Indian badminton has reached a phase where we find ourselves dancing dizzy when a lone medal comes home from the Olympics. Its bearer is a familiar face – PV Sindhu and her discipline – Singles, is all we have ever really bothered about in this country; doubles is still just an afterthought. After Sindhu’s bronze medal win at the Tokyo Olympics and 2018 Commonwealth Games silver medallist pair Satwiksairaj Rankireddy and Chirag Shetty’s vanquishment of the eventual gold medallists, Wang Chi Lin and Yang Li in their debut Olympics match, the hope of India finally taking steps towards a badminton pinnacle had lit aflame. Just maybe, better times are ahead, is what the general consensus was.
However, this was a short-lived thought as BWF resumed season with the 2021 Sudirman Cup, which is a biennial mixed team championship that is currently hosting its 17th edition in Vantaa, Finland.The Indian squad for Sudirman Cup was glaring – there was no Sindhu or Saina Nehwal or a Satwik-Chirag, but a host of new faces – Malvika Bansod, Aditi Bhatt, Rutaparna Panda, Tanisha Crasto, MR Arjun, Dhruv Kapila, and only four veterans, Kidambi Srikanth and B. Sai Praneeth, Ashwini Ponnappa and Sikki-Reddy.
The emotions were mixed as we saw them heading out for the Scandinavian challenge – only to slip and fall-flat and fall too soon and knock themselves out of the competition. India lost their first two group matches haplessly, losing to Thailand (4-1), China (5-0) and against hosts Finland, they performed a futile redeeming act to win 4-1.
In a recent Instagram live with The Bridge, India’s ace doubles player, Jwala Gutta, did not mince her words and shed out the reality behind doubles being relegated to a ‘secondary’ spot and doled out a step-motherly treatment, in light of India’s extremely poor show at the Sudirman Cup. Pointing towards the faulty system and the Chief Coach of Indian badminton, the 2010 CWG gold medallist highlighted the need for a proper doubles ecosystem in the country and the flaw with the mindset that is drawing us back from any concrete leap of growth in badminton.
“The Chief Coach needs to go” – Jwala Gutta
The Sudirman Cup, which is a mixed team event has a lot of pressure on the doubles as three doubles and only two singles clashes comprise a tie. Historically, India has done well in the singles and doubles remained as the blink-and-you-miss show, hardly remarkable. However, with Satwik-Chirag on the rise, things were expected to shine for India till the duo withdrew from the team event at the eleventh hour. Instead of India having backup pairs, an extremely strange fielding was done that cost the side heavily at the prestigious tournament.
With Satwik-Chirag out of the mix, much like the veteran doubles shuttler, Jwala Gutta, many people were surprised to see B. Sai Praneeth, a primarily singles specialist, joining forces with Ashwini Ponnappa at the Sudirman Cup Mixed Doubles match against Thailand. It’s needless to say that they went down to the Thai pair but what was glaring was the fact that Sai Praneeth was made to step in and not any other men’s doubles player instead.
“What kind of fielding was this? You had a women’s doubles duo (Tanisha and Rutaparna) who beat Ashwini-Sikki, why didn’t they play? Why did Ashwini not play with a men’s doubles player, why was a men’s singles player – Sai Praneeth playing with her?”, Gutta fired.
A men’s singles player was fielded to play mixed doubles yesterday in a prestigious sudirman cup…
Which is a world mixed team championships!!
Shows where we stand as a team…in the world badminton!!
— Gutta Jwala (@Guttajwala) September 27, 2021
What bothers Jwala Gutta is the fact that India has always been so lackadaisical about doubles, so much so that the pairings are not even done with minimum strategy, it seems. Extremely upset with the fielding, Gutta asked, “Why haven’t the top players been sent for the Sudirman Cup? Satwik-Chirag should have gone and played this tournament. This tournament is more important as Team India is involved, ” Gutta insisted in the IG Live.
“The right attitude towards the team championship has declined because of the current system. It’s like Davis Cup…I wouldn’t have allowed for the top players to skip it. Just because they don’t get good incentives by playing in the team championships, they don’t go…that is what I have to assume now why they are skipping this…It’s a very pathetic attitude towards the game,” Gutta said, blaming the Chief Coach, Pullela Gopichand, who was an erstwhile singles player as the reason behind this mindset and not making team championships mandatory for the top players.
Complacency a crime in Indian badminton?
Gutta hit out at the system “It’s the coach, it’s the Chief Coach. There is only one person who has been consistent. I’m going to repeat till somebody at the highest level understands this. Everybody knows what happened in the trials, nobody is talking about it, but everybody knows it,” the veteran player who now runs her own badminton academy – Jwala Gutta Academy of Excellence, lashed out. This points to a grim picture in Indian badminton – one where even players have decided to be complacent, settle with whatever is being offered and not fight, speak up for changes.
“All the players are compromising, not saying anything, surprisingly, Ashwini isn’t as well…it is not good for the sport…The condition of badminton in India is very bad,” Gutta woefully rued.
The mirage of the next crop of badminton players in India
The further pressing concern in Indian badminton is the lack of enough medal prospects. After PV Sindhu, there is no depth in the circuit and badminton seems to have been monopolised in the South – being played only by Telugu’s, one would think. Jwala Gutta openly asked us to name one player who is not from the Southern states of Telangana and Andhra Pradesh at the drop of our hats or name a medal prospect from the country who isn’t PV Sindhu – a stutter is what is to assuredly follow, the 38-year-old believes.
Badminton in India is in a dreary state, is what Jwala Gutta fears and a change in the system is what is needed at the earliest hour. Aside from nurturing the singles, the vision needs to expand and include doubles as well and create a separate ecosystem for doubles players. Unlike tennis where doubles is arguably easier to play, badminton doubles is whole different ball game – needing more reflexes as it is more fact-paced than doubles. Perfecting doubles in badminton is a difficult task but not an impossible one and India, despite having resources at hand, fails to employ them wisely and ends up dropping in their overall performance.
The clock really is ticking and India needs to sit up and take stock of the recent events, the Sudirman Cup being the biggest wake-up call for the nation to take a better hold of their reins, Jwala Gutta feels. In conclusion, Gutta relayed that a mindset change and a system change is necessary for India to really progress in badminton, develop the sport, let it grow so that there will come a day when there will be back-up’s to choose from and not just fill in the gap with whatever or whoever is available, in the most shoddy fashion, unexpected for an Olympic medalling nation.