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And that isn’t a welcome change. If the proposed ’11×5′ format gets adopted, long rallies, strokes to the corners and skirmishes at the net are expected to fade out. Shivani Naik on how TV considerations will reduce badminton to a one-dimensional sport
All that the Verma brothers remember of the mid-October week, is how little they remember of the actual badminton.
As revolutions go – this one was the trial start of jazzing up a sport prompted by TV considerations – the Chinese Taipei Masters ended in a confused chuckle for the duo. Older brother Sourabh (24) won the title, Sameer lost to a local qualifier in 34 minutes.
From the first serve in Match 1, badminton was in a hurry to wrap up that week. This mad-rush-to-nowhere – a straight dash to 11 points over best of five sets — though, is what many suits, looking to market the sport, reckon will spread the game on television.
The debate is more nuanced than a simple Yes or No. The sport that registered a record viewership in India at the Olympics when Carolina Marin battled PV Sindhu in a 21-point three-setter for the gold medal maintains that it needs more than Sindhu and Carolina to sell itself. Or less of them – in sheer minutes-worth – if the 11×5 format goes through after the trial period.
But first the Verma vlog from Hsing Chuang Gymnasium.
Sourabh Verma, ranked 56, ended a title drought after two near-wins in finals at Belgium and Poland. A sore elbow and a dodgy left knee had familiarised the 23-year-old shuttle talent with ice packs and effectively put him in cold storage after a bunch of titles in 2014. His career, which slumped to World No. 190 last season, desperately needed to take off as he traversed the low rung Grand Prix circuit.
Hardly a favourite, Sourabh had accompanied younger Sameer, a silver medallist at Asian Juniors and Commonwealth Youth, seeded second here, hoping to go deep into the draw, but hardly confident.
“I didn’t get any time to think in the first match. It was over by the time I realised what was happening,” Sameer recalls of his loss to local qualifier Chia Hung Lu, who’d played two more matches in the 11-point format. He vaguely recalls how once the negatives started, the errors cascaded in a heap. “I wasn’t understanding the rhythm and the only thing I take away from this experience is that once you start attacking, just keep attacking, there’s nothing else,” the 23-year-old shrugs.
He speaks about the loss of control over rallies – and hence the blur. Funnily, Sourabh who went on to win the final, is as hazy about what stretched over the entire week which will pass off as his drought-beating title.
He played two 11×5 matches on the first day and he struggles to tell one from the other. In the semis he’d run up against Hsu Jen Hao, the local favourite, who he had fortunately a 3-1 head-to-head against, including in a key match en route his Austrian title two years ago.
“I only had the upper hand owing to that experience. There’s no scope for errors, you can’t be loose, you’re to be aggressive every point because there’s just 11 points to play. You can suddenly be in a 10-7 situation in no time and with no great strategy, and the opponent can topple you over in four points,” he says, incredulous even after benefitting from two come-from-behind wins. It’s exciting, he says, but so is the lottery – if you win.
A win’s a win for most Indians – now punch drunk on an Olympic silver. Matters not if one Verma wins, the other Verma loses. Over 21 points or 11. Except, the badminton fraternity is terribly annoyed.
“What’s wrong with the existing format?” snarls national coach P Gopichand. He reckons matches in the current format have been going swimmingly well, improved ever since the time they tried out a 7×5 and a 15×3 – the most he’s willing to back roll to. “It’s the No 1 sport in China, No.2 in India and Indonesia with great viewership. That’s 3 of the top 4 most populous countries,” he reels off.
“If there’s a lacuna, it’s not in the scoring system. I’ll personally be very critical if it changes to 11×5,” he dismisses.
The suits though want a manifold increase in the TV audience, and a convenient corollary is to cut down on match durations. Chop – snip – slash. A bit-sized burger on the go, when earlier a sit-down beef steak filled appetites. Bit-sized matches, byte-sized triumphs.
Sports world-over are meaning to stub themselves short, because no one has time to watch them. Recreation needs to be rushed to fit into 24 hours. So, badminton ought to be shortened.
Former international Aparna Popat is back from a workshop in Bangalore with women golfers, and slashes at the premise that badminton needs to go trimmer to get more popular. “Golf goes on for 6 hours, and people stay up late nights to watch it. Do you watch a Test match because you have nothing better to do in life? If the sport’s good, people will watch,” she declares. And she insists badminton can keep people hooked, and attract newer ones in its current avatar.
Also if people like the sport, they’d want more of it, not less. Popat had watched bemused when the system changed from 11×3 to 15×3 to 21-pointer. “The reasoning they gave us was that money would come in from sponsors. It never happened. It’s not about the scores,” she asserts. “11 points will fly by, might as well toss a coin,” she adds.
It’s effectively 11 points per game and 10 minutes break. She’s not sure tennis would ever mandate watching just half an hour of Federer, as badminton intends to do with Chong Wei, Lin Dan, Marin or Chen Long. “Winning in the new format might mean winning 33 points. It’s like telling Sachin to play exactly 33 balls. So people should drive all the way to the stadium to watch say, a Kohli hit 33 balls. Nothing more,” she says with biting sarcasm.
For the truncated game will resemble an imminently forgettable T20 – albeit with no provision for a 50-over or Test match in this sport.
Here’s what an 11×5 will do, even if players get used to the new system: serves will get smarter, points quicker, unforced errors punished severely, tricky players will hold an edge, tactics will be important in a pre-decided, formulaic manner, strategy and improvisation not so much. “It’s all here and now. Serve here, flick there, match won,” she states sardonically.
The 21 had its magic and drama. Till 11, shuttlers threw guessing jabs, between 11 and 13, they pressed on the accelerator, and then came the suspense of the outro.
The sharp hack from 42 points to win to just 33 punches at the heart of badminton – rendered it half a game from the existing system less. “There should be some strategy, some flow, some fitness…” she stresses.
Or lots of fitness, when you think of it.
Badminton prided itself on its base of fitness, on being the best cardo-vascular workout. “Badminton will lose its essence as a strong fitness sport, the 21 tested that and gave equal chance to everybody. Cricket and tennis had their fans, but people could still love shuttle because these were specimens fitter than anyone else,” rues Aravind Bhat over the possibility that 11×5 could one day replace the existing exacting challenge. “Yeah, underdogs will have a good chance. Anyone can win in flukes,” he explains.
Vimal Kumar, coach to Saina Nehwal, and a puritan even with his generous admiration for tennis and Wimbledon, joins the dissenting chorus. “If it’s about viewership, everyone can just sit in front of the TV, no need to go to stadiums. Tennis and football have both persisted with their rules, there’s no point shuffling scoring systems.”
He goes even further to say that television’s best equipment is too slow to catch up with badminton. “The nuances involved cannot be captured on TV, badminton’s too fast for TV,” he boasts. The 11×5 is seemingly hitting at the pride shuttlers have for just how tough and fast their sport is.
“My personal view is it will take the toughness aspect away, by shortening the game and catering to the league format,” he says. India’s two editions of the badminton league, ironically, had tried out this stunt – but no one envisaged it could be contemplated as the norm internationally.
“The whole complexion will change, entire strokes involved will be taken away, fitness won’t play any role, it’ll just be smash-smash,” he laments, even as the Tata Open in Mumbai later in November preps to host the first event in this format, as decided by the international federation.
Strokes to the corners, skirmishes at the net, deception (though not unorthodox trickery) will all fade away, with the shuttle being banged down at first opportunity.
By now, it might seem like a case loaded against the administrators with all the players slated to oppose it. Except, the intrigue’s just begun with the double Nelson.
The diminishing value of fitness in badminton would mean, the players fraternity gets cleaved right down the centre, given where badminton is placed currently. It’s biggest names in men’s singles Lee Chong Wei and Lin Dan – hitting mid-30s, might well see the 11×5 as a career extension and vote in favour once the players’ opinions are taken.
“With fitness not playing a role, shuttlers can go upto 35-36, even 40. It can soon resemble a veteran’s circuit,” Vimal Kumar says, stingingly adding, “That’s how I’ll mock it.”
Badminton, over the last three Olympic cycles, has seen the peak of fitness, and is as acrobatic as it can get across singles and doubles. The 21-pointer has hit the perfect spot, though Bhat believes retirement ages will soon jog upto 38-40. “It shouldn’t become like tennis doubles,” he offers his share of acerbity. “I’m a little bit old-school. Players should’nt play beyond 34-35. It doesn’t go well the image of badminton as a supreme physical sport,” he says.
Bhat recalls the last transitional pangs when in 2002 a 7×5 was offered, although points were won on serve. “The top names then didn’t like the format: Gopi, Taufik (Hidayat), (Peter) Gade were all fit and stood their ground demanding the 15×3,” he recalls. In four years – 2006 – the 21-pointer came along and has persisted for a decade, till the newest itch struck some marketing corner of the world body, encouraged no doubt by the proliferation of the leagues.
“Trouble is if Chong Wei and Lin Dan decide to prolong their career and choose the 11, then it’ll be tough to vote it down. These guys have a lot of say and Chong Wei’s one vote is equivalent to many,” he says. The current lot of Indians are mostly young and fit, and might suffer if endurance is yanked out of the equation. Expect a divided house with those retiring on one flank once this goes up for vote, Vimal Kumar warns.
It’ll be wrong to heap all the criticism on the suits though: they have a product to market, and a reticent sport at that, with its bulk and soul in Asia, not known for its hardsell. Aparna Popat has done plenty of television work post retirement and in her interaction with producers has come across the practical difficulties of making shuttle a TV storm. It’s not just that Asian shuttlers hardly communicate – with English and Chinese / Korean / Japanese splitting the players – but also the way tournaments are structured.
“Why force audience to watch all matches? Singles and Doubles. It won’t help if you make a match concise. TV is demanding a compact 3-hour- slot but we want men’s and women’s singles and doubles and the mixed doubles all packed in,” she explains.
“Broadcasters say they have no guarantee one of our Indians will reach semis every Super Series. Except Saina others aren’t as consistent. So why pay so much money to watch non-Indian matches? The schedules can never be determined in advance,” she says. Sometimes Indians are spotted on the corner of the screen because they aren’t on TV courts. “There’s no time-frame because sometimes a doubles match will go on forever,” she adds.
The bigger problem with badminton has always been getting its best practitioners the eyeballs. On their sheer talent and athleticism on court Lee Chong Wei, Lin Dan and Viktor Axelsen ought to have been household names not unlike Federer, Nadal and del Potro. “The governing bodies have failed the sport’s biggest names in ensuring they are recognisable. Tennis manages to get that player recall for at least the Top 20, here we’ve not managed even the Top 3,” Popat says. Even if a Pepsi gives All England a million dollars, the sport’s just not imprinted itself on minds the way the world tunes into Wimbledon that July Sunday no matter what.
And switching from 21×3 to 11×5 hardly will change that. “We have to find better ways to make it attractive, take the top leagues – Bundesliga or Danish to the US, play it at makeshift AFL arenas. Find ways to popularise it rather than altering the scoring,” she says, adding, “Tomorrow you’ll want them to play with psychedelic shuttles! But the same people will tune in.”
Doubles champ Ashwini Ponappa says the 21-pointer has seen the sport evolve to a level where endurance is not compromised on and other skills get a good play. “The quality of the match is important, not the length,” she says. Making badminton physically less demanding, players insist, will only make it look more casual – less pro. “As it is, it’s not marketed for its biggest strength – endurance. Now with 11, players won’t event sweat,” Aparna Popat complains. Less won’t bring in more eyeballs necessarily.