U Vimal Kumar was the hands-on manager of the 2022 Thomas Cup team which scripted history by claiming the coveted title under the unsuspecting nose of the three teams which had won the cup before - Malaysia, Denmark and 14-time champions Indonesia, who never knew what hit them as India prevailed over them ruthlessly 3-0.
Kumar is a two-time national champion, a terrific coach and administrator who has held several tournaments at every level, including international events. He guided Saina Nehwal to become world No.1 and has a major hand in coaching the current sensation of India. Lakshya Sen who has been under his watchful eyes from age of 9. He is the Director and chief coach of Prakash Padukone badminton academy and was chief coach of India before Pullela Gopichand took over. He is a decent person soft-spoken but is never afraid to speak his mind. He was offered to go as the coach of the team for the Thomas Cup by the Badminton Association of India (BAI) but chose to go as manager as he felt that the manager’s post will suit him better.
What a day for Indian Badminton, I feel really proud to be part of this historic feat achieved by our fantastic players! @BAI_Media @Media_SAI @ppbaindia @OGQ_India @Infy_Foundation @YonexInd pic.twitter.com/tGdSF2ZkMB— Vimal Kumar (@vimalkumar_u) May 15, 2022
In this chat, he tells us how the players shaped up to win the biggest prize in the world of badminton and also expresses strong views on how the Thomas cup was conducted by the BWF. He also delves into what needs to be done soon in India to build up a team to win the next championship.
What was the role of the support staff, how did they perform and what exactly was the role you played?
I was very clear in my mind what everyone had to do at the championship. But before I go further let me tell you that in March itself at a selectors meeting I had told everyone present that we have a very strong and balanced team and we should seriously think of winning the cup. And the preparation must start immediately. At first they thought I was talking through my hat.
But I was convinced we will do really well. If you look at the team composition you can see each of the singles players were real world-beaters and in Saisatwik/Chirag we have a strong and tested duo who could take on anyone in the world. So in every way, you look at it and you will understand my point of view.
So my job, and job for the support staff was clear. This included the coach from Korea Yoo Yong Sung and Siyadath Ullah, DK Sen and of course Mathias Boe from Denmark for doubles along with Vijaydeep and Nidhi Chowdhury. Then the physio and others like Kiran, Abdul, Sumanish and Evangeline, are really experienced and they kept all the nuts and bolts of the players working nicely. Including working on HS Prannoy after he had fallen and had sprained his ankle and getting him ready for the finals in a very short time. We made sure that singles coaches concentrate on their players and doubles coaches did their job.
Then I told the squad about our team meetings which are very important when you are playing a team event. So we met the night before the match and decided about team composition, we met courtside to have quick discussions on the performance of each one. I had to have the team composition very early as I had to give it to the Badminton Federation of India (BWF) at least four hours before the tie. Everyone was allowed to speak their mind in the meetings. And I am really glad to say the two senior players, [Kidambi] Srikanth and Prannoy played mentors to the young players, advising them and guiding them out of nervousness. Everything fell into a routine and the squad really jelled nicely. Every member of the team were hungry for success. There was great coordination, cooperation and camaraderie within the squad. Nothing else mattered.
Working as one, you and the squad created history. But there was some problem regarding Prannoy being selected…
Let me answer that. I know what you are asking. Actually, there was some criticism in the media about the selection of Prannoy. The problem was that BAI had already announced the selection criteria. If a player was in the top 15 of the world rankings then that player was automatically selected. So Lakshya and Shrikanth, the doubles pair of Saisatwik and Chirag in men and PV Sindhu were pre-selected. But Prannoy was not an automatic selection as he was ranked 23 at the time.
But, Prannoy had been playing exceptionally well in the last three months defeating players in the top 20 and I suggested that he had to be in the team come what may as. He could be a great asset to the team. He was selected and did not have to play the tiring and tedious trials. We were proved right. Prannoy proved what a terrific shuttler he is and yes, the team spirit was great. We all worked as a team all the time. We worked to help each other all the time and worked as a cohesive group with one aim only - To win the Thomas Cup.
How did the team react to the loss against Chinese Taipei?
You know the loss did not bother as the players fought back whatever they felt immediately. We had a hearty laugh at the courtside meeting. We were in the quarterfinals and we had to shrug off this defeat and concentrate on whom we played after a one day rest. Nothing was lost and when we came to know that we had drawn Malaysia in our quarter-finals we were happy. But look at fate, we won our quarterfinals, while Chinese Taipei lost in their quarterfinals against Malaysia
Barring the first singles where Lee Zhi Jia, the former all England champion, was going to play against Lakshya who was still struggling with the food poisoning issue we knew we had a good chance. Both Srikanth and Prannoy said they were confident about their matches and Saisatwik and Chirag also said they will have a good chance to win their match. We had shrugged of that defeat against the Taipei team. The players pushed themselves to the limit against Malaysia and we won. The rest is history as they say.
Do you feel this current system of having all 16 teams in one venue to play the Thomas Cup and Uber Cup in 8 days is better or we should adopt something new?
Good question. I have a strong feeling about this. Did you see both Thomas cup semis were played on adjacent courts? The spectators were confused about which match to watch. The Thomas and the Uber schedule was really cramped. The BWF wanted everything over in under 8 days. I think we should bring out a system like the Davis Cup in tennis.
Matches should be held in countries on a toss of a coin or something. Pre 1982 that was the system if you remember. You played in 1979 when the old system still prevailed. We played Sri Lanka in India and were to go to Pakistan for next round, but they backed out and we played the Asian zone finals in Kuala Lumpur against Malaysia. This sort of system will create more popularity for the sport as fans will back their home team. There will be more media coverage. The Thomas Cup may last for a couple of months, however, the designated weekends can be reserved for inter-country matches by the BWF. This may sound revolutionary but I’m thinking that a drastic change is required.
What should be done in India to ensure a grand legacy for this huge achievement? How do we build upon this?
Well, first cash in on this Thomas cup victory. Bring the game to the public. Let us carry the cup in an open jeep in big cities where badminton is really popular like Bangalore, Hyderabad, Guwahati, Mumbai or Pune and maybe Chandigarh. Actually, start from Pune where modern badminton was born. This will be symbolic. This will ensure continuing limelight, and focus on the sport.
And we must revive the system of playing test matches in Thomas Cup format against teams from, let’s say - Thailand, Denmark, Malaysia etc. on a reciprocal basis. It can be for under 17 firstly, followed by under 19. These matches must be held in the smaller towns. More talent in the country will be attracted to the sport. Moreover, this will give good exposure to the youngsters. And lastly I want the Indian badminton league (IBL) to be revived. It was a great source of exposure given to our juniors and young players. They saw world-beaters from close proximity, played with them, travelled with them and learnt a lot. This really helped us. And we got our doubles top-class coach Boe Mathias from the league. So these are some points and issues that BAI can look into.
How can we ensure that this victory is not a flash in the pan?
By building the next generation of players from now only. Good coaching and exposure should start now only. But apart from this I have a question and a suggestion for the government. Why there is so much GST on sports goods, on sports activities? On one hand the government wants to make sports reachable to every Indian, but on the other the GST is killing sports. Making sports coaching, equipment out of the reach of many. In fact O wish GST should not be charged on sports activities. The Govt. may lose maybe 150 to 200 crores but personally, it is pittance for a country like India. Govt must look at this aspect.