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Can the Young Indian Brigade Win Badminton's Biggest Prize - The Thomas Cup?

By: Sanjay Sharma

Last Updated: April 22, 2022, 12:10 IST

Lakshya SEN (IANS)

Lakshya SEN (IANS)

This team is by far the most balanced team India has ever fielded in any Thomas Cup, or for that matter in any men’s team championship in our history

Can India win the Thomas Cup 2022? That is a question that often torments the minds of the elite players who represent India, every time the Cup comes around the corner.

But barring three occasions, where we reached inter-zonal finals and got bronze medals for our efforts, we have been, ourselves as players, and as the sports-loving people of India. In 1952, which was the second edition of the Thomas Cup, India reached the inter-zonal finals after being a top team of the Asian Zone. India defeated Thailand and Australia, with similar score lines, 9-0.

In those years, the Cup was fought over two days with 5 singles and 4 doubles matches. There was reverse in both, singles and doubles. In 1952, India, after defeating Thailand and Australia, played Denmark in the semifinals at the inter-zonal in Singapore. And we won 6-3 against the Danes and qualified to play the USA in the finals.

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The winner here earned the right then to challenge Malaysia for the Cup. This was called the challenge round. Malaysia was certified as the world’s best team. But we lost 4-5 to the Americans.

In the next edition, India again won the Asian zone defeating a strong Thai team 6-3. In the semifinals, we beat USA 6-3 but we failed again, losing out to the mighty Danes 3-6.

The next time we got a bronze medal was in the 1978-79 edition. We defeated Sri Lanka 9-0 in a match played in Hyderabad, then got a walkover from Pakistan, to then set up a date with Malaysia in Kuala Lumpur. Malaysia was the number one team in the world. In the earlier two editions of 1952 and 1955, it was our singles players like TN Seth, Amrit Lal Dewan and the magical Nandu Natekar were able to weave their silken skills and they managed to bring India thus far.

And then the country had to wait till the 1978-79 edition, some 24 years later before we could break the jinx. And this time a scintillating display in doubles won the tie for India. Both our pairs, Prakash Padukone and Uday Pawar, and Pradeep Gandhe and yours truly won both the doubles on the first day to put immense pressure on the hosts. We triumphed 5-4 finally and won the Asian Zone gold for India and the team then marched to the inter-zonal finals where we lost to Denmark but got a bronze medal for our endeavours.

What’s in store this time

So what has the Thomas Cup in store for our brave hearts when they travel to Bangkok for the 2022 edition of this team tournament? Indonesia of course has been the biggest winner, winning the trophy 14 times.

Let us take the seven best teams and see how we may fare. The teams are Denmark, Indonesia, China, Japan, Korea, Malaysia and Thailand. So let us see the likely result against these teams.

I have taken current world rankings as the main barometer and also head-to-head leanings.

And it is important to note here that as per BWF rules, top-ranked players have to compete against each other. So Lakshya Sen, for example, will always play the first singles because he, at world no.9, is currently the highest-ranked Indian player as per the latest world rankings list issued by the BWF on 16 April. He cannot play in the second or third slots. Lower players can of course move up. So HS Prannoy can play in the third or even in the first slot. Similarly, Saisatwik Rankareddy and Chirag Shetty can play the first doubles only. And the format is singles/doubles/singles/doubles followed by the third singles.

India in my opinion is perhaps the most balanced team in the fray. And with our players raring to go, I have a sneaky, but, positive feeling that this time Indian anthem will be played at the prize ceremony. Dhruv Kapila and MR Arjun were the outstanding, unbeaten pair in the BAI selection. This pair did not lose a single match. They will start with where they had left. At the Sudirman Cup last year, in absence of Chirag and Rankireddy, Arjun and Dhruv had borne the responsibility of playing the doubles and had really done well.

They have the experience now of playing at the highest level. And they are obviously in sharp form.

Game Plan for Danish

So let us take teams one by one, starting with Denmark, who we have defeated only once, way back in 1952. And though Sen defeated the top Dane Viktor Axelsen in the German Open, I will still say that Viktor has got the upper hand and will give Denmark the first point against us. But India can create history. The second singles is 50/50 when Kidambi Srikanth takes on Anders Antonsen, the world number 3. If Kidambi goes all out with the same form we saw at the world championship then we can equalise, but still, I will give the point to Denmark. Though the last time they played, Kidambi won a real tight battle at the Swiss Open in March this year winning 21-19, 19-21, 22-20. But the Indian ace lost to Anderson in the world tour finals and the Indonesian Masters last year.

The third singles with Prannoy taking on Rasmus Gemke should come to us even though the Dane, at 13, is higher ranked than the Indian who is currently at the 23rd spot. Prannoy defeated Gemke the last time the two met at the world championship last year in an epic battle of 76 minutes 16-21, 21-8, 22-20. Prannoy is a class act and barring Viktor he has defeated every other top shuttler. He beat Taufiqe Hidayat at the India Open four years back and also showed a quick exit to legendry Lin Dan in the first round of the Indonesian Open in 2018.

Though our top doubles pair of Rankireddy and Shetty lost to Anders Skaarup and Kim Astrup 16-21, 5-21 at the world tour finals, Rankireddy was carrying a knee injury. But, of late, they have been in top form and have zoomed in rankings and are currently world no.7, against the 10th ranked Danes.

In the second doubles, the next Danish pair are ranked 55 and 56 in world rankings, far below our No. 2 pair of Dhruv and Arjun who are at 39. So I can predict that India can win 4-1, if Kidambi wins his tie. And we can still win 3-2 even if we lose the 2nd singles.

Japanese Hurdle

The next opponents will be Japan, and Sen should be able to defeat Kento Mamota, the world No.2. The last time the two met was in the world tour finals where Sen won. Two weeks before this victory, Sen had lost 6 game points to crash out against Momota 21-23, 15-21 in the Indonesian Masters at Bali. The top Indian has improved a lot in the past four months has reached the finals of both the German and All England Opens. The same is the case with Kidambi. He lost three years back to Kanta Tsuneyama. Kidambi is a big-ticket event player. In last one year, he has improved a lot and I think he should put it across Tsuneyama. Prannoy will win against Kenta Nishimoto. So in singles, we have a chance to win all three, but if the surety is to be given then I feel it will be Sen and Prannoy. And we have to win one of the doubles at least. The Japanese have been doing well in this event. Just to show their strength in the doubles, their pairs are ranked 4, 5 and 6 in world rankings.

Rankireddy and Chirag have to play a very patient game, but aggressive at the same time, to carve out a win against the top Japanese pair of Takuro Hoki and Yugo Kobayashi. The last time the two met was in 2019 and the Indian pair lost narrowly 21-17, 16-21, 17-21. We can defeat the Japanese 3-2 but we have to ride on the broad shoulders of our top doubles pair.

India versus Malaysia could end in a 3-2 in our favour. They can win the first singles of Lee Zhi Jia, but here also I feel Sen will have a 60: 40 chance of winning. But even if he losses, we can win the 2 and 3 singles. The first doubles should come to us. Rankireddy and Chirag lost a very close 3-setter against Ong Yew Sin and Teo Ee Yi. So very critical that Sen plays a stellar role here and leads from the front.

Many people I talked to while writing this piece told me that both Kidambi and Prannoy are old for singles as they are 29 and 30 years of age.

I will only remind them that Alan Budikusuma won the Olympic gold at 30, while current BWF president Poul-Erik Høyer Larsen won the Olympics gold when he was 31.

It all depends on your level of fitness. I am sure that Kidambi and Prannoy will make extra efforts to be super fit for this once in a lifetime chance to lift the cup.

How to Tackle Indonesia

Against Indonesia, we will have to be very persistent and patient. Their two pairs are World no. 1 and 2. It took Rankireddy and Chirag a long time before they caged the pair of Mohammad Ahsan and Hendra Setiawan to win a hard-fought skirmish at the finals of India Open this year 21-16, 26-24. India can win all three singles as the Indonesians are not as strong as in the time of Liem Swie King and Rudy Hartono. And in the pair of Marcus Gideon and Kevin Sanjaya, they have very dangerous specialists, who have defeated our duo every time and lead 11-0 in head-to-head, including the 21-12, 21-13 drubbing they got in Tokyo Olympics. It is imperative therefore that we win all three singles ties. And we have a good chance. Lakshya recently hammered Anthony Ginting, the top Indonesian player, 21-7, 21-9. He can repeat the same performance. However, Kidambi lost to Jonathan Christie in the Swiss open semifinals in three games.

Tommy Sugiarto the Indonesian No 3 has also lost to Prannoy. Last they faced each other in the 2019 New Zealand Open. Indonesia has 60: 40 chances in the doubles, while India can win two singles matches. It may come down to the game of Kidambi. So it could go 3-2 either way.

Chinese Challenge

Let’s see how the tie can go against China. The top Chinese is supposed to be Chen Long, ranked 6 in world rankings. But he has not played or seen in any tournament for more than a year. But since he is the highest-ranked Chinese we have no choice but to see him play against Sen. But assuming if he does not play, Shi Yu Wi will be moved up. This player has lost to other Indians like Sameer Verma, Sai Praneeth, etc. My gut feeling is that if Sen plays Shi Wi, the Indian will win.

Kidambi will then take on LU Guang Zu whom he has defeated many times, including as recently as the German Open this year. I actually see India winning all three singles because even though Prannoy had not played Huang Xiong recently, but he had beaten the Chinese a few times in 2018 and 2019.

In the men’s doubles, we have a percentage chance of winning the match of RankiReddy and Chirag Shetty against the top Chinese pair of He Ji Ting and Tan Quang, ranked 18 as compared to the 7th for the Indians. Rankireddy and Chirag had defeated the Chinese pair in two games in the last Thomas Cup.

So a 3-2 win over China is feasible. But the Indians must sweep the singles which they are capable of.

Chances against Korea

Let’s now take on the Koreans. Unfortunately for them, the Koreans have lost the spark in singles. So stunning had been their withdrawal from top world singles, that today, sadly the only Korean in the top 50 ranks is Heo Kwanghee, who will have to play Sen in the first singles.

They have met only once and the Korean defeated Sen in the quarterfinals of the French Open last year. But the Indian is in a much better space now after scalping world champ in the India Open, Olympic champion Axelsen in the German Open and last year’s All England champ, Lee Zhi Lia, in the semifinals of All England this year.

In fact, India should wrap up the tie 3-0 and call it a day, but it will be interesting to see how Rankireddy and Shetty tackle the Koreans Choi Sul Gyu and Seo Secungjlae. Seo used to partner Jang Minyank till last year. This new pairing is ranked 12.

My crystal ball says we will win 4-1 against this once mighty team.

Thai Problem

Last but not least is the home team of Thailand, led by Vitidsarn Kunlavut who will try his best to defeat the big names and lead his country to glory.

This three-time world junior champion has had lots of battles with Sen, the last one being at the German Open finals where an extremely exhausted Sen, also suffering from boiling blisters on his left foot, thanks to the marathon match against the Olympic champion in his semifinals, just caved in the finals.

Sen and Vitidsarn have played a great number of matches right from junior days and are almost equal in a head-to-head comparison. But in Bangkok, the Thai player will have an upper hand in front of his home crowd. It will be a keenly awaited confrontation.

But Kidambi should have no problems against 21 ranked Kantaphon Wangcharoen and Prannoy should also pull through without much sweat against Sitthikom Thammasin, even though 3 years back in Malaysia Open this Thai shuttler had won in three games. Prannoy is a vastly improved player now, especially in the last year or so.

But even if he lost, we will win both the doubles. At one time Thailand had good doubles combinations but not anymore. Their best is 39 ranked Supak Jomkoh and Kittinupong Kendral followed by the 54th ranked Bidin Isara and Maneepong Jongjit.

Both the doubles are winnable as far as India is concerned. So it can be 4-1 to India but let’s make it 3-2 to be safe.

most balanced Indian team

This team is by far the most balanced team India has ever fielded in any Thomas Cup, or for that matter in any men’s team championship in our history. The first three singles specialists are world-class. They have beaten all other players on the planet and have supreme confidence in their abilities. The first doubles pair of Rankireddy and Shetty at world no.7, can take the battle to any opponent. Arjun and Dhruv are match sharp and must be raring to go. These players have the experience and self-belief that they can win under any circumstances.

They have to fire on all cylinders. History will be created in Bangkok and the tri-colour will be unfurled, to the tunes of the national anthem. The team has to just get its act together. Last word to Shetty, one half of the magical doubles duo. “We are going to do well. Our singles players are superb and time tested, with the right attitude. For doubles, we are really happy that Denmark’s legendary Mathias Boe is back coaching us. We are shaping up really well and look forward to the Thomas Cup. We are really a balanced team with good depth. I only pray that no one gets injured; we are match sharp. And will play our hearts out to show the world that India is finally emerging as a superpower of the game."

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first published:April 22, 2022, 12:00 IST
last updated:April 22, 2022, 12:10 IST