It would be hard to find a convincing argument to repel the proposition of those who would consider Sunday, 20 May 2018, to be a red-letter day in the annals of Indian badminton.
For, it was a day of great learning for our senior badminton players, with the men taking a 4-1 pummelling from honest, hardworking, intensely patriotic France in their opening Group A round-robin tie of the Thomas Cup. The women, meanwhile, ended up on the wrong side of an identical scoreline against lightweights Canada in their lung-opener Group A league tie in the Uber Cup.
Consider the numerous plus points of these twin defeats that have effectively put India out of contention for berths in the playoff quarter-finals that start from Wednesday. The comprehensive losses have given the Indian team members plenty of time to explore the joys of Bangkok, while France and Canada will have to sweat it out at the Impact Arena after taking the big leap from minnow to elite status in world badminton.
Captain HS Prannoy — who had been given the mantle of team leader after Kidambi Srikanth elected to stay home to take some much-needed physical and mental rest from international team badminton — took on the duties of doubles coach in preference to opening the proceedings in the first singles against the dangerous 32-year-old French vanguard, Brice Leverdez.
It was such a clever decision, for it served two purposes — standing in for Malaysian doubles coach Tan Kim Her, who for reasons best known to the Badminton Association of India (BAI), was not sent to Bangkok, and ensuring that all the pressure of getting India off to a good start fell on the shoulders of Bhamidipati Sai Praneeth, at 17th on the Badminton World Federation (BWF) ladder, nine spots below Prannoy, but still six spots ahead of the 23rd-ranked Frenchman.
It was a shame that Praneeth did not stick to the carefully crafted script of yielding a 5-0 whitewash to the French; and instead, scored a facile 21-7, 21-18 victory over Leverdez, whom Prannoy had been so anxious to avoid playing against. Of course, the captain's ready excuse would have been some minor niggle which would no doubt disappear when the skipper pencilled himself in to play a zero-pressure match with China, against whom India does not have a hope in hell.
No doubt some unspecified injury must have been more serious to prevent India’s top combination of Manu Attri and B Sumeeth Reddy from making the trip to the Thai capital, despite their names featuring on the team sheets submitted to the BWF before the start of the tournament. An injury sounds so much more authentic an excuse than a Std 12 board examination that had kept Satwiksairaj Rankireddy glued to his curricular books rather than the badminton court.
In the absence of the senior pair of Attri-Reddy, greenhorns Shlok Ramchandran and MR Arjun were thrown to the wolves; er, lambs in wolves’ clothing. A most valuable lesson was learnt by the debutants at this level of international team competition — that different pressures crop up when playing for the country, and you need the mentality of a Leander Paes to bring even more illustrious opponents to heel when you are wearing the India T-shirt.
The result of the half-hour long, error-strewn doubles match was a comfortable 21-13, 21-16 win for Bastian Kersaudy and Julien Maio, whose names have emerged from the mists of anonymity to be forever imprinted on the young minds of the Indian pair. The doubles triumph brought France back on par with their opponents, and neutralised the 1-0 advantage that Praneeth had given the Indians.
With the Indian team banking heavily on notching three singles victories over the French, 21st-ranked Sameer Verma was handed the task of taming Lucas Corvee, ranked a far-off 43rd in the world. Verma learnt that a hard-won, three-game triumph in their only previous duel in March this year was no guarantee of a repeat result.
Despite saving three match-points at 17-20 in the second game, to drag the match over a decider, Verma ended up losing 18-21, 22-20, 18-21 in a minute over the hour. It was the consistent aggression of the gangling Frenchman, who made full use of his outlandish height that made the difference between victory and defeat. The Indian was forced to repeatedly shake himself out of the defensive stupor he adopted for much of the match, getting his defence torn to shreds time and time again.
India’s second doubles pair of Sanyam Shukla and Arun George gave the impression that they were up against world champions instead of the decent club-standard pairing of Thom Giquel and Ronan Labar. All the canny pointers that skipper-coach Prannoy offered during the intervals appeared to fall on deaf ears, and the French combination were kept on court for 28 minutes while notching up a 21-10, 21-12 win.
With the tie already lost, young Lakshya Sen was blooded into Thomas Cup play against Toma Junior Popov, at 177, ranked more than 90 places behind the 88th ranked Sen.
The two teenagers struggled for exactly an hour before 19-year-old Popov emerged a 22-20, 19-21, 21-19 victor. Prodigal Sen, his mind no doubt preoccupied with the potential loss of his Under-19 status and the junior World No 10 ranking, held runaway leads in the two games that he lost (19-10 in the first, and 15-12 in the decider). He must have learnt two important lessons from his less gifted rival — the virtues of concentration, and a never-say-die spirit when you are playing for your country.
Even though India play Australia on the morrow, and are favoured to win, their chances of qualifying for the quarter-finals are remote, and hinge on mathematical calculations in case the Aussies score over the French, and necessitate a countback of games won versus games lost.
None of the teams, amongst France, India and Australia, stand a ghost of a chance against mighty China, who are at full strength in Bangkok. Thus, if the French end up second in the group by the end of Tuesday’s round-robin league play, they will go through to the last-eight stage as the runners-up in Group A.
So far as the Indian women were concerned, the silver lining in an expectedly drab performance against Canada came in the first doubles when Poorvisha S Ram and Meghna Jakkampudi scored a 21-11, 21-13 win over Michelle Tong and Josephine Wu. At the time, Canada was already leading 2-0, having annexed the two singles that had been played until then.
It was not a total shock to find captain Saina Nehwal, 28 years old and ranked 10th in the world, succumbing to the persistence of Michelle Li, who is two years younger and is graded just four spots behind. A 2-0 career head-to-head lead for Saina held no meaning as both wins had been secured before 2016, when the Indian was at the peak of her powers.
Saina had a great chance to win in straight games when she held a useful 15-12 lead in the second game after bagging the first. Matters went steadily downhill from that point, as the Indian let Li run away with the second game, and hold a massive 20-12 lead in the decider. The Hyderabadi eventually lost at 21-15, 16-21, 16-21, surrendering the chance of giving those who came after her some hope of a win.
Rachel Honderich gave Vaishnavi Reddy Jakka barely a chance, and won at 21-11, 21-13 in 28 minutes, while Brittney Tam took a mere 22 minutes to administer a comprehensive 21-11, 21-15 thrashing to Sri Krishna Priya Kudaravalli. In the final match of the tie, Honderich combined with Kristen Tsai to beat Prajakta Sawant and Sanyogita Ghorpade by a 21-15, 21-16 scoreline.
Considering the insipid performance of her compatriots, PV Sindhu would no doubt have been patting herself on the back at her sagacity at having skipped the Bangkok event on the grounds of insufficient fitness. After all, as she herself admitted to the media, there was so much to learn from Virat Kohli and MS Dhoni by watching those worthies from the stands of a cricket stadium during the ongoing Indian Premier League, than suffering in the heat of Bangkok’s Impact Arena!
Updated Date: May 21, 2018 00:53:47 IST