Terming it a subjective call in accordance with rules, Badminton Association of India (BAI) has said the squad selection for the upcoming Asian Games was made in the best interests of the Indian team and with an eye to the future. The association picked two extra women’s singles players, one of them the daughter of national coach Pullela Gopichand, instead of a third doubles pair, prompting doubles shuttler Aparna Balan to move the Kerala High Court challenging her omission from the squad.
The 30-year-old made conflict-of-interest charges against the national coach whose daughter Gayathri was named in the team, along with Akarshi Kashyap, another teenage singles player.
However, selectors and BAI officials said there was no nepotism at play here and they had gone by the book and their long-terms goals. The Asian Games-bound women’s team has six singles players – including PV Sindhu and Saina Nehwal – and four doubles exponents, including Ashwini Ponappa and Sikki Reddy. Three singles and two doubles matches constitute a tie, and both Saina and Sindhu are expected to chip in and play doubles. India has tactically fielded them in doubles to win bronze medals at the Asian Games and Uber Cup in the past. This means a squad of six is enough, and the others — including Gayathri — are basically going for exposure and contingency measures. As things stand, only Saina, Sindhu and Ashwini-Sikki are among the top 25 in world rankings.
While Aparna and partner Shruti KP had lost out to Rutuparna Panda-Sarah Sunil on head-to-head count as far as selection went, the Kerala player’s contention that six doubles players were needed in the squad wasn’t something the selectors agreed with. When it boiled down to a choice between a doubles player in her early 30s, who was not likely to get a match, and two upcoming singles players, they went for the second option.
Three chief national coaches — Gopi, Vimal Kumar and SM Arif — attested to the team tactic of fielding Saina and Sindhu for doubles in the past — out of the sheer realisation that a doubles pairing outside of Jwala Gutta earlier and Ashwini and Sikki now has just not delivered. BAI secretary Ajay Singhania said India’s recent experience at the Thomas & Uber Cup, where both HS Prannoy and Sameer Verma were injured, was a lesson learnt as there were no singles reserves. Prannoy was forced to play and faced criticism after he lost.
“We want to avoid that situation because while singles players can play doubles, we can’t expect doubles players to turn up and win singles. Thomas Cup was a bad experience risking Prannoy. Six doubles and four singles wasn’t enough cushioning when we know Sindhu and Saina will step in for the country,” he said.
Rejigging selection process
BAI recently rejigged the selection process starting with the Thomas & Uber Cup. Last month, they conducted two selection tournaments in Hyderabad and Bangalore, the process based on points aggregated on Excel sheets. “While we can’t grudge Aparna her right to protest, both sides have valid points,” selector Vimal Kumar said, “Six singles and four doubles was our selection call. Apart from Ashwini-Sikki, other Indian pairings don’t have a huge standing and wouldn’t have made a difference or even got to play. We’ve won medals at the 2014 Asiad & 2016 Uber Cup this way, and other pairings have some distance to catch up. We need to develop young combinations but at the moment they’re found wanting. It was unanimously decided that the two youngsters will be sent for exposure,” he said.
On Gayathri’s selection, he added, “Gopi’s daughter is shaping up well as a player, so this issue is always going to be there. We have to find a way out. For the sake of argument, anything can be conflict of interest. She can’t be dropped just because she’s his daughter.”
SM Arif, another selector, says scratch combinations with Saina and Sindhu have the advantage of shocking opponents. “It works, but it’s also true that doubles needs to be given equal exposure for minimum 3-4 years at the top level.”
Aparna is an astute and intuitive net player in doubles but lacks in defence and power from the back. Although she has had a fair amount of top-level exposure, her results don’t inspire confidence. Even if she had been part of the squad, she would have only made up the numbers. “The controversy is a good chance to introspect and fine-tune our selection system,” says selector Manjusha Kanwar.” She believes young doubles players need to be introduced at the top level. “We can’t keep playing singles players in doubles. So youngsters should be fielded in team events at some stage.”