Sunday, May the 15th, 2022 – badminton lovers across India should mark this day in bold letters.
In the 73-year-old history of the Thomas Cup, the Indian men’s team has finally managed to register its name as the most powerful badminton team in the world. And that too by blanking (3-0) the 14-time winners, Indonesia, in Bangkok on Sunday.
India’s badminton history has been rewritten for sure. Only five nations have won the Thomas Cup, the ultimate trophy for any men’s team around the world. India, competing in their maiden final of the men’s team event, sealed the title when world No. 11 Srikanth Kidambi overcame his higher-ranked opponent Jonatan Christie 21-15, 23-21 after a 48-minute duel.
It all started with World Championships medallist Lakshya Sen and doubles players Chirag Shetty and Satwiksairaj Rankireddy delivering when it mattered the most to stun the 14-time champions.
After being off-colour in the early stages, the 21-year-old Sen gave India a 1-0 lead with a come-from-behind 8-21, 21-17, 21-16 victory over world No. 5 Anthony Sinisuka Ginting. Then came the doubles match of Satwiksairaj Rankireddy and Chirag Shetty, India’s best doubles pair, against Mohammad Ahsan and Kevin Sanjaya Sukamuljo, the former No. 1 pair in the world.
The match witnessed some high-class exchanges of rallies before the Indians managed to finish on top with an 18-21, 23-21, 21-19 scoreline. The Indonesian camp was devastated and didn’t believe the 0-3 rout. The entire Indian camp erupted in joy after Srikanth’s victory.
Smells like a team spirit
India had reached the last four stages of this prestigious Thomas Cup event three times earlier, in 1952, 1955, and 1979. After this new format, introduced in 1984, of three singles and two doubles, India could only manage to reach the last eight stages twice.
It was certainly not a case of a lack of talent. Going by the international badminton circuit, badminton is an individual game and players travel all around the world on their own with no accompanying personal support staff. Every individual shuttler is responsible for his own successes and failures.
However, when it came to playing as a team at any big international event like the Olympics or Asian Games, these individual achievements could never be translated into a team’s success.
But a team event has its own charm, and every badminton fan in the country was in a spell as the likes of HS Prannoy, Kidambi Srikanth and others scripted one victory after another, when no one really gave them a chance to go this far in the competition.
It’s not that India ever lacked the talent to challenge the best in the world. Take the example of Srikanth, who has over half a dozen top-tier titles to his name since 2014. The same is the case with H.S. Prannoy, the 2014 Commonwealth Games gold medallist Parupalli Kashyap and the 2019 world championships bronze medallist B. Sai Praneeth. They had all broken into the world top-10 at various points in their careers and had either beaten or come close to defeating the best players on their day.
But none of this translated into success when it came to the Thomas Cup. Another big reason for India’s lack of success at the world level was India’s overreliance on singles. India took time before realising that doubles are as important as singles to taste success in the Thomas Cup.
It was the success of the women’s doubles pairing of Jwala Gutta and Ashwini Ponnappa that motivated the whole younger generation across India. The likes of Rupesh Kumar and Sanave Thomas and later B. Sumeeth Reddy/Manu Atri and Akshay Dewalkar/Pranaav Jerry Chopra showed the way to the current generation.
The Indian pair of Rankireddy and Shetty have broken into the top 10 and also won two Super 500 level titles ever since they started playing together some seven years back. They came to the Indian team’s rescue during the tough quarter-final and semi-final clashes against Malaysia and Denmark when top singles shuttler Sen lost his opening singles. This provided Srikanth and Prannoy with an opportunity to wrap up the tie in later matches.
In the finals, the Indian pair went one step ahead to give the Indians an all-important victory to make it 2-0 against the 14-time Thomas Cup champions.
One has to understand that this title triumph in Thailand has been a net result of what the Badminton Association of India (BAI) started some two decades ago. It was, in fact, then chief coach Vimal Kumar who hired a doubles specialist coach to help doubles pairs climb the world rankings steadily and surely.
Even India’s No. 2 singles coach, Mohd. Siyadath Ullah, has been instrumental in infusing confidence into the players’ minds. The 35-year-old Siyadath joined Gopichand in the mid-2000s, was there at the start of the Pullela Gopichand Badminton Academy (PGBA) and has been India’s assistant coach since 2010.
He hails from a small village in the Mahbubnagar district, 100 km from Hyderabad. He later shifted to Hyderabad to pursue badminton. For close to a decade, he has been the silent No.2 in the support staff but was seen giving tips to star shuttler Kidambi Srikanth in the second singles. Srikanth’s straight-games victory was another reminder of his coach’s quiet contribution to the triumph.
Before the Indian men’s team marked a momentous victory over last year’s bronze-medallist Denmark in the semi-finals of the Thomas Cup on May 14, India had never gone past the last eight stages of the tournament named after Sir George Thomas, founder president of the International Badminton Federation (BWF).
In fact, the Thomas Cup tournament was proposed by him in 1939, but because World War II erupted, the plan was postponed.
With the Thomas Cup, Sir Thomas aimed to create teams among badminton players like it happens in Davis Cup tennis. It was only after the 2nd World War ended that the Thomas Cup championship was planned for 1948-49 with all the badminton playing nations being categorised into Asian, Australian, Pan-American, and European.
Till 1984, the Thomas Cup was played every three years. The format was then tweaked to hold it every second year with a best of nine matches. Players were supposed to play five singles and four doubles matches in the old format. The first tournament was won by Malaya (now Malaysia) against Denmark by 8-1.
Except for Denmark in 2016, no other non-Asian country has ever won the Thomas Cup. Indonesia leads the pack, having won 14 Thomas Cup titles, and China is second, having 10 titles to its name. Now, Indian men are the latest entrants into this coveted list.
One can only hope that this is only the beginning of many more to come!
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