Badminton is the ideal No.2 to cricket in India
Something quite amazing happened on Sunday. India were playing Sri Lanka in a One Day International in Pallekele. Liverpool and Arsenal, two of the most popular English football clubs in the country, were facing off in the Premier League.
Yet, all anyone was talking about through the evening (and well into Monday morning) was badminton.
P.V. Sindhu, once again, had the nation hooked to her delicate drop shots and searing smashes as she played her part in an epic final against Japan’s Nozomi Okuhara at the 2017 Badminton World Championships in Glasgow. She might have lost the match but, by all accounts, hearts had been won. Add to that the fact that she was joined on the podium by Saina Nehwal, and it was clear that badminton had won the weekend’s eyeballs contest.
Through the late 1990s and 2000s, any non-cricketer you spoke to had a common complaint—that India was a one-sport country, that all fans and sponsors cared about was cricket. This was a refrain that united India’s athletes—from footballers to tennis players, from hockey stars to assorted Olympians.
They weren’t wrong, but there was a sense of helplessness when they spoke about their situation, a feeling that no matter what they did, they would always be second-class citizens in the society of Indian sporting heroes.
There have been those who have managed to hold their own against the cricketing behemoth.
In some cases, it was fleeting. Sania Mirza, for example, made it to the top 30 in the world, but a series of injuries meant her singles career hit a massive speed bump just as it was gaining momentum. To her credit, she recalibrated her game and dominated the doubles landscape.
There have been those who achieved greatness but in sports that weren’t exactly spectator-friendly. Viswanathan Anand ruled the world of chess, Abhinav Bindra did the same in shooting, and while both became household names, neither was likely to have the entire nation glued to their television sets.
For any sport to stake a claim as a clear No.2, after cricket, in India, it needed a minimum of three things going for it. It needed to be TV-friendly, it needed to be something Indians could connect to, and it needed Indians competing consistently at the elite level.
Badminton suddenly has everything going for it. It’s the perfect spectator sport in an Indian context. Matches are short, incredibly fast-paced, and lend themselves to intense drama. Also, like cricket, most of us have played badminton growing up, so there is already a strong connection in place.
Finally, at no other time, in no other sport, have we had so many athletes at the top of the game.
Nehwal, returning from injury, made the semi-finals in Glasgow. Earlier in the year, Srikanth Kidambi made it to three consecutive Super Series finals, losing the first to compatriot Sai Praneeth and winning the next two. Parupalli Kashyap and Ajay Jayaram too have been in the mix. Then, of course, there’s Sindhu, who has been awesome for almost five years now (ever since she won bronze at the 2013 World Championships as a 17-year-old).
Any of them making it to the semis or finals of big tournaments no longer comes as a surprise. Their losses don’t spark the kind of reaction reserved for underdogs. It’s less of “this itself is good enough for an Indian” and more of “no stress, there’s always next time”.
In short, magical moments in Indian badminton are no longer considered miracles. Given how much of a one-sport country India has been for as long as one can remember, that in itself is a miracle.
Deepak Narayanan, a journalist for nearly 20 years, now runs an events space, The 248 Collective, in Goa. He tweets at @deepakyen.