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P. Kashyap lost in the quarter-finals of the World Badminton Championships last week. Photo: STR/AFP
P. Kashyap lost in the quarter-finals of the World Badminton Championships last week. Photo: STR/AFP

From top of the world to the IBL

The Indian performance at the World Championships was the best appetizer to the Indian Badminton League that its organizers could have hoped for

For about 20 minutes last Friday, Indian badminton was on the threshold of unimaginable glory. Three Indians—P. Kashyap in men’s singles, P. V. Sindhu and Saina Nehwal in the women’s—had reached the quarter-finals of the Badminton World Federation (BWF) World Championships at Guangzhou, China, on 9 August. Kashyap had won the first game against world No.3 Du Pengyu and was coasting to victory with leads of 11-4 and 16-12 in the second. On an adjacent court, Nehwal was decimating Korean challenger Bae Yeon Ju 17-11 with the first game almost in her grasp.

Kashyap soon reached match point. He was one winning point away from an assured medal, and with Nehwal promising a victory, mind-boggling possibilities emerged: at least two medals for India, and a third (for Sindhu) likely. A three- medal haul at the Worlds would not only be unprecedented in Indian history, it would mark the arrival of the country as a badminton power. With the Indian Badminton League (IBL) following the next week (it started on Wednesday), it appeared as if destiny had willed a superlative Indian performance at the World Championships to serve as appetizer for the IBL.

For months now, the IBL has been the subject of much speculation. Mainly, observers wondered, would the event materialize? Badminton, with players controlled by their national associations, and with no common cause, has only recently awakened to such experiments. Countries such as Japan, China and Indonesia have franchise-based leagues, but they haven’t been ambitious on a global scale, as the IBL aspires to be. There was doubt about the purported interest in franchise ownerships. Franchise owners were to be announced on 1 March, but official announcements started trickling in months later. The postponement of the league (from June to August) and the auction (initially scheduled to be held on 24 March) lent weight to speculation that it would fizzle out.

Eventually, it was only when the auction happened on 22 July that the IBL transitioned from speculation to reality.

In an alternate universe—the one in which Kashyap would convert match point and Nehwal sustain her winning momentum against Bae—the Indian perception of badminton would have changed even more radically than it has until now. It would also have meant sweet comeuppance for the IBL organizers. The narrative would’ve changed. If Kashyap had converted match point, it would have meant that India had denied the Chinese two medals (Sindhu beat Wang Shixian of China in her quarter-final).

In the universe that actualized, that is, the one that saw Kashyap lose his match point and Nehwal her resolve, the Indian team would return with a bronze that Sindhu won. A remarkable achievement for one so young (she’s 18)—considering she beat the defending champion in the third round.

We can choose to see Kashyap and Nehwal’s quarter-final performances independent of the context of the IBL. But the team was a hair’s breadth away from something even more
momentous than one bronze.

The Chinese will not relinquish their overall dominance, but the others are occupying territory considered to be their undisputed domain

This year, the women’s doubles wasn’t as authoritative, while the women’s singles final saw a nervous Olympic champion, Li Xuerui, fall to Thai teenager Ratchanok Intanon. In the mixed doubles final, their world No.1 pair, Xu Chen and Ma Jin, saw two match points slip away as Indonesia’s Tontowi Ahmad and Liliyana Natsir clinched victory. The legendary men’s doubles pair of Cai Yun and Fu Haifeng lost to a brilliant Indonesian pair of Mohammad Ahsan and Hendra Setiawan in the semi-finals, while in the men’s singles, it was tight until the final moments for four-time champion Lin Dan against his biggest challenger Lee Chong Wei of Malaysia.

What explained this shaky performance just a year after China had swept all five gold medals at the London Olympics 2012?

Over the last year, the Chinese have been uncharacteristically lax, skipping several Super Series events. In the ones they participated, they didn’t appear particularly enthusiastic, and top players frequently pulled out or retired in early-round matches. The Chinese also split their established doubles combinations, pairing them with new partners.

Alongside, in the women’s singles, a new crop of talent has emerged that can take on the Chinese. Intanon (Thailand), Sindhu (India), Tai Tzu Ying (Chinese Taipei) and Carolina Marin (Spain) are each blessed with talent and physical ability, thanks to the way shown by Nehwal and Germany’s Juliane Schenk.

Meanwhile, the new chairman of the Indonesian Badminton Federation, Gita Wirjawan, initiated a revamp of his country’s coaching structure under former great Rexy Mainaky, hoping to stem the decline of its badminton fortunes. The initiative has worked—Indonesia was the only team to take China to the fifth rubber in their 2013 BWF Sudirman Cup for World Mixed Team Championships at Kuala Lumpur in May. The Indonesians won two golds at the Worlds, and that is great news for a country that has floundered in recent times.

The Chinese will not relinquish their overall dominance of badminton, but the others are occupying territory considered to be their undisputed domain. The Chinese have an expansive system which they will tap to produce yet more prodigious talent. India has no such system even of a smaller scale.

What works in India is hype, glamour, and recreation on weekends. A system, like the Indian Premier League (IPL), that panders to this, will succeed. Any effort to promote badminton purely on its sporting merit would have failed. Like the IPL in cricket, the IBL promises entertainment, and that is the only recipe to attract fans. If this formula results in youngsters taking to the game and creating greater awareness for the sport, who can complain?

Dev S. Sukumar is a Bangalore-based writer and the author of a biography of Prakash Padukone, Touch Play.

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