India doesn’t sniff speed in cricket too often. Not the once-in-a-blue-moon pace piggybacking on canny swing or seam, but pure-raw speed. Like Shoaib Akhtar.
So you switch channels and settle on shuttler and freshly crowned India Open Super Series winner PV Sindhu for your fix of speed. Throw Carolina Marin, the Olympic champ into the mix and you have Senna and Prost transposed onto the badminton court from McLaren’s golden years — a tandem traversing the same expressway and out to out-do the other in how fast they can whip back the shuttle.
Sindhu and Carolina are two young women prone to raising the tempo of the sport to such venerable velocity in their exchanges — raising the stakes with every whack on the bird and their brisk racquet speeds, that the blitz makes for breathless viewing. The Olympic finals were a complete stampede — two gears up from Sunday’s game, but the rematch in Delhi kept up with the general theme of bewildering haste of the duo’s shot-making back and forth.
TV cameras might not capture the essence of these accelerations, but the Siri Fort crowd packed to the rafters will remain dizzy for a while from having watched yet another title face-off which traded in pure pace. Rio lacked the partisan presence, but the Indian capital throbbed to the fast clip watching Sindhu rewrite the second set script and corner the title on this day. You could even pause and indulge in a few moments of regret — what if Sindhu could’ve kept up the speed of the rallies and the kills in Rio? For she matched Marin in speed that Brazilian afternoon, but perhaps lacked the finesse in finishing. Could the gold have been her’s?
Sindhu, at 21, is in that bombastic phase of her career where she can rely on speed to down any opponent. When she drops on that parameter, she looks a tamer, beatable version of herself. She’s not invincible — not yet — and Taipei’s Tai Tzu Ying showed how she could be cut short and swatted away at the All England when Sindhu was clearly struggling for pace. But rev her up on the speedgun, and Sindhu transforms into a mammoth opponent. Tall, powerful and crucially fast. It’s the three boxes she needs to tick every time she sets her sights on any title, to bulldoze her way through women’s singles draws that are filled with players boasting of a wide variety of games.
Against Saina Nehwal’s indifferent, unsure fitness, Sindhu is looking like an overwhelming favourite as was evident in the semis. Against Marin — who’s not in the best of nicks since that Rio final and despite that left-handed eccentricity — the near 6-footer was all arms and legs in retrieving and chomping up the court corners and playing with gasping swiftness.
In all likelihood, coach Gopichand will urge Sindhu to go all-out and play at standard high pace till her body can withstand that scramble on court and pick her early titles. She’s won China and India already, and the upcoming Asian Championships and the Worlds later in August as well as Indonesia (because Nehwal has that and because it’s a cauldron that picks out its galloping champions) will all be approached and when possible swept up at that particular top gear.
There’s a predictability to such a game — shots are hit with momentum and most shots go to the back of the court while most kills rely on power and the tearing alacrity with which they return to the opponent. Shoaib Akhtar’s speed was intimidating enough — and watching him go full throttle was a sight, even before you marvelled at the yorker length. Sindhu’s hit that fast lane — though the cautionary tales will be found in her own sport.
Watch Lin Dan and Lee Chong Wei in 2005 through 2008 when they were priming up for their onslaughts on the Olympics and the World No. 1 ranking: both operated at that ceaseless speed, the heady rush in what looked like a young man’s game. A decade later, the two learnt what Sindhu inevitably will: changing pace, varying the speed, a departure from the boom boom bang of the power-plus-speed cocktail.
Sindhu’s success is so completely dependent on playing the sport at a bruising pace that she will learn the fast bowler’s final truth: when you wish to go all-out, doing that in a match demands training for that pace in practice. High speed at all times through the year, at every tournament, is not a sustainable proposition.
Poised as she is for all-time greatness (she has the raw materials and the wise coach), varying her pace, will be the next logical step if she wants to emulate the success of a Lin Dan or a Chong Wei, going forward. The earliest images of the Chinese and Malaysian legends are of a zoop-zoop-zoop single-paced monotone, heady but not cerebral. The duo would slowly learn to mix the pace — slow down, quicken the rally, suddenly attack and build the lulls which are so crucial to unleash the storms.
In women’s singles, World No. 1 Tai Tzu Ying changes pace (to go with her deceptive repertoire), Ratchanok can control rallies with that quality and even Carolina Marin — despite her high-speed headlining her show — is adept at varying the speed. The title wins will make you fall in love with Sindhu’s speed, this moment, but lasting greatness lies in varying the pace.