How cricket-crazy India scripted world badminton glory

May 17, 2022

NEW DELHI — India's badminton team on Sunday stunned 14-time champions Indonesia at the men's finals for a historic win at the 2022 Thomas Cup. Sports journalist Susan Ninan reports on the significance of the title for a team that had never made it to the finals in the event's 73-year history.

On Sunday, India showed up to play in the final against Indonesia - the most successful country in the history of the team event - with an appetite for an unlikely win.

The India men's team has little tradition of success at the world championship in this sport. But their Thomas Cup win has all the makings of a defining sporting moment - rarity, incredulity and impact.

Singles player Lakshya Sen hustled from a game down against world number five Anthony Sinisuka Ginting to first put India in the lead at 1-0.

Next, doubles duo Satwik Sairaj Rankireddy-Chirag Shetty came back from four match points down against three-time world champions Mohammad Ahsan and Kevin Sanjaya Sukamuljo to bring the lead up to 2-0. Rankireddy and Shetty had previously lost to one half of this opposing pair 11 times in a row.

The final act was left to former world number one Kidambi Srikanth, who hadn't lost a match all week. Srikanth played the match of his life in this final - with gif-worthy reflex returns, signature smash-follow up charges and a final cross-court smash that will inhabit highlight reels for posterity.

The Thomas Cup is named after George Alan Thomas, an English player from the 1900s who proposed the idea of a championship tournament for badminton, borrowing from the World Cup in football and the Davis Cup in tennis.

Since the event began in 1948, India has qualified for only 13 of its 32 editions.

In the tournament's seven-decade-long history, the championship title has changed hands only among five nations - China, Malaysia, Indonesia, Japan and Denmark.

With its win on Sunday, India became only the sixth country ever to break into this elite club.

India entered the 16-nation team event earlier this month with its best men and a bold claim on the title on the players' WhatsApp chat group: "It's coming home".

The Indian players were perhaps the only side to turn up at the tournament in plain Yonex jerseys because the team doesn't have an official sponsor yet. (Maybe this win will inspire change and spark corporate interest.)

The team wasn't exactly an underdog, like Leicester City with its 5000-1 odds in the 2015 English Premier League. But neither were they the easy favourites.

They were in a comfortable place of being able to dream about a win without being complacent.

Through the next several days, India played against nations with greater pedigree - Malaysia and Denmark - and crossed the biggest hurdles - playing against top seeds and defending champions - to make its way to a historic spot in the finals.

In cricket-crazy India, badminton is still heavily based in the southern states, operating primarily out of its two major centres in Hyderabad and Bangalore cities.

The sport, which has given the country two Olympic medallists and two All England champions, is a testament to individual virtuosity.

So a team gold at the Thomas Cup, with 10 players filling the podium, speaks of the collective will and strength of the men's team in a sport where you're hardwired to always put yourself first.

The two senior-most Indian players, HS Prannoy and Kidambi Srikanth, worked consciously to build this through communication and belief.

"I've never been a part of such a team in my career," Prannoy told the BBC. "Week after week, when you're playing for yourself, it's sometimes tough to suddenly think as a group or let go of personal ambitions.

"Srikanth and I decided early on to hold team meetings of our own with the players where everyone gets to speak," he explained. "There were quite a few quiet players in the side and in a team event made up of individual sport players, egos can quickly fester. It's happened in the past.

"There are no ranking points to be won, no prize money, it's just your hunger for the title. It's what everyone wanted, and that fire drove us," Prannoy said.

On Sunday, players vaulted over advertising boards to rush onto the court and celebrate after India won the title. But team manager Vimal Kumar followed behind gingerly, swept up in a whirl of emotions.

A former national coach, Kumar had been discreetly working behind the scenes to prop up a generation of new players.

The coach belongs to an era of Indian badminton where singles heroes had to show up for doubles matches because there weren't enough specialists. The Thomas Cup title had been a dream too far.

"I held that trophy in my hands just to tell myself it's actually happened. If you ask me, I would place this win above every Olympic and All England title we've won. Simply because we won this as a team through collective effort and belief," he said.

Over the past decade, it's the women - Saina Nehwal and PV Sindhu - who have been at the front and centre of Indian badminton.

The men, though steeped in talent, have largely been under the radar. Lately, there have been signs of a renaissance, with the men taking the World Championships and All England podiums. And now, Thomas Cup champions.

This week the female players, led by Sindhu, turned up in the stands for the men's matches. The women's team had lost in the quarterfinals of their respective team event - the Uber Cup - and most of them had been set to fly out of Bangkok soon after.

But they had their tickets rescheduled by the Badminton Association of India so they could cheer for the men's team and combat the noise of the rhythmic chants and balloon clappers of the Indonesian fans.

"We wanted their support, we wanted them to stay back and they did," Prannoy said.

"This is a huge moment for Indian badminton. It's not just about one or two of the players. As a nation, we've marked ourselves as the best in the world. We've never done it before in the sport. There's beauty because this gold medal and everything it signifies and goes onto create, belongs to all of us." — BBC

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