As the declaration of India's Lok Sabha election results drew to a conclusion, a day after the country's disastrous exit from the group stage of the Sudirman Cup badminton mixed team championships in Nanjing, a meme went viral in sporting circles: "Smriti Irani should take up badminton, and Amit Shah should be made India's chief coach."
For the untutored who failed to make the connection, the point being made was that Indian badminton needed the Chanakya-like wiles of an Amit Shah who had dexterously plotted the BJP's thumping victory in the general elections, along with the spunk of a person like Smriti Irani, who had no qualms over taking on Congress President Rahul Gandhi in the party's traditional stronghold of Amethi, and gave him a convincing beating.
It had been heart-wrenching for the Indian badminton supporter to see the national team go down by a 2-3 margin to a young and inexperienced Malaysian squad in a Group 1D tie on Tuesday, thanks mainly to poor selection policies. Captain Kidambi Srikanth did not consent to play, claiming an injury he suffered while training; and Sameer Verma was drafted in his place against the inexperienced 21 year old Lee Zii Jia, who himself had to take the place of the legendary Lee Chong Wei.
Despite making a dream start to their campaign by winning the mixed doubles against a stronger (in rankings) Malaysian pair, India failed to take the men's singles that was crucial to their chances, when Verma had a totally off-day against Zii Jia. The Indian think-tank also fielded Manu Attri and Sumeeth Reddy in the men's doubles in place of the stronger duo of Satwiksairaj Rankireddy and Chirag Shetty, and ended up losing a match they had every chance of taking.
There was intense speculation on the reasons why Srikanth had not played, and on when he actually incurred the injury. Former national champion and Thomas Cupper, Vimal Kumar, who is currently chief coach at the Padukone Dravid Centre of Excellence in Bangalore, said, "It's unfortunate that we lost in the Sudirman Cup tie against Malaysia.
"The main disappointment was Srikanth not playing. If he was not fit, and this was known before the team left for Nanning, he should not have travelled. We were very clear about whom we were playing, and their strengths. We had no chance against China, but simply beating Malaysia would have enhanced our chances of getting into the semi-finals."
India had beaten a Malaysian side with Chong Wei in its ranks, at the Commonwealth Games at Australia's Gold Coast last year. The team sent to Nanning was bereft of Chong Wei and their top men's doubles combination, Tan Wee Kiong and Goh V Shem. It was a very young side, with an average age of 22 years.
But India queered the pitch with poor selection. Indeed, Vimal took one look at the team fielded by India for the second Group 1D tie against China on Wednesday, and snorted in disgust: "It's been done with the intention of gaining points for those who did not play yesterday against Malaysia.
"It's a sad state of affairs. They are not looking at winning the tie against China. Srikanth is definitely injured, and should not have made the trip to Nanning at all. They should have taken either (HS) Prannoy or Sai (Praneeth) instead of him. Even Saina seems to be carrying injuries."
Last year, when India were forced to send a second-string squad for the Thomas and Uber Cup, Vimal, who was then a selector, had slammed the absence of the nation's top players as "absolutely unacceptable" after losses to minnows like France (men) and Canada (women) in their opening two ties left them on the brink of early elimination. They were duly eliminated later by China (men) and Japan (women).
"It is absolutely unacceptable for players to avoid the Thomas and Uber Cups," he had said. "These are the most prestigious team events in badminton. I thought we had our best chances in the Thomas Cup, with two singles players in the top ten (Srikanth and Prannoy) and a very good doubles team, the World no 18 pair of Satwiksairaj Rankireddy and Chirag Shetty. I thought we might have had our first men's team medal this time."
Srikanth, Rankireddy didn't make the trip, as the tournament had seen a host of Indian players pull out for a variety of reasons. Olympic silver medallist PV Sindhu and doubles specialist N Sikki Reddy were among the women players to withdraw. Sindhu gave lack of fitness as the excuse, while Reddy was down with typhoid, and could legitimately have been excused.
A fit Srikanth skipped the tournament expressing desire to miss a non-compulsory team event in order to concentrate on individual tournaments of the World Tour. Rankireddy had excused himself on the plea that he had to write his class 12 examinations.
It would seem that players are far more bothered about points and performance in individual tournaments than they are in representing their country in team events. Srikanth, Sindhu & Co have been seen to turn out almost reluctantly for the country, in a manner that is directly antithetical to how tennis star Leander Paes would carry his heart on his sleeve and play his best while turning out in the country's colours.
"We felt great pride in representing the country in international team events like the Thomas Cup," said 1965 Asian champion Dinesh Khanna. "Of course, in our time, such events were very few, so we looked forward to playing in them. Also, in our time, there was no money in the sport; we played for the glory of doing well for India. The current crop of players do not appear to have the same pride."
Khanna ventured the opinion that the pressure of playing for the country was vastly different from the pressure of playing as an individual. "In my opinion, Sameer Verma wilted under pressure when he found that his match was a must-win for the team," he said. "But I do feel that, if our top player (Srikanth) was injured, we should have had more men's singles players in the squad. Prannoy or Sai Praneeth should have been in the team for the Sudirman Cup."
Even if Srikanth was fully fit before the trip, it was necessary for India to take more men's singles players along, since the point from this particular event was crucial to chances of victory. It was bewildering to find that India fielded the bare minimum size of a squad — 13 players, when top badminton nations like China, Indonesia and Malaysia had 20-member squads at Nanning.
It is also hard to ignore the feeling that a certain amount of arrogance, indifference towards the concept of good on-court behaviour has crept into the mind of top Indian players like Srikanth and Sindhu. The reasons for this line of thought were outlined by veteran player Manjusha Sahasrabudhe, who has been a medallist for India at the World Senior Championships over the past two decades.
"I was witness to the attitude of both these players during the Super Series in Delhi, where I was a technical delegate," said Sahasrabudhe. "Sindhu was awarded a yellow card for arguing with the umpire, and ignoring his repeated calls to return to the court after toweling down in the middle of the match, and not during a break.
"Apart from that, at the finals of the India Open, Srikanth was wearing a shirt that was similar in colour to the one being worn by Viktor Axelsen. When the tournament referee asked him to change the shirt — which was a correct demand under the rules, since he was a lower ranked player but he told the referee that he had brought only one shirt with him, and did not have a spare. He was so careless and casual about it.
"I really did not like his and his coach's attitude at all. Siyadat was our manager also, and knew the rules as he had attended the managers' meeting, as well as where the referee clearly mentioned that players should have at least two coloured shirts with them. Before the start of the men's singles final, Srikanth was arguing with the referee for ten minutes. You can imagine his frame of mind just before entering the court for an important match like a final.
"On the other hand, not a single player from Japan, China or Malaysia ever argued with our officials regarding clothing if they were asked to go back to the dressing-room and change. They would readily go with a smiling face, and come back changed. We have worked as marshals for the past six to seven years, and found them to be very disciplined."
Sahasrabudhe added, "This was the first time I saw Srikanth behaving like this; he was not earlier petulant and arrogant like this. I hope it was just a one-time thing, and that he does not make a habit of it."
Badminton in India has witnessed a sharp rise in the recent time bringing along a lot of fame and earning with itself. In such a case, players could be prone to arrogance and churlish behaviour.
Admittedly, plenty of lucre has come of late into the game, which earlier secured nothing for its best exponents apart from a pat on the back after an outstanding performance. Product endorsements have turned some of our players into multi-millionaires, to the extent that their earnings for on-court work have begun to look like pocket money.
Those who have known Sindhu and Srikanth for a long time are adamant that they are basically very sensible and decent people. They have worked really hard to reach where they have, and they richly deserve the benefits they have derived from the sport. It is to be hoped that they keep their feet planted firmly on the ground, so that they can serve the country for a long time to come.
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Updated Date: May 24, 2019 10:52:11 IST