Historic Thomas Cup triumph proves India's depth of talent

How wonderful it would be if badminton could get a tournament like the IPL in to showcase emerging stars, writes Sumit Chakraberty

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Members of the Indian men's badminton team celebrate their stunning win over Indonesia in the final of the Thomas Cup. (AFP)
Members of the Indian men's badminton team celebrate their stunning win over Indonesia in the final of the Thomas Cup. (AFP)

By Sumit Chakraberty

Published: Tue 17 May 2022, 12:47 AM

Prakash Padukone started it by becoming the No.1 player of the world in 1980, the year in which he won the coveted All England Open. Twenty-one years later, Pullela Gopichand reprised the feat by winning the 2001 All England Open. It took another 21 years for an Indian to reach the All England Open final this year, but Lakshya Sen lost in the 2022 final to World No.1 Viktor Axelsen of Denmark, whom he had beaten just a week earlier in the German Open.

Sen lost to Axelsen again in the Thomas Cup semifinal in Bangkok last week. But this time it was a team event.

And Sen could celebrate India’s never-say-die 3-2 comeback victory over Denmark to enter the Thomas Cup final for the first time.

Then in Sunday’s final against reigning champions Indonesia, Sen got India off to a winning start by beating Anthony Sinisuka Ginting in the singles. Satwiksairaj Rankireddy and Chirag Shetty pulled off a doubles victory over the famed pair of Kevin Sanjaya Sukamuljo and Mohammad Ahsan after saving four match points. Kidambi Srikanth, ranked World No.1 in 2018 and enjoying a dream run in the Thomas Cup with wins in all his singles matches, sealed India’s stunning 3-0 triumph by beating Jonatan Christie in straight games.

There were several individual accomplishments on the road to glory in Bangkok. None more so than that of HS Prannoy, ranked 23 in the world, who held his nerve to win the decisive fifth match against Denmark in the semifinal as well as Malaysia in the quarterfinal.

The Gestalt theory of psychology or the idea of synergy attempts to explain why the whole turns out to be greater than the sum of the parts, and we see that illustrated in great sporting achievements from time to time. India’s Thomas Cup victory has rightly been compared to the Indian team’s 1983 World Cup win in cricket against all odds.

Sometimes a team comes together and jells in a way that makes individuals play beyond their normal levels. This happened for India in 1983 to get the better of hosts England and then the West Indies, the dominant force in cricket in that era. Such a moment arrived in Indian badminton on Sunday in a tournament that has been bossed by Indonesia, Malaysia and China who could field teams with all-round strength that got the better of squads with individual stars that could not string together enough wins.

India’s victory in the Thomas Cup, which is a team event, thus also shows the growing depth of badminton talent in the country.

Credit for this mainly goes to the efforts of Padukone and then Gopichand, the current national coach who also runs a badminton academy in Hyderabad that has produced several of today’s stars. In a country glued to cricket, it hasn’t been easy to attract sponsorship and support to develop talent in other sports. But Gopichand found a way, and hopefully the 2022 Thomas Cup marks another milestone on that journey.

Indian badminton has been on the global stage for quite a while now with individual triumphs, especially those of Saina Nehwal, Jwala Gutta, and PV Sindhu among women.

Srikanth and more recently, Sen brought attention to men from India who could rise to the top in individual events like the All England Open. What marks out the Thomas Cup triumph is that a sufficient number of individuals could combine to produce team victories.

That’s why in his comments on the mission accomplished in Bangkok, Gopichand called attention in particular to the win by the doubles team of Rankireddy and Shetty in the final. “Prakash (Padukone) sir and I used to play both singles and doubles. We didn’t even have doubles specialists then. We would be given two Yonex T-shirts and we would be on our way to these events. So you can understand where we started and the enormity of this,” he said.

Indonesia has won the Thomas Cup 14 times, including the last event in Denmark in 2020. China has won it 10 times since entering the biennial event in 1982. Earlier, Malaysia used to be the top nation, with its famed Sidek family fielding as many as five siblings in an event. Only Denmark who won the 2016 Thomas Cup in Kunshan, China, and Japan who won the 2014 Thomas Cup in New Delhi, India, broke the run of the three Asian giants of badminton. Now India is in that rarefied group by winning the title the very first time they entered the final.

What next for Indian badminton? As with many other sports in India, badminton too is fettered by poorly run administrative bodies and federations. The likes of Gopichand’s academy cut through the weaknesses to produce stars. But such facilities and coaching are accessible to very few in the vast talent pool.

In fact, Gopichand believes Indians have an affinity for the sport, because of their natural wristiness. But there’s hardly any support at the grassroots level.

Indian cricket too had under-achieved for long because of poor administration, flawed selection, and so on - despite a huge following for the game and an abundance of talent at every level. This has changed with the Indian Premier League giving opportunities for talent to be discovered and nurtured. How wonderful it would be if badminton could get a tournament like that in the country to showcase emerging stars. But for now, let’s bask in the glory of the Thomas Cup triumph.

Sumit Chakraberty is a writer based in Bengaluru. Write to him at chakraberty@gmail.com

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