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Brilliance beyond doubt

Indian men’s maiden Thomas Cup victory exemplifies team spirit and has positioned badminton as the crowning jewel of racquet sports — providing the momentum which will have to be sustained in the coming years

Brilliance beyond doubt
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Usually when the Indian Premier League (IPL) is on, all other sports at home are relegated to the side-lines. In fact, even a mention of many other important events related to sport get pushed into obscurity on newspaper pages.

Last week was different. Even as the IPL was peaking, so to say, it was Indian badminton which took the world by storm. Against all odds, Indians tore apart 14-time champions Indonesia to win the Thomas Cup team event. This was the first ever time India won the huge title, having won bronze thrice previously — 1952, 1955 and 1979.

Badminton played then and now are as different as cheese and chalk. The oldest legends like Nandu Natekar and Asian champion Dinesh Khanna used touch and deception to win matches, be it in their personal career or in team sport.

After that, India was blessed to see two All England champions emerge in different eras, legend and gentleman Prakash Padukone and then Pullela Gopichand. Prakash was the master when he played, somewhat reminiscent of what Ramanathan Krishnan did when he played tennis. Krishnan Senior used cunningness, change of pace, angles and artistry to defeat opponents in the wooden racquet age. Old timers say he was the exquisite touch artist, something which his son Ramesh Krishnan later emulated.

Likewise, Prakash was all grace and artistry when he played at his peak. A gentleman to the core, on and off the court, Prakash epitomised what it was to play with smartness and conjure up angles and use deception while hitting the shuttle. Prakash was not the player who relied on pace and smash.

Later, when Gopichand started rising, he showed a different blend. That he mastered the All-England Championship, over two decades ago, was a tribute to his perseverance and how he had been groomed by the best coaches (notably SM Arif) in the business. The common thread was all worked together in Hyderabad. It is an altogether different matter, today, India needs foreign coaches to help out the players, be it in singles or doubles.

Where does India winning the Thomas Cup stand? Many have compared this effort and achievement to India winning the Prudential World Cup in 1983 at Lords, under the leadership of Kapil Dev. Yes, the 1983 win was phenomenal and pathbreaking. It was later repeated in a different format when India won the 2007 T20 World Cup and the ICC ODI World Cup in 2011, under MS Dhoni.

Frankly speaking, comparing badminton and cricket is a bit weird. If one has to compare sports, it would be better to do it with other racquet sports. Legends like Ramanathan Krishnan, Jaidip Mukherjea, Premjit Lal and then Vijay Amritraj along with brother Anand Amritraj, made the Davis Cup a special stage to excel. Yet, India never won the Davis Cup, a team event which has lost its sheen today to a large extent due to a diluted format put in place by the International Tennis Federation.

Later, in 1993, Leander Paes and Ramesh Krishnan scripted an enchanting course in Davis Cup in the 90s. That rose to as great heights as this Thomas Cup team. Leander almost single-handedly played his part in ripping France apart in the 1993 Davis Cup quarter-final in Frejus, southern France. That, too, on clay. India, however, lost the semi-final to Australia on grass in September 1993 in Chandigarh.

Today, in Indian men's badminton, the success is not about just one player being stand-out. Kidambi Srikanth, HS Pranoy, Lakshya Sen, the wonder doubles pair of Satwik Rankireddy and Chirag Shetty, all played their part in conjuring up the magic in Thailand. The plethora of interviews which one has read reflects one thing, the Thomas Cup campaign was all about team spirit, bonding, egging on each other and breaching the pain barrier in many ways.

Credit for this to a large extent must go to Vimal Kumar. The captain has played his role to perfection. The best part about Vimal is that he never craves publicity. He has served Indian badminton with the dedication of a devotee and has been a good buddy to younger players. In fact, Vimal's role as a coach-cum-mentor and helping out Indian badminton in crucial stages has never got the same publicity. When Saina walked out of the Gopi academy in 2014 before the Incheon Asian Games, Vimal was there to support her.

Today, one talks at length about the SAI Gopichand Academy in Gachi Bowli on the outskirts of Hyderabad and also how a few private academies in the same city are grooming players. Yes, Hyderabad is the unofficial badminton capital of India. But if one is to rewind to the past, one cannot forget how Prakash Padukone single-handedly set up the BPL Academy in Bangalore (now Bengaluru).

For him to get sponsors at that time was as tough as Vijay Amritraj setting up the BAT (Britannia Amritraj Trust) academy in Madras (now Chennai). Leander, Gaurav Natekar, Asif Ismail and many more players emerged from the BAT. Prakash also strove to provide the same kind of platform. Luckily for Indian badminton, Vimal Kumar has been the silent mentor and guru.

Just to jog the readers' memory, Indian badminton has been talked about in the last decade mainly due to the exploits of double Olympic medallist PV Sindhu and 2012 London Olympic medallist Saina Nehwal.

For the men to prove themselves has not been so fluent or easy. This year has seen Lakshya Sen show phenomenal results in his professional career. As the baby in the Thomas Cup campaign this time, he was not looking so good early on the campaign. Yet, when it came to the final against Indonesia, Lakshya showed he is touted as champion stuff for the right reasons.

Indian badminton has produced marvellous results individually. Saina and Sindhu are torch bearers and the men seemed to be lagging, not lacking. However, it needed one huge spark which the Thomas Cup has now provided. Big cash rewards are being announced. The Indian government is providing enormous financial support and the NGOs are also there to chip in.

The response to India clinching the Thomas Cup was indeed emotional. From Prime Minister Narendra Modi to sports minister Anurag Thakur, the congratulatory messages and phone calls to the players have been welcomed. These young men need all the adulation and publicity.

But then, this is not the end. This (winning Thomas Cup) may be the pinnacle in badminton as a team sport. However, the players are capable of producing similar results in more events and also in their own professional careers. India is already into the next Olympic cycle.

The challenge to do well at the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham later this year must be fulfilled. With the Asian Games in Hangzhou now postponed indefinitely, the singles players as well as doubles specialists need to gear up for the Paris Olympics.

A good beginning has been made. Vimal has rightly said winning the Thomas Cup is a huge achievement. The same feelings and emotions have been shared by Kidambi Srikanth. Indian badminton is blessed in the sense that it has great guides and gurus in Prakash, Vimal and Gopichand. For its part, the Badminton Association of India also deserves credit. With Gopichand now part of the BAI administration as well, the demand to hire more coaches is being taken up on a priority basis.

Foreign coaches are there for the most elite athletes. But then, if Indian badminton has to sustain and continue to deliver, new champions need to be groomed. All that can happen with the right coaches in place. In recent times, one has seen Gopichand's daughter Gayatri also showing that having a great gene pool works.

Indian badminton is indeed on a high. Winning the Thomas Cup has created momentum. It needs to be sustained, so that India as a nation can win more medals and trophies. Of all the racquet sports at home, badminton has been top class. Touch wood!

Views expressed are personal

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