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Sunday, May 22, 2022

India’s Thomas Cup runneth over as Shetty-Rankireddy, Srikanth, Prannoy win against Malaysia

Men's team beat Malaysia 3-2 to enter the semifinals; guaranteed of bronze

Written by Shivani Naik |
Updated: May 13, 2022 8:13:50 am
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They dug so deep individually in their quiet, personal journeys and at other times together noisily on training courts, that in the end, the Indian team found the depth to win its first Thomas Cup medal.

Having a former World No 1, a World Championship silver medallist and in-form player like Kidambi Srikanth play the second singles of the five-match tie, followed by the dependable big-match beast, HS Prannoy lining up for MS3 – that was two assured wins in a tie pointing to India’s remarkable depth. An overlap of a bunch of talented singles shuttlers all pulling in the same direction. Then the doubles plodders – Satwiksairaj Rankireddy and Chirag Shetty, they who never stop trying – clinched the crucial point to trigger hope.

The golden generation of male shuttlers – some of whom first took to the international courts a decade ago – elevated Indian badminton into the ultimate realm of shuttle royalty on Thursday, medalling at the prestigious team championships, edging out Malaysia 3-2 in a thrilling quarterfinal tie at Bangkok.

All those years of being relegated to the shadows of India’s women shuttlers, quietly sharpening their games, gulping down narrow losses which ended up in fine print of scores and returning to familiar drawing boards castigating them on their bunch of mistakes. The Thomas Cup team finally exhaled. Some may call it roared. Guttural and gutsy, it was the sound of things falling in place. “Malaysia is not sleeping tonight,” a gleeful national coach Pullela Gopichand chuckled, about a loss that can be compared to India going out early from a cricket world cup.

India will fancy their chances against Denmark in the semifinals to gun for the big medal, where Lakshya Sen who missed out on Thursday gets a chance to propel India forward.

HOW MALAYSIA WAS TRICKED

Malaysia boast of a rich Thomas Cup history from 70s and 80s, but in recent years and under pressure have tended to wobble. Think all those Lee Chong Wei finals being second-bested by the Chinese. So when they split up their doubles pairing and coach Rexey fielded a scratch pairing of Goh Sze Fei and Nur Izuddin for the first doubles, India sniffed an immediate chance.

The equation was simple. Srikanth and Prannoy, the vily foxes, the Indian seniors pickled in international battles, the outrageously talented pros — were bound to boss over the two youngsters, NG Tze Yong and Leong Jun Hao. The two peaked on the circuit in the 2017 dizzy season scalping big names. But after a sobering four years of struggling with injury and form and confidence crises, had gained the cushioning of self-assurance, where they trusted their games and ability to negotiate court conditions. India could rely on both against youngsters.

Malaysia, mighty curiously, did not field their experienced player Daren Liew and went ahead with the promise of youth. Plus the doubles stunt.

Lakshya Sen started India’s charge, against his All England scalp, Lee Zii Jia, who had split from the Malaysian central system, patched up with the authorities, and returned even more ripped and raucous in his smashing than Birmingham. At Bangkok, he fended off Sen’s desperate attempts at trapping him with a commanding show at the net and a loud booming of the smash. He toyed with the Indian in the second to win 23-21, 21-9 putting Malaysia 1-0 ahead.

That’s when India’s hitherto luckless pair of Satwik-Chirag took to the court in the first doubles. The duo have missed narrowly at the Olympics and World Championships and countless other tournaments, flubbing big leads and set points for a harrowing last two years, though they won India Open. Still, a pressure game of Thomas Cup with medal at stake against Malaysia can count as their biggest challenge yet.

It was Chirag Shetty, with a neon headband and a screaming pumped fist, who pulled the Indian pairing with force and conviction. He manned the backcourt with a stomp, kept Satwik gee-ed up throughout, was assertive in his downward smashes and assured in low defense. Satwik is yet to Hulk out fully as he is capable of, but Chirag knew he couldn’t wait for the giant to fully be roused. He just took on the mantle and literally spooked Izuddin and Goh with his domineering play of well placed down attacks.

The fear of the coiled Satwik uncoiling any moment, added to the sheer pressure. “At 13 all or 14 all in the second where we took 4 points in a row. That was the turning point,” Shetty said.

Malaysian fans, as is their auditory wont, created one right din, but the Indians, veterans of the noise wall well before they turn 25, were game for a nice scrap as they bullied the Malaysians, winning 21-19, 21-15 in 41 minutes of high intensity battle.

With tie scores levelled 1-1, Kidambi Srikanth unveiled one of the most composed showings of his career, a regal 21-11, 21-17 schooling of Ng Tze Yong. Young Yong had his moments, levelling at 14-14 in the second, but it was a Srikanth masterclass all the way, unfurling his strokes and calming nerves. Coming back from 11-15 down young Yong took 4 quick points as Srikanth sprayed errors. But in the rally that followed, the Indian 29 year old, came up with a sublime smash and rushing follow up at the net to soothe fears. Then came the regal pristine Srikanth smash. India 2-1.

India’s second doubles pair of Krishna-Vishnu lost 21-19, 21-15 to Teo-Chia. 2-2.

Finally, the backhand beast HS Prannoy stepped on court against 20 year old Leong. The gulf in experience and skill aside, this was still a pressure cooker match. India’s men’s singles players have a long history (meticulously shredded on Twitter timelines) of previous losses and resultant ungenerous feedback they regularly cop. Not on Thursday.

Prannoy was decisive in his strokeplay. The big backhand smash didn’t surface, but he didn’t need it to. The backhand pushes at the net poked holes in Leong’s game after the Malaysian led early. Once he gad a measure of Leong, Prannoy just didn’t let go his foot off the pedal taking the opener with fist pumps – his only forehand stroke.

At 4-6, racquets literally clashed at the net like swords. On a couple of line calls – the court had no tech reviews – Prannoy got testy, but never allowed the emotion to get the better of him. He would take the next point with extra gusto. The whiff of experience was literally in the air, evident in the way he allowed shuttles to sail past his nostrils knowing they would land out. So accurate was his judgment. “In the first he was down 9-4; from there it was one way traffic,” Shetty said, describing scenes where impromptu dances broke out and team rushed onyo court to celebrate, after sealing the tie.

This was a team high on confidence, smelted with team spirit and fit to the core to last the battles.

The last time India made semis was in 1979 – a team of Prakash Padukone / Syed Modi/ Leroy D’sa – Suman Mishra, Partho Ganguly playing 3rd singles and Padukone played second doubles. A semis didn’t mean a medal then for it was just 8 teams in the fray.

For this generation of Indians though, it’s been a long hard road to redemption.

“The best moment has to be the deciding match of Prannoy! He started off slow but when he got the rhythm he just killed it,” Chirag Shetty told Express later. He admitted he and Satwik were under the pump going into the match. “Well for us it was important and not just for the team cause we didn’t play that great against the Chinese Taipei pair. So we really needed this win. And we went out there to give our best shot. And yeah happy with the way we played,” he added.

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