Synthetic shuttles a feather in BWF's cap or doomed to fail in drift-heavy tournament conditions?

Vimal suggests that, if at all the BWF is thinking of introducing the synthetic shuttle in tournament play, it should be done with the younger lot of players.

Shirish Nadkarni April 30, 2020 17:00:00 IST
Synthetic shuttles a feather in BWF's cap or doomed to fail in drift-heavy tournament conditions?

There can be no doubting the passionate desire of current Badminton World Federation President, Poul-Erik Hoyer-Larsen, to leave his own indelible impression upon the sport as the man who did the maximum to popularise it and make it more accessible to the masses.

The 55-year-old former All-England champion (in 1995) and 1996 Atlanta Olympics gold medallist, still considered one of the greats of the game, is literally driven by the desire to bring more money into the sport through enhanced television viewership, and at the same time, to make it more affordable for players.

In pursuance of these objectives, Hoyer-Larsen has been attempting to ram through two changes in the very fundamentals of the sport – to shorten the game by introducing the 11x5 (five games of 11 points each, on the point-per-rally system) scoring format in preference to the existing 21x3 format, and to introduce a synthetic shuttle that would eliminate the traditional natural shuttle, made from the feathers of geese or ducks.

Synthetic shuttles a feather in BWFs cap or doomed to fail in driftheavy tournament conditions

Representational image. AFP

The first of these proposed changes has already been discussed threadbare in these pages; it is the advisability of introducing a synthetic shuttle into tournament play that this article seeks to examine – with the help of coaches and former Indian greats of the game.

It must be mentioned at the outset that the synthetic shuttle which the BWF wants to bring in is different from the ‘Air’ shuttle that has been developed for outdoor play, with tweaked rules for netplay. It is also different from existing synthetic shuttles, like the ‘Mavis’ range of plastic birds from the Yonex stable. But exactly how different is not widely known.

Players who compete at national and international level have been chary of using the existing plastic shuttles, as their behaviour in ‘feel’ and flight is substantially different from the natural shuttles. Even at club level in India, natural shuttles are used by the members, while plastic shuttles are only given to juniors and pre-teens, if that.

Serious players do grumble about shelling out sums ranging from Rs 1,100 (about US$14.50) to Rs 3,500 per box of dozen shuttles, depending on their quality. However, they also steadfastly refuse to use the plastic birds which cost around Rs 700 for a half-dozen of the Mavis-350 brand, but are infinitely more durable, and are therefore far cheaper on a cost-per-game basis than the natural shuttle.

In international tournaments, shuttles of a quality equivalent to Yonex’s top-of-the-range ‘Aerosensa-50’ brand – available in India at Rs 3,500 per box of 12 – are used. Depending on the power of the rivals’ smashes and manner of contact with the racket strings, a shuttle can last four to five points in a top-level match, or is changed even after every rally. Players can run through a couple of boxes in the course of a match – at a cost to organisers of Rs 7,000 per match!

In comparison, a synthetic shuttle can last far longer. Just how much longer is difficult to estimate, since an acceptable synthetic shuttle has not yet been made available worldwide by the BWF.

Synthetic shuttles a feather in BWFs cap or doomed to fail in driftheavy tournament conditions

Representational image. AFP

“I don’t believe plastic shuttles for international tournaments will work because, till now, I have not seen a single synthetic material that is as light as a feather, but has the stiffness and strength that the feather possesses,” says former international Asif Parpia, who played for the country in the mid-1970s, and partnered Prakash Padukone in the paired event in several Thomas Cup international team ties.

U Vimal Kumar, a two-time former national champion and currently chief coach at the Prakash Padukone Badminton Academy, asserts that he fails to understand the logic behind the BWF’s plan to introduce the synthetic shuttlecock.

“Has it been extensively tried in tournaments? I don’t think so!” says Vimal. “The BWF may have tried it out in some obscure tournament in Peru or Maldives, or something, and now they want to introduce it internationally. Which of the top players have played with the synthetic shuttle?

“We need to know how the plastic shuttle feels. It needs time for the players to get used to it. Of course, there is no doubt that the players will eventually develop the requisite skills, if it is thrust down their throats.”

Vimal mentions the existence, for several decades, of a popular sport in South India, called ball badminton, played with a woollen ball on the basis of five-players-a-side, well before shuttle badminton became popular.

“But even in ball badminton, the air has to be relatively still before you can play,” he says. “If you go to Kerala, people still play outdoor badminton – maybe at 4 am, or after 8 in the night, when the wind is possibly in the midst of changing direction, and becoming a sea breeze instead of a land breeze, or whatever!

Synthetic shuttles a feather in BWFs cap or doomed to fail in driftheavy tournament conditions

Representational image. AFP

“All this is fine in the name of popularising the sport, but it is not suitable for competition. I don’t understand which way the sport is heading. If they want to make it a circus…”

Vimal suggests that, if at all the BWF is thinking of introducing the synthetic shuttle in tournament play, it should be done with the younger lot of players.

“They will have to develop a different set of strokes and style; there will be a lot more of parallel shots and drives,” he insists. “It is okay to give the shuttle at grass-roots level to those who are being initiated into the sport. Those players with a fresh set of strokes will gradually go up the ranks. At that stage, you could introduce the synthetic shuttle into competition.”

Veteran Dinesh Khanna, who won the Asian Badminton Confederation title in 1965 from the best in Asia, avers that badminton has traditionally been played with feather shuttlecocks, and players have got used to them over the years.

“I have been told that the BWF is experimenting with a synthetic shuttle, and they have developed something that is very close in behaviour to the feather shuttle,” he says. “I would only say that the existing synthetic shuttle is nowhere near to the feather shuttle; its ‘feel’ and flight are entirely different. We cannot have those shuttles in international competition. But if there is an artificial shuttle that is very close to the feather shuttle in feel as well as flight, only then should we go in for it.

“The other point I would like to make is, that we are almost entirely dependent on one country for feather shuttles. We all know which country that is! If tomorrow, there is a situation that prevents us from buying natural shuttles from that country, then we would be in deep trouble. So having an alternative would be a great idea.”

Synthetic shuttles a feather in BWFs cap or doomed to fail in driftheavy tournament conditions

File image of Kidambi Srikanth. AFP

Yet another point to be considered, according to Khanna, is that an objection by some ‘Prevention of Cruelty to Animals’ protagonists would put the badminton world in a difficult situation.
“So it is definitely worthwhile trying a synthetic bird,” he says. “I am only unsure whether it should be done straight away in the recognised tournaments, or whether it should be tried first in some experimental tournaments.”

Dronacharya Award-winning national coach Pullela Gopichand is equally concerned about the over-dependence of the world on China for the supply of feather shuttles. He feels it would be ideal to move away from total reliance on China for natural feathers, to production that could be more global.

“However, switching to the synthetic shuttle could change the game in a very different manner from what it currently is,” he says. “I don’t really know whether it could benefit experienced players, existing players and/or Indian players.

“Having said that, even if there is uncertainty, I would still go with the change of shuttle to the synthetic ones because for a sport to be dependent on natural feathers in today’s day and age is something which is not desirable.

“I would want this change to happen. Whether it happens now, or five years or ten years down the line, it will always constitute an initial problem for the players, so one might as well embrace it quickly, and move on. So I would go with moving away from natural feathers and going in for a synthetic material, right away.”

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