The real battle will take place in peak summer – late May – at Thailand when the Indian women and men teams compete at the Thomas Uber Cup. But for the bragging rights and serving as lung openers, there is the Badminton Asia Team Championship currently underway at Malaysia. In the quarterfinals, Indian men will head into a clash with China – and a close finish ain’t all that improbable. Save for the Chinese solidity and tradition, some would even cheekily give India audacious odds, given how the Indians are capable of driving the knife deep. In the women’s game, India are up against relatively low key Indonesia, but with two singles left to international greenhorns Krishna Priya and Rutuparna Panda, and Indonesians stronger (though not unbreakable) in doubles, PV Sindhu will have to hold the team together. Ashwini Ponappa and Sikki Reddy playing the first doubles might well be playing the most important match in a team event of their career as a pairing, and should back themselves to make it count and put the opponents under pressure, facing Greysia Polii and Apriyani Rahayu. With Sindhu starting against World No. 29 Fitriani Fitriani, if Ashwini-Sikki can secure the 2-0 lead, then that would give Sindhu a chance to combine with Sanyogita Ghorpade and push India into the semis. Any win for the young Panda or Sri Krishna Priya will be sensational.
It is in the men’s tie that things get intriguing. India is coming off a stunning trophy clinching year for its singles players, and Kidambi Srikanth spearheading the Indian challenge against possibly Shi Yuqi now has the opportunity to pull out a big match on a big stage. The Chinese are in Malaysia without Chen Long and Lin Dan, trusting their young tyros, including last week’s India Open champ Yuqi, an even tempered steady and rhythm player. Srikanth is ranked World No.5 and Yuqi is at No.7 – trailing 1-3 in head to heads. The 21-year-old however won their last face-off, and the Chinese are a different entity in team events, backed by their might of the coaching staff.
They’ve lost at the Thomas Cup previously to the Koreans and Japanese, but failing to beat relatively lowly India (only because of its doubles Achilles heel) will be a serious embarrassment. Yuqi wouldn’t want his first assignment as China No.1 to go that way, and that’s where Srikanth will need to pull out his big guns. Bin Qiao is the China No.2 in singles here at World No.26, and Sai Praneeth would have found some fair amount of confidence winning against Indonesian Anthony Ginting even if India lost 3-2 to Indonesia in their final group tie – more of a prep for tomorrow. Sameer Verma was rested for soreness on the top spine and will be crucial against China if the contest goes down to the wire. Doubles challenge
It’s in the doubles that things get a bit wild. Ofcourse, Indians have never scored a massive win against Chinese men’s pairings at big events. But while Manu-Sumeeth — expected to be India’s first pair — would want to make a mark here, Thursday’s biggest takeaway from the Indonesian tie was the win for Saatwiksairaj Rankireddy and Chirag Shetty against scratch pair Mohammad Ahsan and Kevin Sanjaya Sukamuljo, a 53 minute rollicking back and forth that ended 18-21, 21-18, 24-22 in the Indians’ favour.
Both the Indonesians have been World No.1 separately, and of course combined on an inconsequential day. But still, Saatwik – the big, mighty fellow and Chirag, underrated but canny, have shown this last year, that they are capable of joining the big league of badminton men’s doubles, perhaps the most intensely athletic and fast-paced event in the sport.
The young Indian pairing had to keep their nerves after the sets levelled and the match went into a decider. They trailed 11-15 before a 4-point surge brought them level. Scores went neck to neck after that, and Indians were in 4 match point situations. Pairings of earlier years, and even these two till a few months ago, would’ve blinked at that juncture. But these two are fast learning to absorb the pressure, even revel in it. “Actually we had 4 match points and though we didn’t give away easy points it was always a good rally and somehow we couldn’t convert,” Chirag said, of the humdinger. But after every point, coach Tan Kim Her would drill in the golden rule: just focus on the first 3 strokes. “So that’s what we did,” Chirag added, executing the mantra – learning to breathe and accelerate and slow down just right in those crucial moments, something that Indians are still internalising in badminton doubles.
Earlier after losing the opening set, the Indians had been gutsy to attack the Indonesian serve since the Indonesians weren’t flicking all that much. “We were rushing for the service. So that’s what helped when they didn’t flick much,” Chirag said. The two have won some thrillers including at Delhi last week, but this was an important match of their nascent partnership. “Considering they are a split partnership it wasn’t the best, but yeah Kevin Sanjaya has been the world no 1 for the past year and winning a match against him is obviously a big confidence booster.
Ahsan is former world no.1 too. So yeah all in all one of the best wins so far,” he would say. It’s just another tough day in badminton on Friday, when Satwik-Chirag run into the Chinese (the circuit teems with strong teams). A win against them won’t be just another win though.