (Thailand) last year, both teams celebrated their victories in a big way and rightly so, since favourites China were left by the wayside on both occasions.
But neither Denmark nor Japan have ever won the Sudirman Cup, instituted in 1989 and named after Dick Sudirman, a former Indonesian badminton international and founder of the Persekutuan Bulutangkis (PBSI, or Badminton Association of Indonesia). China have been the most successful nation having won the title 10 times with South Korea winning four times while Indonesia won the inaugural edition.
"We have never been able to achieve anything that big in team events," Srikanth admitted. "But I started off this year well at the PBL (Premier Badminton League) and our other players have been showing good form in World Tour tournaments, with Saina (Nehwal) winning in Indonesia and Sameer (Verma) playing well since the World Tour finals in December last year.
"Individually we have been doing well, but perhaps we have not been consistent. In some tournaments, I have done well, and then it's someone else. So if all of us can peak at the same moment in Nanning, India can do well as a team and cause a few surprises.”
Strangely, this time India have fielded a tight 13-member team in the tournament, unlike several other nations who have nominated squads stretching to 20 members. Indonesia, Malaysia and China have all come out in full strength, at least as far as numbers are concerned, with 20-member squads.
The elite Group 1, where twelve of the world's best teams have been lined up, has been divided into four pools. India have been clubbed in Group 1D with China and Malaysia and must have at least one pool victory in order to be able to progress to the quarter-final stage. And that win is expected to come against a Malaysia unfortunately deprived of the services of Lee Chong Wei.
For reasons not known, India have selected just two players in each of the two singles events – Srikanth and Sameer Verma among the men and PV Sindhu and Saina Nehwal among the women. The current form of neither of the two men inspires confidence that they can turn out world-beating performances, day after day for a week, in the tough matches expected in the elite Group 1.
As far as the women are concerned, Saina has done better on the world circuit than Sindhu, who has been a sore disappointment in her six outings this year. Saina did win the Indonesia Masters title when reigning world champion, Carolina Marin of Spain, twisted her right knee during the final, but her recent record against Chinese shuttlers has not been encouraging. Nor has Sindhu fared well against either Chen Yufei or He Bingjiao, the top-two hopes of the host nation.
India's men's doubles hopes rest in the hands of Satwiksairaj Rankireddy and Chirag Shetty, who have come together again after the former spent several months on the sidelines with injury. Their back-up, Manu Attri and Sumeeth B Reddy, have not had any outstanding results on the world circuit this year and their services are unlikely to be utilised unless one of the top two doubles players gets injured.
The women's doubles duo of Ashwini Ponnappa and N Sikki Reddy, ranked 25th in the world, would find it difficult to the beat the Chinese 21-year-olds, Jia Yifan and Chen Qingchen, who have been playing even better of late than their World No 5 ranking would indicate. Meghana Jakkampudi and Poorvisha S Ram occupy the 34th position in the ladder and would find it even harder to make an impression.
As for the mixed doubles, the Indians could be forgiven for writing off this event even before it has begun, for the Chinese boast the world's top two pairings of Zheng Siwei-Huang Yaqiong and Wang Yilyu-Huang Dongping in their line-up. It is hard to see either Rankireddy-Ponnappa (ranked 25th) or Pranaav Jerry Chopra-Sikki Reddy (ranked 30th) besting either of these illustrious duos.
However, both the Indian women's doubles and mixed doubles pairings would find it much easier to beat their Malaysian counterparts, whose rankings are far below those of the Indians. It would, hence, be wiser for the Indians to just go through the motions against China and concentrate all their energies on the crucial group 1D match against Malaysia and on the expectedly tough quarter-final, thereafter.
Updated Date: May 18, 2019 14:11:53 IST