The revamped The buzz around the ‘photo’ might not have reverberated out of Hyderabad earlier this year. But when one city supplement asked India’s leading men’s singles badminton players to pose shirtless for a frame that looked vaguely inspired from the Rang de Basanti shot – a group of boys leaping for the sky – there were a lot of shy giggles from the macho men who were the lensman’s muse for the day. It was around the time that Saina Nehwal was basking in the glory of her freshly minted No 1 honour. But the boy brigade strutted their rippling torsos on the front page – their brains crucially chiselled into believing that they too belonged to the big shuttle revolution that was sweeping shuttle’s realm.
As the Premier Badminton League – in its latest jazzed up avatar – takes off for its second edition, it is these band of Indian boys that stand to gain the maximum from this opportunity of a short, snappy fortnight-long league. The top dough’s gone Nehwal’s way – a lakh dollars, and PV Sindhu commands a good 15,000 USD higher than the best Indian men’s singles player Kidambi Srikanth. There’s no doubt crowds will throng stadiums to watch these two high-achievers of the global stage alongwith the indefatigable doubles proselytizers Jwala Gutta-Ashwini Ponappa. But it is that heaving mass of Indian men’s singles players – a half dozen restless souls forever threatening to break through and seeking strength in their sheer numbers, that will find a wide canvas in the year-starting league.
To begin with, the league format indulges this talent troupe: there are two men’s singles matches on show. Unlike the last edition – which too boasted of two men’s singles rubbers – the match-offs don’t look like sideshows or undercards to the girls’ showstopping sequences. It helps that the men are all sprinkled around the Top 50 – there’s K Srikanth who’s made Top 5 in the last year, and Ajay Jayaram who reached a Super Series final. And, HS Prannoy who scalped Lin Dan, and P Kashyap who in June managed to score a win over reigning World No 1 Chen Long. Guru Saidutt is a steady presence in the wings – and never found wanting in effort, while B Sai Praneeth needs that one lucky breakthrough before the world awakens to his rich repertoire of wristy tricks and buffet of strokes.
Spread them out across the six teams of the PBL and square them off against each other, and you get some intriguing insights into match-ups that have hitherto only been seen in sparring and training sessions. Elevating them to a high-stakes league rivalry can only bring the best out of India’s leading contenders who have been promising to match the exploits that have been the domain of Saina and Sindhu. “It’s great that our men’s singles players are shouldering responsibilities to be the face of their teams. It will help them mature as players and leaders under pressure situations which will also help them when they play for India in team events,” national coach P Gopichand who trains all save Ajay Jayaram said.
The top players glare out of promo posters at every turn of the tree-lined NSCI stadium – venue of the opening ties of the PBL to be played over the weekend. It’s gimmicky – the Baddies campaign – given most of the blokes are perfectly affable men and not prone to snarling at the drop of every shuttle. But in an Olympic qualification year with a lot to prove and bragging rights on offer, it would be inconceivable if a strain of competitiveness is not coursing through their veins.
There are contrasting skill-sets on show here – Prannoy is a power-smashing attacker on court, Kashyap is cerebral, pickled in international experience, wily and has struck a decent rhythm between movement on court and strokes and stamina to last the tough matches. Ajay Jayaram plays the delectable half smashes and boasts a rolling wrist at the net – though he’s not the most powerful of men on the circuit, while Sai Praneeth – who is yet to figure out a good mix of strength and strategy – is bursting with deceptive strokes and a treat to watch, if you could suspend thoughts of the context of the contest.
Srikanth, the most successful of the lot has unconventional strokes, learns fast and is getting stronger again but is still battling the second season blues after his breakthrough year last season. Guru is consistent, retrieves ceaselessly and has a steady head on his shoulders, though injuries have held him back from maxing his potential.
Men’s singles talent
The senior nationals that are televised but seldom watched have pitted them against each other, but it will take the yanked up excitement of the dinning league to really unveil what India’s men’s singles talent really looks like today as these players help their teams score in two matches.
Lee Chong Wei stays in the league till January 10 and will play the first four ties – Viktor Axelsen’s expected to step in thereafter – and there’s a fair sprinkling of mid-table talent in the form of the Indonesians – Santoso, Sony Dwi Kuncoro and Tommy Sugiarto – in the form of his life right now, to soak the pressure of the men’s singles matches for strategising coaches. Awadhe Warriors has the rubber-limbed Tanongsak Saensomboosuk with his wild whirlwind strokes if histrionics on the shuttle court is what you seek. But it is clear that the league is constructed to give its home boys the widest stage to strut their stuff.
“We know each other’s games inside out. So there’s not much preparation,” B Sai Praneeth says, even as he fancies his chances against Prannoy and Guru over the weekend. The as yet little known shuttler also shares an envious record against Srikanth, his style something of a bother for India’s top player. And there’s also World Junior championship runner up Siril Verma who Kashyap says, “the world will hear a lot about in the coming days.” In fact Srikanth first came to prominence – was seen by the Indian public at any rate – at the last edition of the IBL. “Hopefully this edition will also make a star out of someone. And I Hope that someone is me!” Kashyap chuckles.
Doubles ties in the PBL have pedigree and the women’s singles face-offs between Saina and Sindhu and the Indians and the third string Chinese Chinese will get cheered on plenty. But don’t be surprised if you get caught up in the frenzy of India’s lean, mean men’s singles challengers going head to head. They may roam the world like a pack of wolves, but they wont shy from baring their claws when their own reputation is at stake. There’s some serious competition there – whether it’s in leading out PBL matches or posing topless.