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A file photo of Saina Nehwal. Photo: Mint
A file photo of Saina Nehwal. Photo: Mint

Indian Badminton League | Who’s got the dream team?

Did the franchises get their combinations right at the auction for the inaugural IBL?

Cricket and football fans have long been used to analysing, dissecting and discussing team combinations. For badminton, it’s a novelty. Before the auctions for the inaugural Indian Badminton League (IBL) were held on 22 July in New Delhi, bidding for players to form a badminton team was unheard of. Of the six team owners for the IBL, three have never been involved in any sport, and two were investing for the first time in badminton.

“This is why we had our coaching staff ready before we came for the auctions," says Amit Mavi, founder and managing director of the real estate firm BOP Group, which own the Bangalore franchise Banga Beats. “We spent a lot of time researching the players available and drawing up different strategies with our coach."

Each of the six teams comprises 11 players—six Indians, four foreigners, and one junior. The teams—Hyderabad Hotshots, Lucknow Warriors, Pune Pistons, Mumbai Masters, Banga Beats and Delhi Smashers—will field players in four categories: men’s singles, women’s singles, mixed doubles and men’s doubles. Teams will play each other twice on a round-robin basis, with one home and one away fixture.

“The format demands that you get the right players for every category," Mavi says. “To win the league, you can’t depend on one star player in one category, so that balance is important."

“We got Ashwini first, and then built the team around it," says Nikhil Kanetkar, the coach for Pune Pistons, who played for India at the 2004 Olympics and now runs an academy in Pune. “So we focused on getting a really strong doubles partner for her."

Pune landed Denmark’s Joachim Fischer Nielsen, bronze medallist in mixed doubles at the 2012 Olympics, and one half of the world No.4 pairing, the highest-ranked mixed doubles specialist at the auction. Pune were cautious towards the beginning of the auction, preferring not to bid for the big-ticket players. They got Ponnappa at below her base price and Nielsen at the base price, $35,000 (around 20.65 lakh), giving them the chance to shell out $90,000 for Juliane Schenk, the World No.4 women’s singles player.

Other teams like Hyderabad and Mumbai chose to concentrate on getting the one player that they had their minds set on, no matter what the price. Hyderabad got Nehwal, and Mumbai, Wei.

For Madhumita Bisht, two-time Olympian, Asian and Commonwealth Games medallist, and part of the coaching staff of the Indian national team, the Mumbai Masters are the team to watch out for in the singles format.

“To get both Lee Chong Wei and Tine Baun? That’s fantastic," Bisht says. “Lee Chong has hardly lost a match in the last couple of years (he won 29 out of 31 matches in 2013) and Baun’s retired, but that’s just a technicality for someone who won the All England this year."

Baun, from Denmark, won the 2008, 2010, and 2013 All England Championships, as well as the 2012 European Championships.

The women’s singles is widely expected to be a four-way battle between Baun, Schenk, Nehwal and P.V. Sindhu, the lanky 18-year-old prodigy from Hyderabad who is ranked World No.12 now, barely a year after she played her first senior international tournament.

In the men’s singles, Wei is expected to have little competition, but if his form abandons him for the 18-day stretch of the tournament, which begins on 14 August in New Delhi, the field will be wide open.

“A couple of years back I would have based my calculations for the men’s singles on rankings, but right now, I won’t risk it," says Parupalli Kashyap, India’s highest-ranked men’s singles player at World No.13 and the “icon" player for Bangalore.

“I train with most of the players (at the Gopichand Academy, Hyderabad) and I know how hungry they are, how strong they are in training, and just how much they want this exposure," he says. “In fact, one of the reasons why I made it into the Top 10 this year is because I train with players like these."

Kashyap spent nearly three months in the Top 10 this year, reaching a career high of world No.6. The players he is referring to include R.M.V. Gurusaidutt, who is poised to break into the Top 20, Sai Praneeth, who beat opponents ranked much higher than him on three occasions this year, world No.24 Ajay Jayaram, and K. Srikanth, who came out of nowhere to beat world No.4 Boonsak Ponsana in the finals of the Thailand Open Grand Prix this June.

“These guys can do anything, beat anyone," Kashyap says.

World No.6 Hu Yun from Hong Kong will be Kashyap’s teammate and fellow men’s singles player in Bangalore.

The singles matches may draw the crowds, but for the teams, the doubles pairings will be far trickier to get right. Only Delhi has a regular doubles pairing, the Malaysian men’s doubles world No.2 Kien Keat Koo and Boon Heong Tan.

“It will be interesting to see how the teams will set up the pairs," chief national coach Pullela Gopi Chand says. “All the regular combinations have been broken up here, with one team picking up one half of a pair and the other team another one, so which new combination will be a good one is impossible to say."

This uncertainty was reflected in some wild bidding for the doubles players at the auction. While Ponnappa’s base price had to be slashed from $50,000 to $25,000 before she was bought, the inexperienced doubles player Pradnya Gadre, who recently became Ponnappa’s doubles partner in the Indian team, was bought for $46,000 by Hyderabad, more than four times her base price. Ponnappa’s previous doubles partner Jwala Gutta (the duo won a World Championship bronze in 2011) also saw her base price cut to $25,000 from $50,000, before she was bought by Delhi for $31,000.

“It was insulting," Jwala says. “No one even bothered to tell us that our prices were being slashed. I feel cheated, this is not the way to do things." The organizers, Sporty Solutionz, have said they will pay Ponnappa and Jwala the balance from their own funds.

“It’s not the money that’s the problem," Jwala says, “but the way the issue was handled. If it was just about the money, I would not have played in the league at all. Hopefully, my game will give the right answers." Both Ponnappa and Gutta confirmed their participation despite the controversy.

On the flip side, perhaps the most surprising bid was for K. Maneesha—the 18-year-old doubles player made her entry into international badminton only this year, and was on sale for $4,000. Lucknow bought her for $26,000.

“She must be in seventh heaven right now," Kashyap says with a laugh. “But even if you forget the money, what a great opportunity this is for young players like her."

Also Read | Big tests ahead for Indian Badminton League

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